Thursday, February 22, 2007

Pentagon Plans To Cut Leave Time For 14,000 Guard Troops and send them back to Iraq

The New York Times
National Guard May Undertake Iraq Duty Early

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 — The Pentagon is planning to send more than 14,000 National Guard troops back to Iraq next year, shortening their time between deployments to meet the demands of President Bush’s buildup, Defense Department officials said Wednesday.

National Guard officials told state commanders in Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma and Ohio last month that while a final decision had not been made, units from their states that had done previous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan could be designated to return to Iraq next year between January and June, the officials said.

The unit from Oklahoma, a combat brigade with one battalion currently in Afghanistan, had not been scheduled to go back to Iraq until 2010, and brigades from the other three states not until 2009. Each brigade has about 3,500 soldiers.

The accelerated timetable illustrates the cascading effect that the White House plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq by more than 21,000 is putting on the entire Army and in particular on Reserve forces, which officers predicted would face severe challenges in recruiting, training and equipping their forces.

It also highlights the political risks of the White House’s Iraq strategy. Sending large numbers of reservists to Iraq in the middle of next year’s election campaign could drive up casualties among part-time soldiers in communities where support for the administration’s approach in Iraq is already tenuous, according to opinion polls.

A final decision on whether the additional Guard units will be required next year in Iraq will not be made for months, the officials said, and the full extent of the Guard role next year will depend on whether the situation in Iraq improves in the meantime.

It has been clear since Mr. Bush announced his plan last month that additional reservists could be required in Iraq, but the numbers and the identity of the specific units involved had not been previously disclosed.

Changing the reservists’ schedules means abandoning previous promises that they would get several years between deployments. And the acceleration means that soldiers who usually drill just once a month and for a few weeks in the summer will have to begin intensive preparations right away.

“We’re behind the power curve, and we can’t piddle around,” Maj. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, commander of the Oklahoma National Guard, said in an interview. He added that one-third of his soldiers lacked the M-4 rifles preferred by active-duty soldiers and that there were also shortfalls in night vision goggles and other equipment. If his unit is going to be sent to Iraq next year, he said, “We expect the Army to resource the Guard at the same level as active-duty units.”

He also noted that one of the brigade’s battalions that could deploy to Iraq next year was now in Afghanistan and was not scheduled to return until April, which would leave its soldiers with just over a year at home before having to leave for Iraq in June 2008. He said discussions were under way with top Army officials about providing necessary equipment and extra compensation for reservists in the Oklahoma Guard’s 45th Brigade Combat Team if the unit was sent back to Iraq two years earlier than planned.

Capt. Christopher Heathscott, a spokesman for the Arkansas National Guard, said the state’s 39th Brigade Combat Team was 600 rifles short for its 3,500 soldiers and also lacked its full arsenal of mortars and howitzers.

Of particular concern, he said, is the possibility that the prospects of going to Iraq next year could cause some Arkansas reservists not to re-enlist this year. Over the next year roughly one-third of the soldiers in the 39th will have their enlistment contracts expire or be eligible for retirement, Captain Heathscott said.

Guard and Reserve units were used most extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004, and have regularly supplied brigades throughout the fighting. The reinforcements now heading for Iraq will raise the number of combat brigades now in Iraq, only one of which is a Guard unit, to around 20 total. Thousands of additional Reserve support troops would also be required sooner, officials said.

To draw more heavily on Reserve units, the Bush administration announced in January that it was revising rules that limited call-ups of Guard members. The previous policy limited mobilization of Guard members to 24 months every five years, but prolonged and large deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan led the Pentagon to abandon that rule.

The new guidelines allow units that have already been deployed in the last five years to be called up again, but the Pentagon has said that it will try to limit the total time Guard units are mobilized to a year, instead of the current year and a half to two years.

Given that they would be in Iraq for about nine months, that would leave only three months for training before they go. In the past, six months of training has been the norm before heading to the war zone.

To make up the difference, officials said the soldiers would get more part-time training, close to home, before being mobilized. That would cut the time they have to spend away from their jobs and families, Captain Heathscott said.