September 27, 2004
Army May Reduce Length of Tours in Combat Zones
By THOM SHANKER and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 - Fearing a sharp decline in recruiting and troop retention, the Army is considering cutting the length of its 12-month combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, senior Army officials say.
Senior Army personnel officers, as well as top Army Reserve and National Guard officials, say the Army's ability to recruit and retain soldiers will steadily erode unless combat tours are shortened, to some length between six and nine months, roughly equivalent to the seven-month tours that are the norm in the Marine Corps.
But other Army officials responsible for combat operations and war planning have significant concerns that the Army - at its current size and as now configured - cannot meet projected requirements for Iraq and Afghanistan unless active duty and reserve troops spend 12 months on the ground in those combat zones.
Officials say it is too early to predict if or when a new deployment policy might take effect or how it would be carried out. But the proposal to shorten combat tours collides with the immediate need to maintain current troop strength in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army planners say they must at least prepare for the possibility that it will be necessary to keep troops at the current levels in Iraq - 138,000 - through 2007, even though no political decision has been made in that regard.
"All the Army leadership agrees that 12 months is too long," said Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, which oversees 460,000 members of the Air and Army National Guard.
"We need to move to a shorter rotational base," General Blum said in an interview last week.
The prospect of lengthy combat tours already appears to be affecting recruitment. For example, the Guard had set a goal of 56,000 recruits for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, but is likely to end up with about 51,000, he said. It would be the first time since 1994 that the Guard has missed its signup goal.
"Twelve months is an awfully long time to be in a hostile environment," said General Blum, adding that he and other senior commanders hear growing complaints from soldiers, their families and employers.
Since the Vietnam War, the Army has largely deployed its forces in overseas combat situations in six-month tours of duty. The major exception has been in South Korea, where soldiers serve for one year. The 12-month deployment was introduced last year after the end of major combat operations in Iraq, when a vigorous insurgency persuaded the military that it would need to maintain large numbers of troops in the country. The Army decided then that only 12-month tours would meet its needs.
Pentagon and Army officials said a major force driving the consideration of shorter combat tours was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who sent personal queries to the Army and Marine Corps about a month ago.
According to two Army officials and a Pentagon adviser to Mr. Rumsfeld, those memorandums - known as "snowflakes" within the Pentagon, although they land with anything but the silent gracefulness of their namesake - demanded a clear justification for why the two armed services that supply American ground forces - the Army and the Marines - have different tour lengths in Iraq.
Army war planners and combat commanders do not discount General Blum's assessment of the impact of 12-month tours on morale and recruitment, even as they say that demands of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan will require 12-month tours for now.
But those same officers say that assessment may change as security improves in those countries, as the number of sufficiently trained and equipped Iraqi and Afghan security forces grows, and as an Army plan to increase the number of brigades that can be deployed to combat zones comes to fruition.
Those officers also say that longer deployments give troops more time at home between tours, and ensure they have enough time to rearm, reequip and train for their next mission. Moreover, the 12-month tours allow troops to gain more expertise about local conditions and insurgents, and pass that knowledge on to their replacements.
"Twelve-month rotations give you continuity in the area you're dealing with," a senior Army official said.
But several factors are pushing the service toward shortening the 12-month rotation cycles that the Army adopted last summer as the military reversed its initial plan to decrease American combat forces in Iraq, and instead decided to sustain the current level.
One factor, which senior Army officers disclosed last week, is how to preserve the ability to maintain the current level of American troops in Iraq at least through 2007, if longer tours of duty end up discouraging recruitment and re-enlistment.
"Our all-volunteer force is the issue here," one Army officer said. "The volunteer forces and their families - when will they draw the line? That's the question uppermost on our mind."
On the campaign trail, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential candidate, has repeatedly promised he would end what he calls the "backdoor draft," a reference to the long overseas tours now required of Reserve and National Guard soldiers, as well as "stop-loss" orders, which halt retirements or transfers of active-duty troops in units ordered to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Army officials have steadfastly denied that their consideration of shorter combat tours was influenced in any way by the heated campaign debate, and they insist that those changes are being driven by an internal analysis that has been under way for weeks. But there is little doubt that Mr. Kerry's statements have kept the issue front and center.
The varying length of combat tours has also become a point of public friction between Army and Marine personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, although Army officials note that their service is responsible for supplying much of the Marines' long-term logistical needs in Iraq.
Marine units rotate more frequently, after seven months on the ground, to fit the service's training and worldwide deployment schedules of a force that historically has been more expeditionary. The Army historically has prepared to sustain longer campaigns, although both services are reconfiguring how they deploy to meet current demands.
Army officials say 12-month deployments will decrease as a restructuring is completed during the next few years to increase the number of combat brigades to 43, and perhaps to 48, from the current 33.
That would produce a significant increase in combat units that could be deployed, offering the opportunity of shortening deployment as more brigades were readied to move into and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But Army officers warned that similar changes must be made to increase the ability to deploy units that perform combat service and service support duties, as the Army is committed to a single deployment term regardless of whether a soldier is in a combat or a support role.
During a visit on Sept. 14 to Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, Mr. Rumsfeld was quizzed by a soldier who advocated a switch to six-month deployments. The soldier's question was greeted with applause from the assembled troops.
Mr. Rumsfeld responded that the length of combat tours depended on the security situation on the ground and the number of other coalition and Iraqi forces willing to pick up responsibilities.
"One would hope that as the need on the ground, the circumstances on the ground, the security situation, permitted a reduction in coalition forces, we would see a reduction in U.S. forces in addition to the reduction in other coalition countries' forces," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
"As that happened, the need for people there lessened, it is possible it could be met in one of two ways," he continued. "The Army could decide that they want to either shorten the periods somewhat and come down closer to where the Marines are at seven months, or to just have people go back fewer times. And at the present time, the Joint Staff, and the Army particularly, are working on the rhythm to determine how to do that."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
Go Ft. Campbell!! :D
I kinda hopping that something changes. I currently just have a 3 year contract and am sitting in Afghanistan. Theres already talk about sending us to Iraq, even though my unit was there before I got to the unit, as well as Africa right before that. Needless to say, my unit has been gone way more then they've been home over the last 4 years. I guess I wouldn't mind 2 out of my 3 years enlisted deployed, but wouldn't mind being home either.
Six months is pretty easy to handle, maybe even 9 would be ok but 12+ months is a long ass time. My unit is on the schedule for 0IF6 and we haven't completed OIF2 yet.
Thank yall for serving! Hope you get to come home safe real soon...
Well I dunno what to say
A lot of the reason I just joined the damn Army is because I WANT to spend time over there. Hmph.