July 11, 2005
Part-Time Forces on Active Duty Decline Steeply
By ERIC SCHMITT and DAVID S. CLOUD
WASHINGTON, July 10 - The number of Reserve and National Guard troops on domestic and overseas missions has fallen to about 138,000, down from a peak of nearly 220,000 after the invasion of Iraq two years ago, a sharp decline that military officials say will continue in the months ahead.
The decrease comes as welcome relief to tens of thousands of formerly part-time soldiers who, with their families, employers and communities, have been badly stressed by their long call-ups for duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Reserve and National Guard members from all of the armed services make up about 35 percent of the troops in Iraq, a share that is expected to drop to about 30 percent by next year; the vast majority are from the Army Reserve and Army National Guard.
But as these returning troops settle back into their civilian lives, the Army is running perilously low on its Reserve and National Guard soldiers who largely fill certain critical support jobs, like military police and civil affairs officers and truck drivers. Marine Corps reservists are facing similar constraints.
A main reason for the shortages is that more and more of these troops who have been involuntarily mobilized are nearing their 24-month maximum call-up limit set by the Bush administration, military personnel specialists say.
The Army says it has found ways to handle the dwindling pool of reservists eligible to fill the support jobs, but some members of Congress, senior retired Army officers and federal investigators are less sanguine, warning that barring a reduction in the Pentagon's requirement to supply 160,000 forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, or a change in its mobilization policy, the Army will exhaust the supply of soldiers in critical specialties.
"By next fall, we'll have expended our ability to use National Guard brigades as one of the principal forces," said Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army commander who was dispatched to Iraq last month to assess the operation. "We're reaching the bottom of the barrel."
Peter B. Bechtel, deputy chief of the Army's war plans division, acknowledged that the situation posed difficulties but said there were solutions. "There are some concerns for the long-term access to the Reserve component," he said. "But it does not pose an insurmountable challenge."
The number of reservists serving in combat positions like infantry will be declining in the months ahead. The Army National Guard has six combat brigades and a division headquarters - more than 25,000 soldiers - in Iraq. That will decline to two combat brigades - 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers - over the next year or so. But that is not seen as a problem; the number of Guard combat units spiked for a limited period to allow newly restructured active-duty combat brigades to prepare to assume more combat responsibility.
To fill the pivotal support jobs for deployments to Iraq, Army and Pentagon planners are increasingly turning to the Navy and Air Force to provide truck drivers and security personnel. They are relying on more Army reservists to volunteer for extended duty, hiring more private contractors and accelerating the retraining of thousands of soldiers who had been essential to the cold war, like artillerymen, to be civil affairs and military intelligence troops needed for counterinsurgency operations.
The Army's revamped active-duty combat brigades contain more combat-support positions. The Guard and Reserves are enlisting thousands of people each month, but are well below their recruiting quotas. And it takes several months of training to prepare them for combat missions.
There have been warning signs of the looming shortages. In the last several months, the chief of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, has repeatedly cautioned that the Reserve was "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force." General Helmly declined through a spokesman to comment for this article.
Janet St. Laurent, a senior defense specialist at the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said the Army was "taking many constructive steps to address these problems." But, she said, "many of the initiatives will take significant time to implement." The G.A.O. is expected to release a report within days that highlights the challenges facing the Army Reserve.
The long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have left fewer troops available to be mobilized by governors to deal with state missions traditionally performed by guard units, like helping with forest fires, hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Some governors have complained that, with forest fire season beginning, they are confronting unprecedented shortages of National Guard personnel and equipment at a critical time. Facing similar complaints last summer, Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, promised governors that he would keep at least half of each state's guard troops at home for use in state missions.
"It's a very complex and sophisticated balancing act," General Blum said in an interview. "But frankly, we're up to this." Last month, Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a Democrat, asked the Pentagon to return some of the state's guard soldiers from Iraq to be ready to help with forest fires, but the request was denied.
