WASHINGTON -- Aiming to reduce the strain on active-duty troops, Defense Secretary William J. Perry has approved a plan to use reservists in many peacetime roles now performed by regular forces.
Recent military operations in Haiti, Rwanda, Cuba and the Persian Gulf have exposed cracks in the combat readiness of the United States' 1.6-million-member military.
With the armed forces shrinking and military commitments likely to remain high in the future, the Defense Department is scrambling to avoid a crisis.
Pentagon officials are proposing that many of the 1 million members of the National Guard and Reserves of the various armed services spend their annual training time performing real operations, including peacekeeping missions overseas, rather than drilling at home.
Proponents of the plan say the reservists would receive valuable experience while relieving overworked regular troops.
In January, for instance, the Army will deploy a battalion of 430 reservists and 110 active-duty soldiers to a multinational observer force in the Sinai for a six-month rotation. It will be the first time since the Army began sending troops to the Sinai in the early 1980s that it will send reservists.
Maj. Gen. Donald W. Shepperd, the head of the Air National Guard, said the guard was examining how to train its ground-based air controllers to serve aboard AWACS radar planes, which have experienced severe crew shortages. General Shepperd said in a telephone interview that the guard could also increase its missions in Europe and in Bosnia.
In perhaps the most ambitious plan, Reserve combat brigades NTC could be rotated a month at a time through overseas assignments like protecting Kuwait, replacing some of the active-duty combat troops now serving there.
"The question is can we make smarter use of the $10 billion we're going to spend on Reserve training every year anyway," said Deborah R. Lee, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. "We want to get more bang for our buck."
Many details of the Pentagon's plan still need to be worked out, but its outlines have won the blessing of Mr. Perry, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and several influential lawmakers.
The plan is the latest effort by the Clinton administration to integrate the United States' weekend warriors into the military mainstream.
With the United States determined to stand ready to fight two wars nearly at once, the Pentagon announced last year that it would rely more heavily on combat reservists to meet that strategy.
Ms. Lee and military commanders say an important benefit of the new plan would be to ease the strains on active-duty forces. Air Force personnel in Europe, for example, have served away from home from 150 to 180 days a year recently, far beyond the 120-day goal the Air Force has set.
These extended deployments threaten the morale and combat readiness of active forces, commanders say.
Some military experts believe that that the shooting down of two Army Blackhawk helicopters by two U.S. F-15 fighter jets over northern Iraq in April resulted at least in part from overworked AWACS radar plane air crews failing to alert the fighters that the helicopters were friendly.