WASHINGTON -- Gambling that tens of thousands of war-weary soldiers and their families will tolerate months more of combat duty, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered yesterday that soldiers assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan will serve there for 15 months rather than the usual 12-month tours.
Gates cast the decision, which came after weeks of internal struggles in the Pentagon, as "a difficult but necessary interim step" and "a matter of prudent management."
But he acknowledged that the extensions are necessary to avoid having the war come to an abrupt halt for lack of troops.
"This approach," he told reporters at a hastily called Pentagon briefing, "upholds our commitment to decide when to begin any drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq solely based on conditions on the ground."
The sudden change in policy affects only active-duty soldiers. National Guard and Reserve troops will continue to deploy for 12 months, the Pentagon said. Marines are sent on seven-month combat tours with six months at home between deployments.
As with previous extensions, troops will be paid an additional $1,000 per month for each month beyond a year they spend in combat.
The deepening concern among senior Army leaders has been that repeated and lengthy combat tours will cause soldiers and their families to simply call it quits.
Yesterday's news was received stoically by troops and the families they have left behind.
"I am not that surprised," said Lauren Rothlisberger, who heard the news after her husband, Lt. Paul Rothlisberger, left Monday for Iraq with the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Fort Lewis, Wash.
"It's hard to comprehend another three months, and as a wife you get emotional," she said. Their daughter, Kaitlyn Grace, was born Feb. 2. "It is hard on families and this is our first one, but we will be OK. We will get through it," she said.
With the demand for troops rising in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon planners have struggled for months to assemble combat brigades fully manned and equipped to meet each new 12-month rotation. To fulfill President Bush's promise to deploy only fully combat-ready forces, the Pentagon has had to seize gear from units just returning from the fight, transferring body armor, trucks, night vision goggles and radios to units headed out.
And increasingly, units that are left behind have been pushed to find the soldiers and equipment, and complete their training, in time to deploy again. Three years ago, most combat brigades enjoyed 18 months to two years at home before deploying on 12-month rotations. Now, most units barely get 12 months at home between deployments -- too short, Army leaders have said, to allow soldiers to reunite with their families and get refresher training.
By lengthening deployments to 15 months, Gates said, the Army will be able to guarantee that once the troops return home, they will get at least 12 months before they have to go again.
"Our forces are stretched -- there's no question about that," Gates said. "What we're trying to do here is provide some long-term predictability" to soldiers and their families.
The stretch-out of deployments will enable the Pentagon to maintain peak troops levels in Iraq for about a year. At present there are about 145,000 troops in Iraq. When the escalation of an additional 28,000 combat and support troops is completed in June, there will be more than 170,000 troops in Iraq.
Those numbers "are based on the requirements today," Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at yesterday's briefing. "That does not mean that something could not happen tomorrow" that would change the requirement, he said.
The tightening manpower squeeze has prompted the Pentagon to borrow personnel from the Navy and Air Force to serve as infantrymen in Iraq. Currently about 6,000 airmen are serving as soldiers in the war zone, according to Gen. Ronald Keys, commander of the U.S. Air Combat Command.
With the manpower shortages, a growing population of wounded soldiers and the accumulation of broken equipment at military repair plants, the deterioration of the Army has alarmed veteran soldiers, many of whom fought in Vietnam and stayed on to rebuild a military shattered in the 1970s by broken equipment, sinking morale and rising crime and drug abuse in the barracks.
"Any private can tell you this army will be forced to withdraw in two years -- it doesn't have the troops," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, a Vietnam veteran who commanded the Army War College before retiring. "The Army is in extremis right now. The fact that we still have an effective force in Iraq is a bloody miracle."
But despite widespread predictions that the Army would break under the stress, it has been able to recruit the numbers of young Americans it says it needs. Last month, the Army reported it had recruited 5,545 new soldiers, 101 percent of its goal. It re-enlisted 33,157 soldiers, 107 percent of its goal, the Army said.
The Army pays handsome bonuses for enlisting and re-enlisting that can reach $40,000 for some recruits with specialized language skills, for example, and twice that much for senior enlisted soldiers. The Army has asked for $1.5 billion to pay bonuses next year, according to budget documents.
"Frankly, I don't think this will have a great effect on recruiting," David Segal, a senior military sociologist at the University of Maryland, said of the extensions. "For an 18- to 20-year-old man or woman, the difference between deploying 12 and 15 months overseas probably isn't significant."
But Segal said he thinks the Army has been "badly damaged" by the stress of the war because it has been forced to accept "a few more people with felony records and a few more people with the lowest mental aptitude, and that sets a standard that will be hard to reverse. The marginal soldier of today will be over-represented among the marginal sergeants five years down the road."