WASHINGTON -- For the first time since Operation Desert Storm, the Army plans to announce this week an involuntary mobilization of thousands of troops from the Individual Ready Reserve, the latest signal that the service is struggling to bolster ranks stretched thin by the global war on terrorism.
The move, which Army officials say is likely to involve notifying roughly 6,500 soldiers about a possible deployment, is meant to fill holes in active and reserve units preparing to go to Iraq and Afghanistan this fall and early next year. In most cases, the Pentagon created those holes when it took soldiers with critical skills in short supply -- such as civil affairs, intelligence, vehicle maintenance and truck driving -- out of their units and shifted them to military units needed for more urgent deployments since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Now, defense officials say, the bill for this system of "robbing Peter to pay Paul" has come due.
"After a while, the units you've been borrowing from have got to be filled out," says one Army official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Individual Ready Reserve, or IRR, is a pool of roughly 118,000 former soldiers who are not members of a specific reserve unit, yet who have unexpired obligations to complete their military service. In some cases, they are soldiers who received honorable discharges before their commitment was scheduled to end and thus are legally bound to fulfill their contract if the Pentagon requires their services. Several thousand of these soldiers are already serving in Iraq, the majority of whom are volunteers.
Pentagon officials have said for weeks that tapping the IRR was in the works. The Army's plan is being explained this week on Capitol Hill in advance of the announcement, expected on Wednesday, defense officials said.
Even with the notification of an involuntary call-up, the Pentagon does not expect to need all of the IRR soldiers it notifies. One Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that as few as 2,000 IRR soldiers might actually be assigned to units preparing to deploy abroad.
In 1990, during the run-up to Operation Desert Storm, 20,000 soldiers from the IRR were called for service; this will be the first time since then that a significant number of IRR troops have been mobilized.
Even with the transfer of political authority in Iraq, the Pentagon expects to have more than 100,000 troops there for now and currently maintains roughly 18,000 troops in Afghanistan. In addition to its current pace of deployments, the Army also is transforming its combat divisions into smaller, autonomous brigades that can be sent more easily to war zones.
Defense experts said that the decision to tap the IRR is an effort to protect stateside units undergoing this transformation from getting raided by the Pentagon looking to fill out the units being dispatched abroad.
"The particular concern is that we not under-man either the units we are transforming or the units going to Iraq," says Daniel Goure, a vice president at the Lexington Institute, a defense policy and research center based in Arlington, Va.
In recent weeks, Army officials have announced a series of personnel moves as they try to meet global commitments with a force about one-third the size of the Army during the Cold War. Earlier this month, Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army's personnel chief, announced that soldiers who had planned to leave the military would be ordered to stay if their units were deploying to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Since the war on terrorism began, the Pentagon has issued thousands of such "stop-loss orders," yet both Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army chief of staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker repeatedly have said that the Pentagon does not need to ask Congress for an increase in the size of the military.