WASHINGTON — Facing political pressure from members of Congress, the Pentagon has dropped consideration of a plan to increase the time reservists can spend on active duty, senior Defense Department officials said Wednesday.
Straining to meet upcoming troop needs in Iraq and Afghanistan, top Army generals had indicated recently that they would press the Defense Department's civilian leadership to lift a two-year limit on active duty deployments for reservists.
But the Pentagon's top civilian official in charge of personnel issues said Wednesday that the policy would not change.
"There are no plans to expand the mobilization period to a policy of 24 consecutive months," Undersecretary of Defense David S.C. Chu testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
In an interview after the hearing, Chu said that members of Congress had told the Pentagon that such a change in policy would meet strong resistance on Capitol Hill.
"They told us, 'Don't go there,' " Chu said.
During the last year, lawmakers in both political parties have criticized Pentagon decisions to keep troops in the military after their commitments expired and to extend the deployments of troops in Iraq. Such moves amount to a "backdoor draft," they said.
A Pentagon policy enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks limited the time reservists and National Guard members could serve on active duty to 24 cumulative months.
Some in the Army, including Army Reserves chief Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, pressed for the policy to be changed to 24 consecutive months, which would allow reservists to serve multiple two-year stints.
With nearly 50% of the U.S. force in Iraq comprising reservists, Army officials are struggling to find enough soldiers to fill out units for the next rotation of troops this fall, a process known within the Pentagon as "Operation Iraqi Freedom 4."
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard A. Cody said the military would be able to replace troops scheduled to leave Iraq beginning this fall, "but it will be painful," he said.
In a recent memorandum to Army leaders, Helmly said that of the 205,000 soldiers on the Army Reserve's rolls, about 37,500 were available to fulfill missions needed for Iraq.
The Reserve, Helmly wrote, was "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."
But at Wednesday's hearing, Chu took issue with the numbers cited by Helmly, saying that the available pool of reservists was higher. Helmly did not count reservists training to be deployed or those who have served six months or less since the Sept. 11 attacks, Chu said.
Army officials also said that the Reserve and National Guard were struggling to meet their 2005 recruiting goals and that 2,200 additional recruiters had been hired to boost the number of citizen soldiers.
The Army National Guard is 15,000 soldiers below its normal strength and is hoping to make up the difference by September. Last month, the Guard met 56% of its monthly recruiting goal.
"Our mark for 350,000 soldiers in the Army National Guard in September is a stretch to be sure," said Lt. Gen. Roger C. Shultz, chief of the Army National Guard.
But, he added, "it is way too early to admit defeat."