Staying in the Fight

Troop tours lengthen, but no one agrees on the right duration for deployments.

When word leaked out from the Pentagon in April that yearlong combat deployments for Army soldiers in Iraq were extended to 15 months, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was fuming. Top military officials said they were angry because the media reported the extension before the units themselves could be notified through the proper channels. Gen. Richard Cody, Army vice chief of staff, fired off a blistering memo saying loose lips "endanger the lives of soldiers."

The amount of time American combat troops spend in the war zone has become such a hot-button political issue that no one can agree on what combat deployment duration is most effective. Opponents of the Iraq war pounce on any evidence of a stressed military. There is little debate even within the military on the toll that tour length takes on combat effectiveness.

The Army initially settled on one-year combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Marine Corps units are tied to the Navy's fleet deployments, which are typically six months.

One of the more lamentable policies of the Vietnam War was the one-year "hostile fire area" ritual. Critics contended that the policy was damaging because as soldiers gained more experience and valuable jungle warfare skills, they were pulled off the line and replaced by green soldiers. A popular adage is that the American military didn't fight in Vietnam for 10 years; it fought in Vietnam one year, 10 times over.

A similar challenge exists in Iraq and Afghanistan, where new Army units are rotated in and out at one-year intervals. Counterinsurgency places a premium on small unit warfare skills and on-the-ground, real-world experience that is difficult if not impossible to train for. Iraq and Afghanistan are traditional societies, where long-term personal relationships and trust are built gradually. With a one-year rotation policy, new units arrive in an area and begin a predictable pattern of aggressively "taking the fight to the enemy." As a senior Army officer on his third Iraq tour says, that approach translates into "searching the same houses for the 30th time. That does nothing but piss off the local people." Many Army officers and soldiers agree that the one-year deployment is not long enough, given the learning curve on the terrain and the people, and a very adaptable enemy's tactics.

The Iraqi insurgency is not homogenous-cells and networks have widely varying skills, and attack patterns and favorite weapons differ from city to city and even from one Baghdad neighborhood to another. Some Army officers say a unit does not really reach peak effectiveness until about six to eight months after arrival in-country. They maintain that level for four or five months, until their focus invariably shifts to preparing people and equipment to return home.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 17, retired Army officer Andrew Krepinevich, now president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said insurgents have the advantage because they are not constantly rotated in and out of combat, but remain on the battlefield. Those who aren't killed or captured become even more skilled.

But the Army is more concerned about stress and potential harm to recruiting and retention than about the effectiveness of units on the ground. Officials repeatedly have tried to shorten soldiers' time in combat zones.

In October 2004, acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee told Army leaders to draw up plans to shorten the yearlong combat tours. That effort was abandoned as the Iraqi insurgency continued to worsen.

Unlike the Marine Corps, which keeps about a quarter of its total force deployed aboard ships, the Army traditionally has been a garrison force. That began to change in the late 1990s when units were dispatched on peacekeeping deployments to the Balkans. They were limited to six months because any longer was considered too much of a burden. The peacekeeping effort there never tapped more than 5 percent of the Army's total manpower, but even that comparatively low level led Army officials and some analysts to raise questions about potential declines in troop readiness and morale.

During the Balkans operations, the Army adopted the policy of unit rotation, in which an entire unit is moved overseas and then returned home and replaced with another. This differs from individual rotation, which is currently used in South Korea-and also occurred during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Under individual rotation, a unit stays in the war zone, but its soldiers move in and out.

With the service facing long-term deployments to Afghanistan and probably Iraq, some Army officials are recommending a new approach. Brig Gen. Edward Cardon, assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said shortly before leaving for his third tour in Iraq that leaders should look at a hybrid of the individual rotation policy and the Special Forces rotation model. Special Operations units typically spend four months in the war zone and then rotate home for four months.

In an interview in Amman, Jordan, last year, Army Brig. Gen. Frank Kearney, who commands all Special Operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, said his units' rotation policy is a huge advantage in counter-insurgency. "Our guys are continually building on past experience, whereas the regular Army units have to learn anew each time they deploy." The result is better unit cohesion, he said: "A Special Forces team comes back with all senior noncommissioned officers; they return to Iraq as the same team, often to the same area."

Cardon says the Army could lengthen tours to two years, but then the worry is that units won't get the equivalent time, or longer, at home to rest and refit. The problem with an individual rotation policy on one-year tours is units in Iraq would see 100 percent annual turnover in personnel. The key, Cardon says, is to keep regular Army units in the same areas in Iraq or Afghanistan and then generate a rotation base that could support something like the Special Forces model of small units rotating in and out for four-month tours followed by four months back home.

Krepinevich told lawmakers that the Army must find ways to avoid atrophy of critical small unit combat skills. Establishing a large enough rotation base supported by high retention is vital, he said. Otherwise, he fears the emergence of a growing experience and skills gap between Army soldiers and insurgent fighters.

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