WASHINGTON — Beginning immediately, all active-duty Army soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will serve 15-month tours — three months longer than the usual standard, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.
It was the latest move by the Pentagon to cope with the strains of fighting two wars simultaneously and maintaining a higher troop level in Iraq as part of President Bush’s revised strategy for stabilizing Baghdad.
Officials on Monday said some 13,000 National Guard troops were receiving orders alerting them to prepare for possible deployment to Iraq — meaning a second tour for several thousand of them.
Officials said a final decision to deploy the four infantry combat brigades later this year will be based on conditions on the ground, and named specific Guard units based in Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma and Ohio.
“This policy is a difficult but necessary interim step,” Gates told a Pentagon news conference, adding that the goal is to eventually return to 12 months as the standard length of tour in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said the new policy does not affect the other main components of the U.S. ground force in Iraq: the Marines, whose standard tour is seven months, or the Army National Guard or Army Reserve, which will continue to serve 12-month tours.
Gates acknowledged that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are making life difficult for many in the military.
“Our forces are stretched, there’s no question about that,” Gates said.
Trying to ‘share burden equally’
He said the new policy also seeks to ensure that all active-duty Army units get at least 12 months at home between deployments. He said it would allow the Pentagon to maintain the current level of troops in Iraq for another year, although he added that there has been no decision on future troop levels.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged the toll the change could have on troops in the press conference: “Is it an additional strain to go from 12 to 15 months? Of course it is.”
“When you tell the troops that they're going to be staying for 3 more months, you're basically increasing their stress, hurting their family life and putting them in greater danger,” he said.
Without changing the standard tour length to 15 months, the Army would have been forced to send five brigades to Iraq before they completed 12 months at home, Gates said.
Some units’ tours in Iraq had already been extended beyond 12 months by varying amounts. The new policy will make deployments more equitable and more predictable for soldiers and for their families, Gates said.
“I think it is fair to all soldiers that all share the burden equally,” he said.
NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and The Associated Press contributed to this report.