Monday, July 12, 2004

The Army’s commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq are draining infantry officers from combat-ready companies and battalions elsewhere in the world, according to an internal memo.

The memo from the Army’s Human Resources Command in Northern Virginia, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, said there is a 30 percent shortage — or about 100 majors and lieutenant colonels and an unspecified number of other grades.

“[Units] are suffering very badly at all grades,” Lt. Col. Lee Fetterman, chief of the command’s infantry officer assignment branch, said in the June memo sent to infantry colonels in the United States and abroad. “Many of you are currently short officers.”

But Col. Fetterman, who recently returned from a combat tour in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, said in an interview that no unit deployed in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan is suffering shortages of these critical officers who lead companies and battalions fighting terrorist insurgents. The shortages are being felt by nondeployed divisions and in other billets Army-wide.

In fact, he said, part of the reason for the shortage is that the Army is keeping manning levels for these officers at 105 percent in the war zones to replenish any units who lose men.

The second factor, Col. Fetterman said, is that the ongoing transformation of the Army’s 10 active combat divisions requires more officers. This is because divisions are becoming “modular” in mix-and-match components.

The result is that divisions are creating more battalions on a smaller scale that can get to overseas hot spots faster. More battalions mean more officers to lead them.

“We are short infantrymen at all grades, but particularly at major and lieutenant colonel,” the Fetterman memo states. “Units deployed or deploying in the very near future will be filled to authorizations. Units recently returned from combat can expect to have shortages in all grades.”

To some inside and outside the Army, the memo is proof that twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus other worldwide commitments, has the 480,000-soldier Army stretched thin.

The Pentagon recently announced that it is so short on certain skills that it is invoking rarely used powers to call back to active duty more than 5,000 members of the individual ready reserve. These are persons who completed their active-duty requirement, but still are subject to recall.

“The significance of the sobering memo is that it makes a mockery of all the talk from the Defense Department that the Army’s force structure is adequate as currently sized,” a former Army official said.

This official, who asked not to be named, as well as some private military analysts and lawmakers, think that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld needs to increase what is called active-duty “end strength” by at least 40,000 — the rough equivalent of two Army divisions.

But Mr. Rumsfeld has resisted, saying current deployments are likely a spike rather than the rule. The Pentagon has about 140,000 troops in Iraq and more than 10,000 in Afghanistan. The Army is tapping all its divisions to rotating in and out of those two theaters on 12-month deployments.

Col. Fetterman said the Army is “stretched.”

“We’re at war,” he said.

“Nobody would argue we’re not stretched, but to argue we’re stretched too thin is a leap of logic I would not take,” he said.

Col. Fetterman said the Army eventually will increase its roughly 3,700 infantry officers once the Rumsfeld-ordered transformation is further along.

The shortage, he said, is not because of recruiting problems.

“I’ve got many more officers wanting to be infantrymen than I’ve seen in the past,” the colonel said. “We are very popular right now.”

“I wanted to be in combat formations,” he added, explaining the allure. “I wanted to lead soldiers in time of war. It’s sort of a patriotic thing.”

Col. Fetterman said in his memo, “In the long term, this will be self-correcting. In the short term, we will not have enough officers to fill all authorized billets.”

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