WASHINGTON — As prospects fade for U.S. force reductions in Iraq, Army and Marine commanders have been stepping up their warnings that the pace of troop deployments is increasingly straining the military and threatening to cause long-term damage.
According to Pentagon officials, senior officers in the Army and Marine Corps in recent weeks have begun warning that without a reduction in Iraq, the present schedule of combat tours would be difficult to sustain without an increase in the number of forces.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Troop deployment: An article in Thursday's Section A about U.S. troop levels in Iraq said that the Army National Guard currently had only one unit in Iraq. Actually, the National Guard has one combat brigade in Iraq, along with many other smaller units.
Army officials had been counting on a gradual drawdown in Iraq starting later this year and accelerating over the following 12 months.
But the rising violence in Baghdad forced the Pentagon to shelve those plans at the end of July, and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, acknowledged publicly Tuesday that force levels would remain around the current 145,000 through spring.
One senior Pentagon official involved in long-term planning said the concerns had reached such a level that top Army leaders broached the issue of changing deployment rules to allow for more frequent call-ups of National Guard and Reserve units to relieve pressure on the active duty Army.
Because the Army relied heavily on the Guard and Reserve early in the war, many units have hit legal deployment limits, which allow for two years overseas out of every five. But without a change in those rules to allow more frequent Guard deployments, the Army would be forced to consider a push for an expansion of its active duty force, which stands at 504,000, the official said.
"You can start seeing the [effect of deployments] on the leadership of the active force," the official said, referring to limits on the use of Guard and Reserve troops. "That's the stress that we're having right now on this force."
Although most of the concerns regarding strains on the Marines and Army have been aired privately in the Pentagon, Abizaid told a group of military reporters this week that it would be difficult to find additional troops to send to Iraq to deal with insurgent violence in western Anbar province.
The Marine Corps has expressed less alarm about the high rate of deployments. Still, Defense officials said that in internal meetings, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the Corps' commandant, had begun discussing his need to focus on force levels out of concern that "significant personnel issues" could develop.
"The margins are very thin," said one Defense official who has discussed the issue with senior Marine officers. "We haven't seen it occur yet; it's just something that causes the commandant and the senior leadership of the Marine Corps to be very, very wary and to constantly monitor the manpower situation to ensure we're not using up the force in ways that we can't do other missions, if required."
Hagee has said publicly that he believes the Marine Corps should remain at 181,000 troops; Pentagon planning documents call for it to shrink to 175,000.
"You have personnel who are training right now primarily to do the mission in Iraq, but are not receiving their training for other mission areas or other contingencies," the official said. "If those contingencies erupt, they won't be ready, or as ready."
Under Army models, two active duty brigades are supposed to be at their home bases for equipment repairs or retraining for every brigade deployed to a war zone. However, over the course of the Iraq war, that ratio has fallen to one brigade stateside for every one overseas -- meaning most combat units are returning to Iraq after barely a year at home. An Army brigade is made up of about 3,500 soldiers.
The Marines also face a 1-to-1 deployment ratio, officials said. There are 23,000 Marines in Iraq, along with about 120,000 Army soldiers. The remaining 2,000 are from the Air Force and Navy.
Some former senior military officials said that without a substantial draw-down, the military will face personnel issues. The Army, for instance, has been maintaining its overall force levels in part because of higher-than-expected reenlistment numbers. Army officials say those rates show soldiers have been pleased with their experience and are eager to continue to serve.
But military experts say if the operational pace continues, the reenlistments are likely to fall sharply.
"My gut keeps telling me we have 18 to 36 months until we see dramatic shifts in recruiting, retention and discipline of the ground forces," says retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, a former commander in Bosnia and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I just think that the stress over time on the same people is building and building. I don't know when the valve on the pressure cooker goes off."