In the latest sign of pressure on troop strength from growing violence in Iraq, the Pentagon said Monday that it had extended the combat tour of 4,000 soldiers, the second time in as many months that an Army brigade has seen its yearlong deployment lengthened.
The 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which is assigned to Ramadi, the capital of volatile Al Anbar province, will remain in Iraq an additional 46 days, defense officials said. Originally scheduled to leave Iraq in January, the brigade is now due to return to its base in Germany in late February.
Coming after this summer’s announcement that an Alaska-based brigade would have its tour prolonged, analysts said, the extension of the 1st Brigade’s assignment was the latest sign that the U.S. military was having a difficult time sustaining the 145,000-strong troop level in Iraq.
“It does tell you the Army is under terrible strain,” said Cindy Williams, a defense analyst with the security studies program at MIT. “If they could cut back to 60,000, it could be sustained. But this level cannot.”
The 1st Brigade oversees military operations in Ramadi, where Sunni Arab insurgents opposed to the Shiite-dominated central government have waged a steady series of roadside bombings and other guerrilla-style attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces. The 1st Brigade, which also has other Army and Marine units attached to it, has spent the summer trying to pacify the area by establishing a series of combat outposts.
Also on Monday, the Pentagon announced it would speed up the scheduled deployment of another brigade to relieve the Alaska unit, the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The 4th Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, originally scheduled to deploy in late October, will now leave for Iraq 30 days earlier. The brigade, based at Ft. Bliss, Texas, will replace the 172nd.
On July 27, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved a request to extend the tour of the 172nd, even as the first members of the unit had begun returning home. The four-month extension would have kept the Stryker brigade in Iraq until mid-December, prompting protests from relatives of the troops. The new schedule would bring the soldiers home before Thanksgiving.
“There’s no question but that any time there’s a war, the forces of the countries involved are asked to do a great deal,” Rumsfeld said Monday in response to questions about the latest extension. “From time to time there may be units that will be asked to increase the number of days in-country from what had been anticipated. On the other hand, we’re also bringing you some other units in earlier, which is another way of dealing with that issue.”
But Army officials said they were becoming increasingly worried about the amount of time combat-bound units had to train before deploying to Iraq.
A primary reason for the 1st Armored Division brigade’s extension was to give the Army unit taking its place, the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, more time to prepare for its third combat tour.
“We’ve never sent a unit over there not prepared,” said an Army official. “The 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division needs more time.”
The 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade returned home to Ft. Stewart, Ga., at the beginning of this year and would have been in the U.S. for only 11 months before returning to Iraq. With the 1st Armored Division’s extension, the brigade will leave for its third tour in January 2007.
“Having a full year at home is very important for families,” the Army official said.
Ideally, the Army would prefer to have a unit deployed overseas one year out of every three. Because of the demands of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is averaging about 14 months at home for its active-duty brigades. But units have more to do in those months as they train new soldiers, acquire skills for the changing fight in Iraq and learn how to use new equipment.
Michelle Joyner, a spokeswoman for the National Military Families Assn., said the short periods home between rotations to Iraq and extensions of combat tours were very difficult for families.
“The time home is getting shorter and shorter, and it is not like it used to be,” she said. “It is 12-hour shifts and constant preparation. They are home, but they are not home.”
But extending the tours is hardly a good solution, Joyner said. Homecoming celebrations have to be shelved, and vacations canceled or postponed.
“To have an extension is an emotional blow,” she said. “Once you are talking about the second birthday missed, the second anniversary missed, that becomes very hard.”
Iraq veterans of the 1st Armored Division are no strangers to extensions. In 2004, in an effort to quell the rising insurgency, the division’s yearlong deployment was extended by 90 days during its first Iraq tour.
Lawrence J. Korb, a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information, said that unless the government removed caps on the Army’s use of National Guard units in Iraq, future extensions were unavoidable.
“The fact that you have to extend people says that you don’t have any more ready to replace them,” Korb said. “We don’t have enough troops because we had not planned to keep this many this long.”