Army reserve chief warns of shortage of specialists

Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts have depleted ranks, U.S. official says

September 17, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The chief of the Army Reserve warned yesterday that at the current pace of operations in places like Afghanistan and Iraq the Army faces a serious risk of running out of crucial specialists in the reserves who can be called up for active duty.

The remarks by the officer, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, throw a spotlight on the military's existing mobilization authority, under which reserve and National Guard personnel can be summoned to active duty for no more than a total of 24 months, unless they volunteer to extend their tours.

As military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq continue with no end in sight, Helmly said he was increasingly concerned that a growing number of soldiers with critical specialties that are contained mainly in the reservist ranks will exhaust their two-year stints, making it increasingly difficult to fill the yearlong tours of duty that have become standard. The skills include civil affairs and truck driving.

"The manning-the-force issue for me is the single most pressing function I worry about," Helmly told reporters at a breakfast meeting. Of the 205,000 members of the Army Reserve, about 43,500 soldiers are mobilized now; 22,600 of those are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf.

Helmly did not say when the Army might begin to run out of some reservists to call to active duty, but the average mobilization for reserves throughout the military has increased to 342 days this year from 156 days in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Helmly's cautionary comments echoed a major finding of a report issued this week by the Government Accountability Office, formerly the General Accounting Office. That report concluded that if the Department of Defense's mobilization policy restricted the time that reservists could be called to active duty, "it is possible that DOD will run out of forces." Helmly said he had not yet seen the report.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, who oversees the Armed Services subcommittee on personnel and requested the report, said in a telephone interview that the findings reinforced his fears that the reserves and National Guard were being stretched too thin. Chambliss said the size of the active-duty Army should be increased by 20,000 soldiers to help ease the burden. Such a provision is now before a House-Senate conference committee.

The Army Reserve, reflecting similar efforts across the armed services, is taking several steps to avoid dire shortages, Helmly said. It is streamlining headquarters units and eliminating other units that are not designed to deploy overseas.

At any given time, about 37,000 reservists are unable to deploy, because they are training, pregnant, or facing disciplinary action. At the same time, the reserve is increasing the number of people assigned to specialties that are in heavy demand.

In addition to the restructuring, Helmly said he needed greater flexibility to manage his force and put it on a wartime footing. The reserves are seeking money from Congress to offer recruiting and retention bonuses, to help avert what many experts predict will be an exodus from the reserves once part-time soldiers return home next year.

"I often feel constrained in my ability to influence the mechanics of how we recruit, retain, train, and assign soldiers in the Army Reserve," he said. "I need additional flexibility to insure that our portion of the armed forces are managed such that we continue to be capable of withstanding the stresses associated with this war."

Helmly said it had been only recently that the reserves had moved away from a mindset of having part-time soldiers who trained one weekend a month and two weeks a year, and were rarely mobilized. The military is now counting on the reserves and National Guard soldiers to deploy up to 12 months every five years.

"We're at war, this is a hard war and we, frankly, inside the Army Reserve have been not properly prepared for it," Helmly said.

In response, the Army Reserve is moving to toughen its basic training for soldiers, in recognition that in insurgencies like the that in Iraq, there are no rear areas. Reserve truck drivers, for instance, now conduct live-fire, counterambush training. Reserve soldiers training in the United States now wear the same 50-pound body armor that troops strap on in Iraq.

The dangers are serious. At least 49 members of the Army Reserve have died in Iraq since the invasion began in March 2003, and Helmly said 58 had died over all since the war against terrorism began in October 2001with the invasion of Afghanistan.

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