WASHINGTON – Soldiers heading to war this summer are likely to see their tours shortened from 15 months to 12 months, even if troop cuts in Iraq are suspended in July as expected, the Army's top general said Tuesday.
Gen. George Casey said that while his forces are strained by nearly seven years at war, the Army can maintain 15 combat brigades in battle for at least a couple of months after July while military commanders assess the situation in Iraq.
"Fifteen deployed brigades, for us, is sustainable for a bit longer, certainly enough to cover what I would think the length of this pause might be," said Casey, the Army's chief of staff.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, have both said they favor a suspension in troop cuts after July to assess security gains before more forces leave the country.
While neither Casey nor Petraeus will say how long that suspension may last, Casey says it likely will not hamper his move to 12-month tours.
"A month or two (pause) wouldn't have a significant impact on what we're talking about doing," he told a small group of reporters in his Pentagon office.
Casey also said for the first time publicly that his goal is to eventually shorten war deployments to nine months, with soldiers getting 18 months at home between tours. One of several key factors that would enable him to do that, he said, would be to have just 10 Army brigades deployed to war — nine fewer than there are in battle right now in Iraq.
Currently soldiers are serving 15-month tours, returning home for a year, then heading back out for another deployment. The arduous schedule was compounded early last year when President Bush ordered a buildup of forces in Iraq to quell the escalating violence in Baghdad.
During much of last year there were 20 combat brigades in Iraq and two in Afghanistan; 20 of those were Army units, two were Marines. In December one Army unit came home from Iraq and was not replaced, bringing the total to 19. Over the next five months, five more brigades will leave Iraq and four will not be replaced, reducing the total to 15.
A brigade is roughly 3,500 personnel.
Casey, who long has warned about the stress and strain that the repeated and lengthy war tours have on his forces, said those concerns will be part of his discussions with the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Petraeus comes to Washington in April to recommend future troop levels there.
While he would make no hard promises, Casey said he is "fairly comfortable" that if troop reductions in Iraq continue through July as planned, the Army will be able to return to 12-month deployments when the next units begin leaving for war in early August.
In other comments, Casey said his biggest concern for the Army is the decline in the number of captains, which could leave a crippling gap in the officer ranks. Last fall, during a 90-day period, the Army offered captains a variety of incentives — from bonuses to graduate school to their choice of duty location — in order to get them to re-enlist.
The Army fell short of its goal of 14,000 — attracting a bit less than 12,700. But Casey said Army leaders are taking another look at the incentives to see which worked better.
The captains are critical, he said, because the Army has invested about 10 years in their career development to get them to that level of leadership.
"If they leave, you lose a decade," he said, recalling similar problems during the Vietnam era, when midlevel officers fled the service.
The Pentagon is working to increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps to meet the demands of a nation at war, faced with a persistent threat of terrorism. The active-duty Army — currently 518,000 soldiers — is growing to 547,000.
Other issues of concern, he said, include an increase in suicides, desertions, the number of female soldiers getting divorces and the number of soldiers not showing up for their deployments. The Army did not have detailed current statistics for those trends.