WASHINGTON -- Because two key Army National Guard combat brigades that missed the Persian Gulf war because they needed more time in desert training are losing their frontline war-fighting role to active duty units, knowledgeable military officials said.
This move is aimed at reducing the combat role of reservists and changing a basic tenet of the military's "Total Force" policy that required Army combat divisions to go to war with certain Army Reserve and National Guard units, officials said.
It also represents the beginning of a massive Army restructuring effort to deal with a smaller military force by 1995 and the greater likelihood of fighting sudden, fast-paced regional conflicts rather than a prolonged war in Europe against the Soviet Union.
"There's no question, we're taking the roundout [reserve] brigades out of the contingency forces," said one of the few Army officers familiar with the planning. Guard and reserve combat troops will find themselves relegated to a secondary role as "early reinforcements," said the officer, who declined to be named.
The brigades affected are the 155th Armored Brigade of the Mississippi Army National Guard, which has been part of the regular Army's 1st Cavalry Division since 1983, and the 48th Infantry Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard, assigned to the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized).
These combat reserve units are supposed to augment or "round out" the Army divisions, each of which has only two active-duty brigades instead of the usual three.
The units were activated in November but were never shipped out to the gulf, mainly because of glaring deficiencies in training and leadership.
The problems with the Georgia unit were so severe that 10 percent of the brigade's 150 officers, including the brigade commander, were sacked as their desert training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., stretched from a planned 41 days to more than two months. The brigade spent more time there than any other visiting unit since the training center opened in 1981.
A third problem-plagued unit, the 256th Infantry Brigade of the Louisiana Army National Guard, which is part of the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), never went overseas but has not been touched yet by Army planners. In early February, 67 soldiers demanded "time off" and went AWOL while their unit was training at Fort Hood, Texas, prompting the brigade commander to call them "crybabies."
Of the 11 active-duty Army divisions based in the continental United States, all but three require the addition of mobilized reserve battalions or brigades to bring them to full strength. Under the Total Force policy, adopted in 1973, this reliance on part-time soldiers has been a popular strategy for stretching shrinking defense budgets while maintaining a combat-ready fighting force.
The 15,000 troops in the roundout brigades were only 7 percent of the 228,560 guard and reserve members called to active duty in the gulf war. Most provided such support as transportation, cargo handling and medical care.
Army planners are now looking to reduce the number of divisions needing "roundout" brigades to just three, with none of these divisions to be part of a new "contingency corps" that would be dispatched quickly to a crisis like the gulf war.
Although the Army expects to make a formal announcement soon on changes in its force structure, a senior commander at Fort Hood inadvertently revealed last month that steps to reduce the role of combat reservists were already under way.
Lt. Gen. Richard Graves, who commands the Army's III Corps, told a business luncheon that the Army's Tiger Brigade, a unit that helped the Marines crush the Iraqi army, would be reassigned to the 1st Calvary Division. The brigade had shipped out to the gulf late last summer as part of the division.
This unit, which was slated for deactivation with the 2nd Armored Division because of budget cuts, would give the 1st Cavalry a third permanent, active-duty brigade, effectively eliminating the need for the Mississippi National Guard "roundout" unit, Maj. Jesse Seigal, a III Corps spokesman, acknowledged Friday.
Senior commanders of the 24th Infantry Division, at Fort Stewart, HTC Ga., have approved a similar move that would add the 197th Infantry Brigade, an active-duty unit that fought with the 24th Infantry in the gulf war, to their division. Efforts to get approval up the chain of command are "in the works," said a knowledgeable Army officer at the Pentagon.
As for the Mississippi and Georgia guard units, each would remain attached to its respective division, but the likelihood that either would be called into action in a major conflict is slim.
"The roundouts would fall in during a long conflict to reinforce troops in Europe," the Army officer said, noting that the possibility of a war against the Soviets was remote.
"They would not be in a quick-response situation," he said of the units.
Senior Army officials appear to have taken their cues from Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who hinted March 13 that changes in current policy might be in order. In an interview with reporters, Mr. Cheney suggested that "we ought to use the guard combat units as sort of the second or third echelon that you call up and deploy over a longer period of time.
"It may well be that one of the lessons we'll learn out of this [gulf war] is that the roundout brigade concept for early-deploying forces is not a good one," he said.
Stephen M. Duncan, assistant defense secretary for reserve affairs, told a Senate hearing on April 9 that the roundout concept "is sound -- especially for reserve units that do not have to deploy during the very earliest stages of a contingency operation.
"As a general proposition, the time limitations of weekend drills are simply too great to permit the amount of combined arms training for large maneuver units . . . that would be required to permit them to serve as crisis response forces," Mr. Duncan said.
He and other officials said the Mississippi combat reserve unit had high readiness ratings before it was activated, partly because the troops were "very familiar" with the tank range at Camp Shelby, Miss., where they were tested.
There, troops knew where all the pop-up targets were located and could score an impressive number of direct hits.
At Fort Hood, where the brigade was first tested in advance of possible deployment to the gulf, it did poorly, several officials said.
"Then they got out to NTC [the National Training Center] where there's movable targets, a larger range and mixed threats -- aircraft, rockets, you name it -- and they couldn't hit the targets," one official said.
Both the Mississippi and the Georgia guard brigades were rated in a classified evaluation shortly after the gulf war ended, meaning that they could undertake "the bulk of their wartime mission" -- but not the full mission, said Maj. Gen. Donald Burdick, director of the Army National Guard.
The Louisiana unit got the lowest rating, C-5, which its commander, Brig. Gen. Gary J. Whipple, attributed to a lack of experience with the M1A1 tank and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.