The strain of fighting a longer, bloodier war in Iraq than U.S. commanders originally foresaw brings forth a question that most would have dismissed only a year ago: Is the military in danger of running out of reserve troops?
At first glance the answer would appear to be a clear no. There are nearly 1.2 million men and women on the reserve rolls, and only about 70,000 are now in Iraq to supplement the regulars.
But a deeper look inside the Army National Guard, Army Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve suggests a grimmer picture: At the current pace and size of American troop deployments to Iraq, the availability of suitable reserve combat troops could become a problem as early as next year.
The National Guard says it has about 86,000 citizen soldiers available for future deployments to Iraq, fewer than it has sent there over the past two years. And it has used up virtually all of its most readily deployable combat brigades.
In an indication of the concern about a thinning of its ranks, last month the National Guard tripled the re-enlistment bonuses offered to soldiers in Iraq who can fill critical skill shortages.
Similarly, the Army Reserve has about 37,500 deployable soldiers left — about 18 percent of its total troop strength.
The Marine Corps Reserve appears to be in a comparable position, because most of its 40,000 troops have been mobilized at least once already. Officials said they have no figures available on how many are available for future deployments to Iraq.
Both the Army and the Marines are soliciting reservists to volunteer for duty in Iraq.
“The reserves are pretty well shot” after the Pentagon makes the next troop rotation, starting this summer, said Robert Goldich, a defense analyst at the Congressional Research Service.
Among the evidence:
- Of the National Guard’s 15 best-trained, best-equipped and most ready-to-deploy combat brigades, all but one are either in Iraq now, have demobilized after returning from a one-year tour there or have been alerted for duty in 2005-2006.
- The exception is the South Carolina National Guard’s 218th Infantry Brigade, which has had not been deployed to Iraq as a full brigade because smaller groups of its soldiers have been mobilized periodically for homeland defense and numerous missions abroad, including Iraq.
- The Army Reserve, with about 205,000 citizen soldiers on its rolls for support rather than combat duty, has been so heavily used since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that, for practical purposes, it has only about 37,500 troops available to perform the kinds of missions required in Iraq, according to an internal briefing chart entitled, “What’s Left in the Army Reserve?”
- The chief of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, recently advised other Army leaders that his citizen militia is in “grave danger” of being unable to meet all its operational responsibilities. He said the Reserve is “rapidly degenerating into a ‘broken’ force.”
The mix of troops in the U.S. force rotation now under way in Iraq is about 50 percent active duty and 50 percent reserves. But that is set to change to 70 percent active and 30 percent reserve for the rotation after that, beginning this summer, because combat-ready Guard units have been tapped out.
Thus, two active-duty Army divisions that have already served one-year tours in Iraq — the 101st Airborne and the 4th Infantry — have been selected to return in the coming rotation. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force already is on its second tour in Iraq.
The potential squeeze could be avoided if security conditions in Iraq improve so dramatically this year that the Pentagon decides it can achieve stability with a smaller force.
The original expectation, after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, was that a troop withdrawal could begin within weeks. But an unanticipated insurgency — which turned out to be lethal and resilient — changed the picture and led to the stressful situation the Army faces today.
In some respects, the use of Army and Marine reservists in Iraq has been a success story. Goldich, the defense analyst, said their performance has generally been excellent. Commanders sing their praise. Yet there is a limit to the reserves’ resources, and the limit may be nearing.
It’s not the absolute number of reservists that poses a problem. It’s the number who have the right skills for what is required in Iraq and who have not already served lengthy tours on active duty since President Bush authorized the Pentagon three days after the Sept. 11 attacks to mobilize as many as 1 million reservists for up to 24 months.
A portion of the best-trained reservists are approaching the 24-month limit, and some senior officials inside the Army are considering whether the limit should be redefined so that mobilizations over the past three years would, in effect, not count against the 24-month limit.
The Guard and Reserve are hurting in other ways, too. Their casualties in Iraq have been mounting (16 deaths in October, 28 in November, 20 in December and at least 15 in the first 13 days of January), and the National Guard and Army Reserve have been missing their recruiting goals.