WASHINGTON — The acting secretary of the Army has told the service to begin drawing up plans to shorten the 12-month tour lengths of soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The memo dated Oct. 8 from Les Brownlee, the acting Army secretary, makes clear that those reductions would not be taken until the insurgency in Iraq diminishes and the capabilities of Iraqi security forces improves.
But the memo clearly emphasizes the urgency of having plans ready. It comes as the Army wrestles with two powerful, competing needs: finding enough soldiers to fulfill commitments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and finding ways to make those tours less onerous for the soldiers and their families.
"As we continue to develop Iraqi security forces in both size and capabilities, the opportunity presents itself to address both the size of our committed forces and the tour lengths of those soldiers assigned," Brownlee wrote in the memo to Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff.
"Please develop a plan that would enable us on fairly short notice to curtail tour lengths for our deployed and deploying soldiers," he wrote.
A copy of Brownlee's memo, which states that "it is important that these plans be available for implementation when the security conditions and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces might enable us to do so," was provided by a senior Army official who closely tracks these issues.
Army personnel officers, as well as those representing the Army Reserve and National Guard, say their ability to recruit and retain soldiers will erode unless combat tours are shortened, perhaps to six or nine months. At the same time, Army war planners have significant concerns that the Army, at its current size and configuration, cannot meet projected requirements for Iraq and Afghanistan unless active duty and reserve troops spend 12 months on the ground there.
Questions of stress on the armed services, the size of the military and the wisest path to success in Iraq have all been major themes of the presidential campaign this year.
Other factors, both foreign and domestic, also will play a role in determining how quickly the Army can reduce tour lengths and numbers in Iraq. Contributions of additional forces by allies would relieve the burden, and the Army's plans to reorganize its divisions are projected to increase the number of deployable combat brigades over the next few years.
The length of combat tours has become a point of stress for Army troops, as well as a significant point of friction between Army personnel and Marines, who rotate out of Iraq or Afghanistan after seven-month tours.
The Army, since Vietnam, had deployed its forces in overseas combat situations in six-month tours. The major exception has been in South Korea, where soldiers serve for one year. The 12-month deployment was introduced last year after the end of major combat operations in Iraq, when a vigorous insurgency persuaded the military that it would need to maintain large numbers of troops in the country. The Army decided then that only 12-month tours would meet its needs.