Stretched by the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon planners said Thursday that in 2004 they would lean more heavily on National Guard and reserve units and extend the deployments of some of the troops serving abroad.
The increasing reliance on part-time soldiers, along with the repeat deployment of some units next year, highlights a problem with a military structure that was designed for the Cold War, military analysts say.
Now at their home base of Camp Pendleton, the 1st Marine Division troops, who battled their way from Basra to Baghdad, will return to Iraq early next year. Pentagon insiders say the Army's 3rd Infantry Division -- whose troops rolled their tanks into Saddam Hussein's complex of palaces in Baghdad and spent as long as a year in the Persian Gulf region -- is next.
"There's nobody else. A third of the Army is there now, including a lot of the reservists.... It's like a conveyor belt. They're next up," said Thomas Donnelly, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative public policy center in Washington. "A lot of people, myself included, would express surprise that the reserve and Guard system hasn't already broken."
The result, analysts say, is a war on terrorism fought by troops who are spending far more time working on foreign soil than they had ever planned. Pentagon officials and military analysts worry that recruitment could suffer as reserve and National Guard troops tire of repeatedly risking their lives -- and their civilian jobs -- and just stop reenlisting.
"When it comes time for people to make that next enlistment decision ... whether they'll continue to serve when they have a choice is an unknowable but worrying question," Donnelly said.
The crunch has hit the Army hardest. With soldiers pulling 12-month tours in Iraq, while Marines are deployed there for seven months and Air Force and Navy personnel serve less than six months in the country, the news is likely to rankle some in the nation's oldest armed service.
"It's certainly going to affect morale, not only of the regular Army but the morale of National Guard and reservists as well," said Dana Robert Dillon, a 20-year Army veteran and senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization in Washington. "There are too many missions for the number of soldiers we have."
About 85,000 combat troops have been alerted for potential duty in Iraq in the first half of 2004, and 43,000 National Guard and reserve troops have been told to prepare to serve alongside them. An additional 3,700 members of the Guard and reserve were told to get ready for service in Afghanistan.
Not all of the Guard and reserve forces who were alerted will go, defense officials said, but their numbers on the ground in Iraq will increase by almost 40% -- from the current figure of 28,000 to 39,000 -- in 2004.
Pentagon officials said they were keenly aware of the strain on the part-time soldiers known as "weekend warriors."
"Of course, the system is still not perfect. There will be units with unique capabilities that will have to be remobilized or extended," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters Thursday at a Pentagon briefing.
"But while there will be imperfections along the way, the services have made every effort to ensure that the Guard and reserve forces are dealt with respectfully, just as each of them has demonstrated their respect and love of our country by volunteering to serve our country," he said.
Rumsfeld called the latest trends in Guard and reserve retention and recruitment "positive," but added: "My guess is there's a lag in these things. And one has to anticipate, rather than wait until you see the downturn, because then it takes a while for that to continue.... So we're very sensitive to it."
Nevertheless, there are no other options to using the Guard and reserve forces, added Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"We've got to use the reserves," he said. "I mean, they're just absolutely essential to our war-fighting capability."
In Iraq, the Pentagon's solution to a military stretched thin is to gradually turn over security to Iraqis. By June, under the plan outlined at a Pentagon news briefing, the number of U.S. forces in Iraq would fall from 132,000 to 100,000 as the number of Iraqi police, border patrol, paramilitary and army security personnel rises from 118,000 to 170,000. U.S. defense officials emphasized that the U.S. units would have greater capabilities than their numbers suggested.
The order Rumsfeld signed Wednesday would send 20,000 Marines to replace the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in western Iraq; the 1st Infantry Division from Germany would replace the 4th Infantry Division in central Iraq; and the 1st Cavalry Division from Ft. Hood, Texas, would replace the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad. In Afghanistan, the Army's 25th Infantry Division would replace the 10th Mountain Division.
The Marines will come primarily from Camp Pendleton and the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, possibly supplemented by troops from other bases. Tentative plans are for the equipment and vehicles to leave by ship in December; the majority of troops are expected to fly to Iraq in February.
Marine officials said troops headed for Iraq would undergo "an aggressive training program." Two kinds of training will be emphasized, officials said: protecting convoys and treating the Iraqis with respect.
Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.