More than 1,200 Montana Army National Guard troops are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly 49 percent of the state's force, Maj. Scott Smith, a spokesman for the Montana National Guard, said. In addition, 10 of the Montana Guard's 12 Black Hawk helicopters, which had been used to transport firefighters and to drop water on burning forests, are in Iraq.
Montana's remaining guard troops would be available to help state officials with forest fires and other emergencies, and troops from nearby states could be used, if necessary, Major Smith said. The absence of the Black Hawks has been partly offset by the addition of four CH-47 Chinook helicopters, each of which can carry hundreds more gallons of water than the smaller Black Hawks, he said.
In Oregon, another state where National Guard units are often mobilized to fight forest fires, fewer helicopters are also causing worry. "We don't have the aircraft we've had before," said Capt. Mike Braibish, a spokesman for the Oregon National Guard. "We're still going to be there. It's just going to take longer to get there."
In Florida, where Hurricane Dennis crashed ashore on Sunday, Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett, the state's adjutant general, said he was able to meet the state's missions, even though half of its 12,500 Air and Army National Guard forces have been activated for federal duty since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Although Pentagon officials insist they can meet troop needs in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely, some National Guard commanders in states where units have already been heavily deployed warn of looming problems if troop levels in Iraq do not decline substantially in 2006 or 2007.
Maj. Gen. John Libby, the adjutant general in Maine, said that only 30 percent of the state's National Guard soldiers were still available to be mobilized for federal missions in future rotations. Many of those remaining units do not have the specialties the Army needs in Iraq and Afghanistan, like troops trained in military policing and vehicle maintenance, he said.
"We're building very quickly toward a crisis if in the next two or three rotations we still have 135,000 troops on the ground in Iraq," General Libby said.
Eventually, the Pentagon could be forced to remobilize units that have already been deployed especially if recruiting problems persist, General Libby and other Guard officials said. That would require changing the 24-month limit, something the Pentagon says now it has no need to do.Military personnel experts say such a move would only worsen recruiting for the Guard and Reserve, which are both lagging behind their quotas for the year, although strong re-enlistments have offset some of the recruiting slump.
Still, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association, which represents state Guard units, "We do have a lot of soldiers that are bumping up against that 24-month requirement. This organization has concerns about how it's going to be interpreted in the future."
For Pentagon planners, the main focus of concern is the Army National Guard and Reserve, which currently have 115,645 troops mobilized, or about 84 percent of all reserve forces activated worldwide.
Pentagon officials say that they expect they will continue to rely on tens of thousands of mobilized National Guard and Reserve troops for a broad range of missions in this country and overseas. Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace, the Army's chief of operations, dismissed concerns that the Guard or Reserve were "broken," saying, "we still have rich reservoir to draw on to fill those units."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has complained that the military has activated only about 44 percent of the nation's 1.1 million National Guard and Reserve soldiers since Sept. 11, but still faces shortages in specialties found mainly in the Reserve and National Guard.
That is because the part-time force was designed with a cold war mission to serve as strategic hedge in all-out war with the Soviet Union. With the end of the draft in 1973, the Pentagon shifted many specialized military duties - including water purification and minesweeping - to the Guard and Reserve, to cut costs and to ensure public support for a conflict long enough and important enough for the president to activate citizen-soldiers.
But this force was not intended to supply a long-term counterinsurgency, and does not contain sufficient numbers of specialists that the military now needs. So the Army, in particular, is reassigning about 130,000 positions within the active-duty and Reserve forces to strike a new balance that takes account of today's security environment. About 30,000 have been reassigned, Mr. Bechtel said.
A second hurdle involves the Pentagon's 24-month call-up policy and its goal of deploying National Guard and Reserve soldiers only one year out of every six. While current law allows for repeated call-ups of as long as 24 consecutive months, the Pentagon decided several months ago not to use such authority, fearing that to do so would only add more strain to the citizen-soldier ranks.
"No individual will have more than 24 months cumulative on active duty, Guard or Reserve," Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 29. "Right now we're able to stipulate that anyone who has already been called to active duty will not be recalled."