Monday, April 11, 2005

Army May Cut Iraq Tours In Half

The Army is considering cutting the length of deployments in Iraq from more than 12 months to as low as six months if conditions allow, a top official said Thursday. Decreasing the tour length of soldiers from about 15 months -- 12 months "boots on the ground" in Iraq plus time on either end for training and reorganizing at home base -- would improve morale, help families and help attract new recruits, said Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army deputy chief of staff for personnel. "We think length of tour does have an impact," Hagenbeck told reporters. "Multiple shorter tours is the ideal way to go about it." The Marine Corps has its troops in Iraq on seven-month deployments, a decision made at the beginning of the conflict to maintain the traditional rhythm of sea deployments with the Navy. Because the Marine Corps is so much smaller than the Army -- 175,000 versus 500,000 on active duty -- the Marine contribution to Iraq forces is also smaller, about at 25,000. Replacing 25,000 troops every seven months is a far easier task than the Army faces. The Army has about 125,000 troops in Iraq. The rotation last year of over 250,000 troops in and out of Iraq by air was hailed by the Pentagon as a massive logistical achievement. Pulling that feat off more than once a year would severely strain resources, Hagenbeck said. However, reducing the length of deployments in Iraq in half is highly conditional. The security situation there must improve dramatically enough to allow the number of forces, now at 145,500, to come down, and the Army must make progress in reorganizing its large divisions into smaller, more independent and self-sustaining Brigade Combat Teams, Hagenbeck said. "What we have now will be in place as long as we maintain the current level of effort," Hagenbeck said. The decision to draw down forces in Iraq is one that rests largely on the shoulders of Iraq forces commander Gen. George Casey and Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid who are expected to make a decision toward that end in early summer. Any troop reduction in Iraq would not come until after the next elections there, which are scheduled for December, military officials said. Troop reductions are also dependent on the ability of nascent Iraqi security forces to manage the insurgent threat. Six-month deployments would be preferable for several reasons, Hagenbeck said. "Soldiers can take a deep breath and maintain focus and discipline for six months," Hagenbeck said. "Twelve month tours take a greater effort." He also noted year-long separations from families are difficult; more than 60 percent of the Army is married. On the other hand, military spouses like the tax exclusion that comes with a combat deployment. "The six month tax exclusion wives like," Hagenbeck said. Extending the tour -- and the tax benefit -- to 12 months, however, is not worth the longer separation, the spouses have indicated on surveys. But Hagenbeck said the year-long tours have not as yet had an affect on the Army's ability to retain soldiers. Just this week, there was a mass re-enlistment of 177 soldiers in the middle of their Iraq deployment. The Army has exceeded its re-enlistment goals so far this year. "Those brigades that all went in to (Operation Iraqi Freedom) have the highest re-enlistment rates," he said. The highest retention rate is in the combat arms field -- infantry, armor and Special Forces -- which are so heavily used in Iraq. They also suffer 84 percent of injuries. The Army has had around 8,000 wounded in action so far, according to Hagenbeck. It is having far more trouble recruiting, however. The Army missed recruitment goals in February and March and is expected to have trouble in April and May, Hagenbeck told Congress this week. "I go to bed at night concerned about recruiting and wake in the morning thinking about it," he said Thursday. One of the primary reasons for difficult recruiting, according to Army officials, is that "influencers" of potential recruits -- parents, teachers and coaches -- look askance at the continuing Iraq war and the possibility of an immediate year-long combat deployment. Changing to six-month deployments would blunt their apprehension, he added. "We think it would go down better with influencers," Hagenbeck said. The Army has cycled more than 900,000 soldiers in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan over the last three years, with about 375,000 of them deploying more than once.