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Insider : High 'Turbulence' at the Pentagon : That's the term military planners use for the movement of troops. And this summer that term is being used with increasing frequency.

August 13, 1991|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — No U.S. corporation has a more sprawling and peripatetic work force than the Defense Department. Managing the vacations--and frequent moves--of U.S. servicemen and women employs literally an army of logisticians and personnel planners.

And this summer, more than most, that work force is particularly mobile for several reasons:

* Operation Desert Storm froze many planned transfers, and the services are now hurriedly catching up.

* Vacation time accrued during long deployments in the Saudi desert is leaving some posts vacant for weeks or months.

* The Philippine volcano eruption forced the evacuation of thousands of Air Force and Navy personnel.

* Thousands of officers and enlisted personnel whose retirements or discharges were frozen by the war are now leaving the service.

And it's all happening at a time when the overall shrinkage of the armed forces is causing the military to consider every shift more carefully than ever.

"The complexity of not only going to war but planning and executing the return of the forces and planning and executing the reduction of people in the Army is one of the greatest challenges we have faced in a long, long time," says Brig. Gen. Theodore G. Stroup, the Army's director of military personnel management. "It's even more emotional because you're dealing with an all-volunteer force."

The movement of personnel--referred to by military planners as "turbulence"--is most dramatic in the Army, which sent more than 300,000 troops to the Gulf and now must find a way to shrink its force by 235,000 men and women over the next four years.

In a normal year, roughly 120,000 soldiers leave the Army and the same number of new soldiers enter the service, keeping an equilibrium at 760,000 troops. Of the remaining troops on active duty, about a quarter are in motion at any given time, transferring to new posts, entering training programs, going overseas or returning from foreign tours.

But this year is different. For one thing, the Army is eliminating two divisions--the 2nd Armored, based at Ft. Hood, Tex., and the 9th Infantry, based at Ft. Lewis, Wash. In addition, the 150,000-man VII Corps, which was sent from Europe to fight in the Gulf, is being brought back to the United States and phased out beginning this year.

Complicating the Army's personnel problems was the "stop-loss" provision that it instituted last fall in order to meet the personnel needs of the Gulf War. Almost 90,000 soldiers who were scheduled to leave the Army were frozen in place either to fill jobs in Saudi Arabia or to provide a pool of trained replacements for potential war casualties.

The Army also invoked a "foreign service tour extension," keeping troops serving in Europe or Korea overseas beyond their normal tours until the war ended. All of those people are now in the rotation pool and new homes have to be found for them, Stroup said.

The result of all this "turbulence": More than a third of the Army is moving this summer and fall.

Stroup noted that all the movement costs a lot of money, even though the drawdown plans are ultimately designed to cut costs.

"You can draw an analogy to a large corporation that is retiring people early to save long-term costs," Stroup said. "The downsizing of the Army will have some initial up-front costs, like separation pay, before it realizes its long-term savings."

The Air Force, Marines and Navy face somewhat lesser challenges, because they shipped fewer people to the Gulf, tried to maintain normal rotation policies during the war and now face relatively smaller overall reductions.

The Air Force is reducing "turbulence" by moving toward a policy that will allow people to remain in a speciality at a given installation indefinitely, rather than being forced to move every two or three years, as in the past.

The Navy's challenge this year involves the decommissioning of an unusually large number of ships--25 in all--as a result of the planned retirement of older vessels and the need to cut spending.

For example, three battleships--the Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri--are being mothballed, leaving about 3,600 sailors looking for new jobs.

"Decommissioning can be very disorienting, very stressful," a Navy spokesman said. Navy planners hold "decommissioning conferences" with crew members, in which sailors get to express preferences for their next duty stations. The spokesman said 80% of the Wisconsin's crew got their first choice.

Times staff writer John M. Broder contributed to this report.

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