WASHINGTON – Overdeployment may threaten recruitment and retention for the entire military, particularly the National Guard and Reserve, presenting the risk of a "hollow force" — a military that suffers dramatic drops in volunteers willing to join or stay in the armed services.
While re-enlistment rates have been up since 2001, the Army National Guard is expected to miss its recruitment goals this year. Re-enlistment figures are also not available since the Iraq war, but historically rates have dropped after major conflicts.
“We are overstretched and, believe it or not, underfunded,” said Col. Bill Taylor, U.S. Army-Ret., a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search). “We are headed for where we were back in the late ‘70s.”
The last time the U.S. military experienced an unexpected drop in its force structure followed the return of soldiers serving in Vietnam. The decline may have been due in part to the fact that during the war in Vietnam, National Guardsmen and reservists were never activated, leaving the public with the misperception that the conflict was not really a crisis.
Since then, the military has changed its structure so that a major war can't be fought unless National Guard and Reserve units are called up to fill vital complementary roles for active-duty troops.
According to Stars and Stripes, an independent newspaper serving U.S. soldiers, almost 14 percent of the military's more than 1.2 million reservists and Guardsmen currently are on active duty, with about one-quarter of the 130,000 troops in Iraq coming from Reserve and National Guard forces. As of Oct. 3, 52 reservists and Guardsmen had died while serving in Iraq.
An October poll of 2,000 servicemen and women at 50 bases in Iraq showed that 34 percent of U.S. soldiers surveyed were experiencing low personal morale while 27 percent felt a high personal morale. But in the survey conducted by the newspaper, overall morale among reservists and National Guard members was much lower. Only 15 percent said morale was high while 48 percent reported low spirits.
"Morale is not good," Taylor said he was told by his military contacts.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has downplayed the significance of the poll, calling it "unscientific." He added that re-enlistment rates have not shown any decline because of the war.
“We have not yet seen any adverse indications with respect to recruiting or retention that are notable," Rumsfeld said earlier this month. "On the other hand, the effects of the stress on the force are unlikely to be felt immediately.”
At the same time, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers said he and Rumsfeld regard morale as extremely important and understand the complaints, but soldiers are prepared for hardships including the perilous environment and harsh living conditions in Iraq.
“Our job is to make their lives as predictable as possible,” he added.
Among the chief complaints of soldiers is the uncertainty of their schedules. Reservists can be called up for 12-month deployments, and sometimes as long as 18 months, when activation time before and after deployment is included.
Many reservists have been called up twice since September 2001 to serve long periods. Since 1991, Reserve soldiers have been deployed 10 times for operations from Bosnia to Iraq. In the 75 years before that, Reserve forces were mobilized just nine times.
According to a September Congressional Budget Office (search) report, the Army cannot sustain its level of forces in Iraq without extending soldiers' tours beyond one year, deploying more National Guard or Marines there or getting more international help.
Pentagon officials and lawmakers have expressed concern about the strains being put on both active-duty and Reserve soldiers, and are working on plans to reduce the burden on soldiers.
Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly (search), chief of the Army Reserve, has outlined his blueprint to revamp the force, suggesting that troops be given longer notice before being called up, more predictable deployment schedules be created and Army reservists be mobilized to serve not more than nine- to 12-month deployments in a five- to six-year window. Helmly also suggested giving more reservists specialized training in high-demand jobs such as military police and civil affairs so that the same specialists don't keep getting called over and over again.
Some lawmakers have also proposed increasing the number of active-duty combat forces to reduce strain on a too-small military.
“We need to send a clear message to members of the Guard and Reserve that help is on the way in the form of more active-duty troops, shorter deployment times and a shift of skills that will be needed continuously in the war on terrorism from the reserves and Guard to the active force,” Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., wrote in an October letter to Rumsfeld, signed by 51 of her colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee.
Wilson also suggested that at least two new Army divisions be formed. Her plan, intended to be included in the fiscal year 2005 defense appropriations bill, would add 90,000 to 150,000 troops to the Army and 15,000 to the special forces.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Army has shrunk from 18 to 10 divisions, but Rumsfeld has expressed hesitation about expanding the number of active-duty soldiers, preferring to allocate resources to other areas, particularly in new technologies.
Defense analysts say plans for reorganizing the military will not provide any quick fixes for soldiers now suffering in Iraq. Because of the time it takes to train soldiers as well as the Army's incremental capacity for expansion, the proposed solutions would be a long-term goal.
Those analysts say that for now, if troop levels in Iraq remain high, soldiers may be asked to serve another tour there, a request that many expect will damage retention rates.