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WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is mulling another major boost in the size of the Army, at least on a temporary basis to help shorten tour lengths and ease the strain on the force.

On Wednesday Pentagon Press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates is discussing adding up to 30,000 more soldiers to the Army in 2010 to help meet staffing needs during the increased fight in Afghanistan and lingering mission in Iraq.

“I think he obviously has a great deal of concern about the stress that the Army has been under for a number of years now,” Morrell said “And he understands that his prescription that they reduce their dependence upon stop-loss to keep units intact when they deploy has created additional stress on the force.”

On Thursday, at a town hall meeting with troops at Fort Drum in New York, Gates said he expects to make a decision “in the next week” on whether to push for the extra soldiers.

On Tuesday Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., offered an amendment to next year’s defense authorization bill allowing the increase in end strength, calling it “a critical first step toward making sure that our military leaders can execute their strategy.”

House leaders have already included similar language for 2011 and 2012 in their version of the military budget bill. Army officials estimate as many as 30,000 of their current 547,000 may be in non-deployable positions, including those in training slots and troops recovering from their combat wounds.

A boost to nearly 580,000 active-duty soldiers would raise the Army’s end strength to a level not seen since 1992, when the Army was in the midst of a decade-long drawdown as Congress trimmed military spending.

In 1999 the service hit a recent low of under 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.

The Army actually hit its new end strength goal of 547,000 earlier this year, two years ahead of schedule. And unlike just a few years ago, when heavy fighting in Iraq hurt recruiting efforts, the number of new enlistees and soldiers opting for another tour has been ahead of schedule for much of the fiscal year.

Morrell emphasized that no decision has been made yet on whether to add the extra troops. Congress still must give final approval to the amendment and the budget bill.

Earlier this year Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr. said any such increase in the number of active-duty soldiers would need to be just a temporary increase, to help the service through the next few years. Personnel and benefits costs beyond that could hurt other Army budget priorities.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, a 30,000-soldier increase could add between $2 billion and $4 billion a year in costs.


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