WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers will serve up to 15 months in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of one year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday, the latest sign of the strain the wars have placed on the U.S. military.
Gates said the move would allow the military to sustain the boost in U.S. forces in Iraq, ordered by President George W. Bush in January, for about a year if desired but it was too early to say how long the increased troop levels actually would be needed.
“Our forces are stretched, there’s no question about that,” Gates said.
“I realize this decision will ask a lot of our Army troops and their families,” he said.
Gates portrayed the policy as an effort to make deployments more predictable for troops and their families. Previously, the Pentagon has had to extend tours of duty for individual units or send them earlier than planned to maintain force levels.
But the administration’s critics said the decision was a blow to the military, the troops and their families.
“This new policy will be an additional burden to an already overstretched Army,” said Rep. Ike Skelton, a Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives.
“I think this will have a chilling effect on recruiting, retention and readiness. We also must not underestimate the enormous negative impact this will have on Army families.”
Democrats seeking an end to the unpopular Iraq war want Bush to set a timetable for withdrawal. The administration says troops can only leave when Iraq has stabilized or U.S. national security will be in jeopardy.
Gates said all troops serving in the region covered by U.S. Central Command -- stretching from East Africa across the Middle East and into Central Asia -- could expect to be deployed for up to 15 months and spend 12 months at home.
The policy is effective immediately and also applies to units already in the region, he said.
The new policy on deployments applies only to the active duty Army and not to the National Guard or Marine Corps.
National Guard troops should be mobilized for up to a year and Marines currently deploy for seven months followed by six months at home, the Pentagon says.
There are currently some 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 25,000 in Afghanistan.
As part of Bush’s plan, the U.S. military is the midst of boosting its Iraq force by 28,000 combat and support troops.
Previously, the Pentagon had enough troops in place to maintain that increase until August but many analysts expect it to last longer.
“Whether it will be kept in place depends entirely on the conditions on the ground,” Gates said.
The Pentagon’s goal for active duty Army troops is that they spend two years at home for every year deployed, but it has not been able to meet that target in recent years.
At the moment, Army units average about a year at home for every year deployed, Pentagon officials say.
In an effort to tackle the strains on the military, Gates earlier this year ordered an increase in the size of both the Army and the Marine Corps.