The Pentagon is considering a plan to add 30,000 soldiers to the Army to bolster a force depleted by a growing number of troops who are wounded, stressed or for other reasons cannot deploy with their units.
Struggling to wage wars on two fronts, the Army says it needs a temporary increase in order to fill vacancies in units heading to the battlefront.
The 547,000-member active-duty force was beefed up by 65,000 in recent years, but military leaders say it hasn't been enough to make up for the roughly 30,000 soldiers who — at any one time — are injured, pregnant, suffering from post-traumatic stress or health problems, or have been assigned to other jobs.
Military leaders have been warning Congress that the problem has been getting worse, as the number of soldiers unable to return to the battlefield has increased by as much as 3,000 in the last several years, according to Gen. Pete Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff.
"It is a stretched and sometimes tired force that is meeting all the requirements, but at the same time it is difficult to get our units up to the operating strength they need to before deployment," Chiarelli said.
According to the Army, 13 percent of the personnel in a typical unit heading to war are not available, compared to 11 percent previously.
Roughly 9,400 soldiers are in so-called "warrior transition units," with either physical or stress-related injuries. Another 10,000 are unavailable because of other less serious injuries, medical screening problems and pregnancy.
In addition, about 10,000 have been tapped for other duties, or have just returned from the battlefront, guaranteed one year at home before they redeploy.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that he plans to decide as early as next week whether to approve the temporary boost — which would be filled largely from intensified Army recruiting. Senators, however, have already introduced legislation calling for the increase.
If officials are given the go-ahead to increase its ranks, the Army expects to be able to do it rapidly.
One senior defense official said that a substantial number of Army recruits have signed up but are in the delayed entry program awaiting a training slot and enlistment into the active duty Army. The plan would be to tap that pool of recruits quickly to begin closing the deficit, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions are still preliminary.
The buildup in Afghanistan and the shift in Iraq from a combat to a training and assistance force have fueled the problem, by pulling individual soldiers out of their units to fill specialized positions.
Those include the recent Obama administration decisions to create special advisory brigades with extra trainers and other specialists for Iraq, and a new three-star command in Afghanistan headed by Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez.
Also contributing to the problem is the Pentagon's ongoing effort to do away with the unpopular practice of requiring troops to continue to serve beyond their enlistment dates.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the funding question underscores the need for Congress to go along with the administration's push to slash additional funding, citing the legislative fight over more F-22 fighters.
"We cannot afford things we do not need," said Morrell, "because it forces us to take money from something else that we do need."