In a sign of the Iraq war’s strain on the U.S. military, the Army is planning to send into combat thousands of soldiers whose normal job is to play the role of the “enemy” at training ranges in California and Louisiana, defense officials said Tuesday.
The Pentagon also is considering adding yet another National Guard brigade, the 155th Separate Armored Brigade from Mississippi, to the mix of active-duty and reserve units designated for the next rotation of ground forces into Iraq this year and in early 2005, other Army officials said.
With nearly every other major combat unit either committed to or just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, the Army is planning to call on two battalions and one engineer company — about 2,500 soldiers — from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which serves as a professional enemy force in training other units at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. The regiment last saw combat in the Vietnam War.
The Army boasts of the “tough and uncompromising standards” of the 11th Armored Cavalry, which it says makes it the premier maneuver unit in the Army and “the yardstick against which the rest of the Army measures itself.”
Fort Polk forces called up
Similarly, the 1st Battalion of the 509th Infantry, which acts as the Opfor, or opposition force, for light infantry and special operations training at Fort Polk, La., is being called to Iraq, according to two Army officials who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
The 509th Infantry has not seen combat since World War II, although five members of the unit served as “pathfinders,” or advance scouts, during the 1991 Gulf War; two were killed, and one was taken prisoner.
Both the National Training Center and Fort Polk’s Joint Readiness Training Center will remain open, the officials said, with National Guard soldiers expected to fill in for the units going to Iraq.
The Navy said Tuesday that it is sending a second aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, into the western Pacific, apparently to compensate in part for the planned deployment to Iraq this summer of an Army combat brigade based in South Korea.
The Stennis, which left its San Diego home port Monday, will participate in an exercise off Alaska in June and then join the USS Kitty Hawk, which is permanently based in Japan, in the western Pacific.
The next U.S. troop rotation in Iraq will kick off this summer, not long after the June 30 turnover of partial political control to an interim Iraqi government and a coinciding change in the U.S. military command structure in Iraq.