WASHINGTON – The Pentagon's plan for replacing the 130,000 American troops in Iraq with a fresh contingent early next year will shrink the force by 20 percent, change its makeup and place more of the combat burden on the National Guard (search) and Reserve.
If carried out as planned, the switchout will result in a more mobile force, perhaps better suited to the guerrilla-style war that is taking a sobering toll in U.S. deaths and injuries.
The first changes in that direction will be seen even before the newly designated replacement force arrives. A contingent of 5,000 soldiers in a combat team called the Stryker Brigade (search), from Fort Lewis, Wash., is training in Kuwait to prepare for duty in Iraq. They are equipped with a new, speedier lightly armored troop carrier and sophisticated communications tools to enable soldiers to more effectively locate guerrilla threats.
The Stryker Brigade is likely to see action in the so-called Sunni Triangle (search), the area between Baghdad, Ramadi and Tikrit where resistance to U.S. forces has been the deadliest.
"It is absolutely optimized for this kind of fight," said Lt. Gen. Richard Cody (search), the Army's deputy chief of staff for operations, who is overseeing the Army's provision of fresh forces.
The Army is calling on the National Guard and Reserve to contribute more next year -- and not just in supporting roles. Three Guard infantry brigades will be there, of which at least two will see combat.
Nearly 40 percent of the 105,000 troops in the new force will be National Guard and Reserve. That compares with about a 20 percent share in the current force of 130,000 troops. And it won't be just Army reservists; the Marines plan to use about 6,000 of their citizen-soldiers.
The main replacement force will arrive over a four-month period, from January through April. They will be lighter and more agile than the units they replace; they'll have two-thirds fewer tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, trading firepower for mobility.
An armored division like the 1st Cavalry Division, for example, will equip two of the three battalions in each of its brigades with Humvee utility vehicles instead of tanks and Bradleys. The 1st Cavalry, based at Fort Hood, Texas, will actually be larger than a normal division, since it will operate with the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard.
The switch away from heavy armored forces has created such demand for Humvees that the Army is pulling every available one (fortified with add-on armor) out of bases in the United States and Europe, Cody said.
The Army is so stretched for soldiers that it is imposing "stop-loss" on all units designated for duty in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. That means those troops cannot leave the service even if they planned to retire. The clamp will remain for the duration of their duty in Iraq plus three months beyond, Cody said.
The 1st Cavalry likely will be responsible for the Baghdad area, replacing the 1st Armored Division.
The 1st Infantry Division, coming from several locations in Germany, will be joined by the 30th Infantry Brigade of the North Carolina National Guard. They probably will operate in place of the 4th Infantry and 101st Airborne divisions in northern Iraq, including the Kurdish area.
The Bush administration had counted on getting a multinational division to replace the 101st Airborne, but that has not panned out. Multinational divisions led by Britain and Poland will continue operating in the less volatile south-central and southeastern parts of Iraq.
Elements of the 1st Marine Division, joined by one active-duty Army brigade, are expected to be assigned to western Iraq, including the Fallujah area that has been especially hostile to U.S. forces.
The 1st Marine Division played a major role in the invasion of Iraq in March and capture of Baghdad in April, then operated in south-central Iraq until handing off responsibility to the Polish-led group in September.
The Army, which has shouldered most of the burden in Iraq in recent months and taken almost all of the casualties, is stretched so thin around the world that it will have to extend soldiers' tours of duty in Afghanistan to make the Iraq 2004 rotation plan work.
The 10th Mountain Division had been scheduled to end a six-month tour in Afghanistan in February, but will stay three months longer. Its designated replacement, the 25th Infantry Division, will serve for 12 months instead of the previously planned six months, Army officials said.