WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday changed the Pentagon's rules to allow for shorter and more frequent call-ups of the National Guard and Reserves.
Instead of calling up individual troops for 18 months of active-duty service, the Pentagon will now mobilize entire units for no longer than one year, Gates announced, speaking at a White House news conference.
"This change will allow us to achieve greater unit cohesion and predictability in how reserve units train and deploy," said Gates, appearing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Pentagon's goal is to ensure that part-time military forces are called to active duty no more than once every six years. But Gates acknowledged that a "select number" of Guard and Reserve units would be recalled sooner than that.
Separately, Gates said he will recommend that President Bush add 92,000 troops to the Army and Marines over the next five years, a 14 percent increase that would cost $15 billion a year.
More than 500,000 Guard and Reserve troops have served on active duty since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and at times they've made up nearly half the forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Pentagon rules limited those troops to no more than 24 months of active-duty service every five years. Part-time soldiers who had been to Iraq once could be sent back only if they volunteered.
The result is that only about 10 percent of the 522,000 soldiers in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve are available for service, and more than half of the units that deploy now have to rely on volunteers from other states in order to fill their ranks, military officials say.
Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of Staff, recently warned a commission studying changes to the Guard that the war in Iraq and Afghanistan "will break" the active-duty forces unless the Pentagon gives the Army authority to call up Guard and Reserve forces more often.
During Thursday's news conference, Pace acknowledged that the new policy meant that some Guard and Reserve members who already had served once in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past five years could be called to service again.
"That's correct," Pace said. "But your time, as the secretary has indicated, will be no more than 12 months when you go the second time. Or, if you happen to be a new recruit and you go the first time, it will still be for 12 months."
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, the National Governors' Association's point man for National Guard issues, said the changes were welcome news.
"This is good news for the reserve armed forces members and their families. They are clearly becoming a vital role to the war effort," said Easley. "I think this policy is a recognition of not only the significant contribution they make but also of how well prepared they are upon deployment."
Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen M. Koper, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, said his group had been advocating the changes for some time.
"With respect to the problems we've had to deal with over the last couple of years in support of the war on terrorism, these are reasonably good solutions to quite a number of problems," he said.
One of the biggest problems, Guard officials say, is that 18 months is too long for part-time soldiers to spend away from their families and jobs.
Lt. Gen. David B. Poythress, the state adjutant general for Georgia, called the change "good news" that was "pretty self-explanatory."
Poythress said National Guard forces would now be able to do a lot of training on their own before being called up by the Army, a process that would give soldiers more time to spend with their families.
But Christopher Hellman, a military analyst at the Center for Arms Control, said the potential implications could be dramatic, with more units being called upon to deploy sooner than they expected.
"It creates a loophole that they could drive a big truck through if they chose to," Hellman said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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