WASHINGTON — Stretched thin by four years of war, the Army is adding three months to the standard yearlong tour for active-duty soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, a step aimed at maintaining the troop buildup in Baghdad.
The change, announced this week by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is the latest blow to an all-volunteer Army that has been given ever-shorter periods of rest and retraining at home.
Rather than continue to shrink the at-home intervals to a point that might compromise preparedness, Gates chose to lengthen combat tours. The longer tours will affect about 100,000 soldiers currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus untold thousands more who deploy later. It does not affect the Marine Corps or the National Guard or Reserve.
“Our forces are stretched, there’s no question about that,’’ Gates said.
The extended tours are a price the Army must pay to sustain the troop buildup that President Bush ordered in January as part of his new strategy for stabilizing Baghdad. Troop levels are being boosted from 15 to 20 brigades, and in order to keep that up beyond summer the Army faced harsh choices — send units to Iraq with less than 12 months at home, or extend tours.
The decision also underscores the political cost the administration has had to pay to keep alive its hope that higher troop levels, combined with a push for Iraqi political reconciliation, will produce the stability in Baghdad that experts say is needed before U.S. troops can go home.
In recent days, the Pentagon has notified National Guard brigades from four states that they are in line to deploy to Iraq for a second time, eliciting complaints from governors.
At a news conference, Gates said it was too early to estimate how long the buildup would last but that his new policy would give the Pentagon the capability to maintain the higher force levels until next April. Democrats in Congress, and some Republicans, oppose the buildup. In January, the administration indicated the buildup might begin to be reversed by fall.
Reaction on Capitol Hill to Gates’ announcement was harsh.
“Extending the tours of all active-duty Army personnel is an unacceptable price for our troops and their families to pay,’’ said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the longer tours will have a “chilling effect’’ on recruiting and retention.
“We also must not underestimate the enormous negative impact this will have on Army families,’’ Skelton said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supports the troop buildup, said of the affected soldiers, “They’ll be disappointed, but they’ll do it.’’
Gates said that without making 15 months the standard tour length in place of the current 12, he would have been forced to send five active-duty Army brigades to Iraq before they completed their one year at home.
“I think it is fair to all soldiers that all share the burden equally,’’ he said.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq watcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Gates faced little choice, with the strains already on the Army and no certainty about when the war might end.
“You’ve got to do it,’’ Cordesman said of the tour extensions, if the Bush plan is to have a chance to succeed.
The Marines are sticking to their standard seven-month tours, with an average of seven months at home between tours, although some units have had tours lengthened recently.
Gen. Peter Pace, the Joint Chiefs chairman who appeared at the news conference with Gates, acknowledged that longer tours in Iraq and Afghanistan make life harder for soldiers.
“Is it an additional strain to go from 12 months to 15 months? Of course it is,’’ Pace said. “Is it in combat and therefore even more difficult? Of course it is. And that’s why the entire nation should be thankful that we have such incredible young men and women who, knowing that, who volunteer to serve this nation in a time of great need.’’
3rd ID had been warned of possibility
Fort Stewart units, those already deployed and those preparing for deployment, are covered by the Army’s extension of tours from 12 to 15 months, but maybe they are not hit as hard as some.
That’s because the Third Infantry Division’s boss, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, told his soldiers and their families up front to be prepared for an 18-month deployment, even as they were getting orders officially saying one year.
“Fifteen months is better than 18,” a division spokesman said Thursday.
The division’s First Brigade is in Iraq, the Second is loading equipment now for deployment next month and the Fourth Brigade is scheduled to deploy by July.
Also loading equipment for May deployment is the aviation brigade stationed at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah.
The division headquarters is also in Iraq.
— Joe Parker Jr.