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09-06-03, 05:51 AM

Rotation Plan Confirms Army Is Overstressed

By Robert Merriman

Two recent developments – the Army’s plan to “double up” short tours and the Pentagon’s proposal to establish rotation schedules for Reserve and National Guard unit deployments -- confirm that the U.S. military is undermanned and over-missioned.

Already, the Army has 60 percent of its active-duty combat strength deployed in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. With those units on announced one-year tours, Army officials admit they have a problem in finding replacements.

The problem is especially acute in Iraq, where all or parts of three divisions are scheduled to return to their home bases next spring. The Army announced last month that it would send two National Guard infantry brigades to Iraq next year, presumably to relieve the 4th Infantry Division, which is scheduled to come home in April. The Army also said it will send part of the 82nd Airborne Division to Iraq.

Of particular significance, officials announced that the prototype “Stryker brigade” from the 2nd Infantry Division is scheduled to deploy to Iraq next month. Deployment of the Fort Lewis-based Stryker brigade further confirms the extent of the Army’s manpower numbers problem, since the 2nd Division has Korea as its primary deployment area.

How is this turmoil affecting the average soldier?

As the rules now stand, a soldier is guaranteed a two-year stabilized assignment after completing a short tour. That means soldiers coming home from Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea would spend two years in stateside assignments before the Army could send them overseas again. However, for every soldier locked in to a two-year assignment, another soldier must also spend two years in another location, or two soldiers for one year each.

When the Army had unlimited manpower, short tours and guaranteed stabilized tours did not present a personnel problem. But with 130,000 soldiers in Iraq, 40,000 in Korea and 10,000 in Afghanistan, the Army faces the prospect that 73 percent of its active-duty personnel – 360,000 out of the active end-strength of 490,000 troops – will be “locked in” and therefore unable to deploy overseas.

Confronted by those grim numbers, Army officials had to change the short-tour rules.

USA Today on Aug. 26 revealed that Army planners “have concluded they will have no choice but to force thousands of troops to return to new overseas assignment after only a short time at home.” The newspaper also said preliminary Pentagon estimates indicate as many as 25 percent of the soldiers now in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan might have to serve consecutive tours.

For now, doubling up short tours will give the Army the manpower numbers it needs under present circumstances. But the service admits trained sergeants and company-level officers might simply leave the Army rather than complete consecutive short tours in hazardous locations. Those are the ranks and grades no military force can afford to lose if it intends to maintain unit cohesion and professionalism.

Coupled with possible back-to-back short tours, the Pentagon’s rotation plan shows how manpower-short the active-duty military really is. It also underscores the services’ dependence upon Reserve and National Guard personnel – who are suffering from similar deployment stresses.

Officials gamely promise that the rotation plan will bring stability to soldiers’ lives. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs Thomas F. Hall said last week that under the new plan, “We’ll be able to tell you as a Guardsman or Reservist ... that three years from now you need to do six months of duty in the Sinai.”

But there are at least two problems with the rotation plan.

First, no one can predict where a soldier or military unit will be operating three years from now.

Second, the rotation plan will not produce Hall’s promised “predictability.” Personnel experts warn that instead it will spark an exodus of Guardsmen and Reservists from the military, simply because any part-time soldier facing a guaranteed mobilization and overseas deployment one year or six months every three years will come under tremendous pressure from his family and employer.

Hall claimed last week that future mobilizations will focus on the traditional “specialties” such as civil affairs, air traffic control, mortuary affairs and force protection. His statement sidestepped – or deliberately ignored – the Army’s already announced plan sending two National Guard infantry brigades to Iraq.

Although the Pentagon argues that a rotation plan is necessary and the end-strength numbers do show the service is stretched tighter than a drum, the officials who concocted the rotation plan either do not understand the impact on morale from employer pressure and family disruption, or simply do not care.

Guardsmen and Reservists are not in this for the money. They agree to serve as a back-up force when the nation is in imminent danger, and few or none foresaw the kind of deployments forced by the war on terrorism.

Faced with too few soldiers and too many missions, what are the uniformed services to do?

The U.S. military is not a 19th-century European colonial force, not the hired army of the East India Co. What if United States decides to battle terrorists with force in the Sudan, Somalia or Yemen? What if United States decides to take out other terror states such as North Korea, Syria, Iran or Libya? Where will the forces come from for those possible undertakings?

If the United States intends to continue the war on terrorism, our national leaders – from the president on down – must make the hard choices. The possible options are not hard to find: The Bush administration could press Congress for a major increase in U.S. military end-strength; the Pentagon can explore a focused reactivation of the draft; or the Pentagon could devise a new personnel policy contracting out administrative and support functions to the civilian sector that would free up military personnel for reassignment and training in combat units.

Any choice that truly aims at alleviating the serious personnel shortfall will require a major increase in defense spending. Elected officials will worry that higher taxes and budget deficits will alienate voters from both political parties.

That’s not the worst scenario: Continuing the status quo means setting up our men and women in uniform for a future conflict where insufficient live troops will mean a much higher number of casualties. Allowing that to happen is the truly unacceptable scenario.

Robert Merriman is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at merri@bluebonnet.net.