WASHINGTON — The Army is likely to make a temporary 30,000 increase in troop numbers permanent as it struggles to ease the burden on forces strained by the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior Army general said Thursday.
The general, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the boost in the Army's ranks had become necessary for the military to meet its growing overseas commitments.
A year ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld allowed the Army to temporarily boost its ranks by 30,000 to reduce stress on the force. But he has long opposed a permanent increase in the size of the Army. Rumsfeld, with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, instead has been pushing a plan to increase the number of combat-ready troops by converting cooks, accountants and truck drivers into front-line soldiers.
But as Pentagon officials draw up troop rotation plans for Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has apparently decided that these initiatives are not sufficient.
"The cumulative effect of these deployments is really catching up with us," another Army official said.
Army officials estimate that the permanent troop increase -- which would bring the federally mandated size of the Army to 512,000 soldiers -- will cost the Pentagon about $3 billion a year.
A Pentagon request for more troops would be favored in Congress, which must authorize such a move. Over the last year, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have supported legislation to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps. The legislation died after White House and Pentagon officials opposed it.
The senior general also said the Army would push to change policy to allow the Pentagon to keep reservists on active duty longer than they now serve.
Under current Pentagon policy established just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, a reservist's cumulative time on active duty cannot exceed 24 months.
Under the policy being considered, a reservist could be deployed multiple times, for as much as 24 months of active duty each time.
Commanders have complained about the existing policy, and Army officials said reserve commander Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly was pushing for the change so units could stay together for the entire length of their deployments.
"Helmly believes that the change will help maintain unit cohesion," the Army official said. "Right now, we're really struggling to fill out units heading over to Iraq."
However, doing away with the 24-month limit is likely to upset long-serving reservists and their families, who complain that they are increasingly bearing the weight of a military stretched beyond its capacity.
The Pentagon also has issued thousands of "stop-loss" orders, which prevent troops from leaving the service after their military commitment has expired and have given rise to charges of a "backdoor draft."