The nation’s top military officials, expecting President Bush to order an increase in the size of the force in Iraq, have concluded that such a buildup would require them to reverse Pentagon policy and send the Army’s National Guard and Reserve units on lengthy second tours in Iraq, Defense Department officials said Monday.
Under Pentagon policy, Guard and Reserve units have been limited to 24 months of mobilization for the Iraq war. That means most Reserve units that already have been sent to Iraq are ineligible to return. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that a significant troop buildup would require the Pentagon to send Guard and Reserve units for additional yearlong tours.
Such an order probably would be controversial among the nation’s governors -- who share authority over the Guard -- and could heighten concerns in Congress over the war and Bush’s plans for a troop increase. In addition, National Guard leaders were skeptical of calls for additional combat tours, which they fear could hurt recruiting and retention.
“If you have to sustain a surge long-term, you have to use the Guard and Reserve,” said a Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the president had not unveiled his strategy shift.
Bush, who is set to announce his new policy Wednesday, met on Monday with about a dozen Republican senators to discuss the plan. After the meeting, Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.) said Bush appeared to be planning an increase of 20,000 troops.
“It was clear to me that a decision was made for a surge of 20,000 additional troops,” Smith said. “He did not affirm that that would be the number, but he said roughly ... that amount. I understood it as a hypothetical.”
Any boost in combat forces will require some increase in Reserve support units, such as engineering or intelligence teams. But because of training requirements, National Guard infantry forces are unlikely to be used as part of the initial buildup. However, they would be needed later in the year to sustain a higher level of forces.
Defense Department officials say it would be difficult to build up an extra 20,000 soldiers and Marines quickly. Although there is a Reserve brigade in Kuwait, building up to the full expansion may take until late March or April, an Army official said. The expected increase is likely to rely heavily on speeding up the deployments of units that had been scheduled to ship to Iraq in the summer, while extending the tours of Marine and Army units due to return from Iraq in late spring and summer.
It is unclear which National Guard units would be tapped to go as part of a troop buildup, although officials said it was likely that the first Guard units sent into Iraq would be considered for the first return tours.
The 1st Battalion, 185th Armored Regiment, from San Bernardino, and the 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, from Modesto, are the biggest units from the California National Guard that have served in Iraq. Members of the 185th, now an infantry unit, served in Iraq from early 2004 until 2005 and could be among the first sent for a return tour.
In early 2005, the National Guard and Reserves made up nearly half the fighting force in Iraq. Today, of the 15 combat brigades in Iraq, one is from the National Guard -- although there are other smaller Reserve units also deployed in Iraq.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker has complained publicly that the policy against involuntary second tours has forced the National Guard to cobble together units from dozens of states, rather than sending whole battalions or brigades that have worked and trained together.
“Current policies restrict our ability to remobilize Reserve component units, and, in my view, the current policies are more restrictive than need be under the law and hamper our ability to remobilize the best-trained, best-led and best-equipped units,” Schoomaker said last month.
In the internal debates over whether the military should send extra troops into Iraq, the service chiefs have been convinced that sustaining an increase would require sending National Guard combat brigades for return tours as part of what the military is calling “assured access” to the reserves.
“If you increase [the force in Iraq], part of that requirement will require assured access to the Guard,” said a second Army official. “If you look at the brigades that are available, you are going to have to require the assured access.”
The officials interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity because no formal decision had been made to change the policy on the Guard and Reserves.
Some civilians inside the Defense Department are deeply skeptical of a change in policy -- in particular, David Chu, the undersecretary for personnel and readiness, a department official said. Chu and other officials have argued that the military should try to find other ways to fill the need for reservists -- by tapping Navy and Air Force units, for example -- rather than sending Guard and Reserve units for second tours.
“We see no reason to change the policy,” said a second department official. “It is an option open to the new secretary of Defense. But they are trying to fill these needs in other ways.”
Pentagon officials said that leaders of the National Guard remained skeptical about calling up their combat brigades for a second tour. Before a so-called surge was considered, no National Guard brigade combat team was scheduled to deploy to Iraq until 2009, to give the force time to replace personnel and equipment.
The wall: 1 tour in 6 years
National Guard officials have argued that their units can sustain one-year deployments every six years. But recruiting and retention could suffer if the policy is changed and Guard units are remobilized too quickly, a Pentagon official said.
“They can sustain one in six. Anything other than that becomes problematic,” said a Pentagon official opposed to sending the Guard as part of a buildup. “If there is a real and imminent danger, the National Guard people will go. They are willing to go, but they have to believe in what they are doing.”
Nearly 206,000 National Guard soldiers have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Under current policy, those soldiers would only be sent for a second tour if they volunteered. According to the Pentagon, more than 23,500 Guard soldiers have been on more than one deployment.
“Depending on how they execute the formula, it could leave everyone who has deployed eligible [to return] since our deployments are typically 18 months,” said a National Guard officer.
National Guard leaders, the Pentagon official said, are worried that employers would be less likely to support Guard participation by their employees if units were sent to Iraq more often.
“We have the soldier, we have the employer and we have the family,” the official said. “All of these need to support the war effort, and if they don’t, we have problems.”
Times staff writers Maura Reynolds in Washington and Rone Tempest in California contributed to this report.
President Bush will deliver his nationally televised address on Iraq strategy at 6 p.m. PST Wednesday.