Army plans using Guard in Mideast Peacekeeping role would be first for 'weekend warriors'

October 27, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Senior Army officials, anxious to avoid sending too many active-duty combat troops on open-ended peacekeeping missions, are seeking the unprecedented deployment of the Army National Guard as peace monitors in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

The proposal comes as political and military leaders struggle to decide the proper post-Cold War missions for the National Guard, the nation's part-time armed forces that traditionally respond to civil emergencies and natural disasters and reinforce regular troops in war.

Although President Clinton denied the District of Columbia's request to use guardsmen to fight crime in the nation's capital, the administration appears enthusiastic about sending them to keep the peace in the Sinai desert. Guard troops have served abroad during wars, but they have never participated in peacekeeping missions, Army and Guard officials said.

The proposal, which still requires administration approval, would ease the burden on the 530 U.S. troops that help supervise the 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt. Army officials are worried that as many as half of all Army combat troops may be committed to long-term peacekeeping operations by the end of 1995.

The concept of shifting some of that burden to the reserves "is an exciting, new innovation for the use of Guard and Reserve forces," Deborah R. Lee, assistant defense secretary for reserve affairs, said yesterday. "It reflects the philosophy that the Guard and Reserve are effective and can be relied on more in the future."

The response among Guard leaders across the country has been cautious, despite an unqualified endorsement from senior Guard officials at the Pentagon.

"We're a community-based defense force. We don't relish overseas missions, but as long as it's well-defined and well-accepted by the administration and Congress, we stand ready and willing to go," said retired Col. Don Wilson, a spokesman for the National Guard Association, a Washington-based lobbying group.

Some regular Army officers expressed concern that guardsmen may not be up to the demands of the Sinai mission, which would take as much as a year for the training, six-month deployment and return home.

They fear this would disrupt the lives of the citizen-soldiers and put political pressure on the administration to abandon the effort, forcing the Army to scramble for active-duty reinforcements.

"There are too many political problems. Fundamentally, they're not paid to be soldiers six months a year," said an Army officer who has served in the Sinai.

But Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, the Army chief of staff, who is promoting the idea, says reservists must share responsibility for "operations other than war" in the post-Cold War era.

Over the last two weeks, the general has discussed the creation of a specially-trained peacekeeping battalion of 500 to 600 troops, with 80 percent of its members drawn from volunteers in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve.

The battalion would join the six-month rotation of the 82nd Airborne Division and other light infantry units assigned to the Multinational Force and Observers mission in the Sinai.

The mission, which began after Israeli forces withdrew from the disputed territory in April, 1982, is viewed by the Army as a safe -- some say boring -- operation that requires troops to guard isolated barb-wire outposts along the Gulf of Aqaba and atop mountain peaks.

The cost of the mission, which involves 2,100 troops from 11 countries, including at least one U.S. Army battalion of 530 soldiers, are split equally by Egypt, Israel and the United States, which paid over $18 million of last year's $56 million budget.

If the Sinai experiment succeeds, reservists may be deployed on other missions, General Sullivan told a meeting of the Association of the United States Army last week.

"In the wake of the Cold War, America's Army is busier than ever," he said.

The Army has already reported a 300 percent increase in three years in soldiers engaged in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, with 21,113 troops in 71 countries last month.

Mounting public unease over U.S. peacekeeping missions in the wake of the Army's disastrous losses in Somalia may not deter President Clinton from sending forces to Bosnia and Israel's Golan Heights to enforce possible peace agreements, Army planners say.

About 25,000 troops have been prepared to go to Bosnia, and preliminary plans for the Golan Heights call for sending 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers "if you need a deterrent force in place," one planner said.

Counting necessary replacement troops, the Army would have to provide as many as 150,000 of its roughly 300,000 combat and combat support forces for overseas peacekeeping missions in 1995, the planner said.

This prospect has prompted General Sullivan and Rep. Ike Skelton, a ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, to question whether the shrinking military can take on more labor-intensive operations without losing its ability to wage war.

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