WASHINGTON — Lawmakers this week praised a new plan to add about 22,000 soldiers to the Army in coming months, calling the move a necessary step to keep the force from becoming overburdened and overwhelmed.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said in a statement that Army units are "stretched thin after almost eight years of continuous combat operations" and said he’s concerned "that the demands we place upon our service members will wear them out."
He said adding thousands more troops — the second major expansion of the Army’s end strength in the last two years — will help prevent that.
Committee ranking member Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., called the move "necessary to ensure that deploying units are properly manned.
"Our troops, and their families, have carried the heavy burden of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "By increasing the size of the Army, the strain of multiple deployments should be lessened over time."
The increase will raise the Army’s active-duty end strength to nearly 570,000 soldiers, the highest mark in 17 years. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that the Army would maintain that level for at least the next three years.
The new troops will be used to ensure existing units already are properly staffed, and "not to create new combat formations," Gates said.
Army officials said they expect to add many of the new soldiers before October, but no decisions have been made yet on how those slots will be filled or what specialties will be needed.
Recruiting and retention efforts for the year are ahead of goals, and could provide several thousand of those new soldiers.
Gates estimated that the Pentagon will need about $100 million this fiscal year to pay for the move and another $1 billion in fiscal 2010, but he will not be asking Congress to add additional funds to next year’s defense budget already being debated on Capitol Hill.
Instead, he said, the money will be shifted from other programs, and will likely cause more "tough choices" in equipment and training funds.
"We will take that money from some place that we think isn’t as high a priority as more soldiers and taking some additional steps to relieve the stress on the force," he said. "This is a very high priority."
Lawmakers also promised to help the Army figure out how to pay for the new personnel in the already tight budget forecast.
Army officials estimate as many as 30,000 of their current 547,000 may be in nondeployable positions, including those in training slots and troops recovering from their combat wounds. But Gates said the 22,000 increase should provide relief for the Army, and that stress on the force represents only a temporary problem as the military draws down in Iraq and ramps up operations in Afghanistan.
In 1999, the service hit a recent low when it employed fewer than 480,000 active-duty troops, and in recent years lawmakers have pushed to build the force back up as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have strained both the active-duty and reserve components.