WASHINGTON – Top U.S. military officials, expecting President Bush to order an increase in the size of the force in Iraq, have concluded that such a buildup would require them to reverse Pentagon policy and send the Army’s National Guard and reserve units on lengthy second tours in Iraq, defense officials said Monday.
Under Pentagon policy, guard and reserve units have been limited to 24 months of mobilization for the Iraq war. Under that rule, most reserve units that already have been sent to Iraq are ineligible to return.
But the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that a significant buildup would require the Pentagon to overturn the policy and send Guard and reserve units for additional yearlong tours.
Such an order likely would be controversial among state governors, who share authority over the Guard, and could heighten concerns in Congress over the war and Bush’s plans for a troop increase.
In addition, National Guard leaders also are skeptical of calls for additional combat tours, which they fear could hurt recruiting and retention.
“If you have to sustain a surge long term, you have to use the Guard and reserve,” said a defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the president has not unveiled his strategy shift.
Any boost in combat forces would require some increase in reserve support units, such as engineering or intelligence teams. Because of training requirements, National Guard infantry forces are unlikely to be part of the initial surge. However, they would be needed later in the year to sustain a higher level of forces.
Defense officials say it would be difficult to build up quickly an extra 20,000 soldiers and Marines – the number expected in Bush’s plan, to be announced Wednesday. Although there is a reserve brigade in Kuwait, building up to the full expansion might take until late March or April, an Army official said.
The increase is likely to rely heavily on speeding up the deployments of units that had been scheduled to ship to Iraq in the summer, while extending the tours of Marine Corps and Army units already in Iraq that had been due to return home in the late spring and summer.
It is unclear which National Guard units would be tapped to go, although officials said it is likely that the first Guard units sent into Iraq would be considered for the first return tours.
In early 2005, the National Guard and reserves made up nearly half the fighting force In Iraq. Today, of the 15 combat brigades in Iraq, one is from the National Guard, although there are other smaller reserve units also deployed there.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, a member of the Joint Chiefs, has complained publicly that the policy against involuntary second tours has forced the National Guard to cobble together units from dozens of states, rather than sending whole battalions or brigades that have worked and trained together.
Some civilians inside the Department of Defense remain deeply skeptical of a change in policy – in particular, David Chu, the undersecretary for personnel and readiness, a defense official said.
Chu and other officials have argued that the military should try to find other ways to fill the need for reservists – by tapping Navy and Air Force units, for example – rather than sending Guard and reserve units for second tours.
Nearly 206,000 Army National Guard soldiers have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Under current policy, those soldiers would be sent for a second tour only if they specifically volunteered. According to the Pentagon, more than 23,500 Army Guard soldiers have been on more than one deployment.