War strains push Gates to expand Army

The 22,000 additional soldiers are expected to ease the transition from the war in Iraq to the one in Afghanistan.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Secretary of Defense Robert Gates listens to a reporter's question during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington Monday.
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expanding the US Army by 22,000 soldiers, billing it as a "temporary" increase to reduce the strain as the US transitions from the Iraq to the Afghan missions.

The Army has already grown over the past few years to a strength of 547,000 active soldiers, but it is still short on troops. According to one estimate, there are about 30,000 soldiers on the rolls who cannot deploy – including 10,000 wounded warriors. Additionally, the end of the unpopular "stop-loss" policy – which prevented soldiers from leaving the service even after their contract had ended – has also contributed to the shortage.

Now, as the US ramps down the mission in Iraq by 2011 and revs it up in Afghanistan, the Pentagon simply needs even more people. Over the next year, defense officials expect the number of soldiers deployed overseas to increase during the transition.

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"This is an important and necessary step to ensure that we continue to properly support the needs of commanders in the field, while providing relief for our current force and their families," Mr. Gates said at a Pentagon briefing Monday.

The move would create an active duty Army of about 569,000 until 2012.

"If all goes according to plan, the strain on the force will begin to ease by 2011, and the size of the Army can be reduced," said a position paper issued by Sen. Joe Liebermann (I) of Connecticut, who last week proposed increasing the US Army by 30,000 soldiers.

As of Monday, there were about 58,000 troops in Afghanistan and 130,000 troops in Iraq.

Military officials have been talking about the need for a larger Army to cope with the demands of eight years of war, but those reflections have largely remained private. Gates, who was named by President Bush in 2006 and asked to stay on under President Obama, has focused on reducing the strains on the US military. He has ended 15-month-long tours for soldiers, increased the amount of time soldiers spend at home between the tours, and is phasing out stop-loss policies.

Gates has also moved to redirect the Pentagon's more than a half-trillion dollar budget toward new priorities such as personnel and remote control aircraft.

But he is mum on the cost of expanding the Army. Additional soldiers would not add to the size of the defense budget, he said Monday, but would require "additional tough choices" without saying what these choices would be.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of a temporary plus up of 30,000 soldiers to be about $2 billion in 2011, $4 billion in 2012 and $2 billion in 2013, according to a report issued July 14.

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