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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Army Reserve is borrowing a page from the Air Force’s book, developing a deployment plan based on the service’s Air Expeditionary Force, a senior Army leader said Tuesday.

Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, said he is working with Army leaders on a plan to apportion the Army Reserve into eight to 10 fully manned “Army Reserve Expeditionary Packages,” or AREPs, that will cycle through a predictable schedule of training and preparation, eligibility for deployment, and rest and reconstitution.

The goal is to develop a system in which reservists would be eligible to deploy or be deployed “every four to five years,” Helmly told Pentagon reporters.

The cycle would begin with “alert status 1,” in which a unit does three weeks of annual training, rather than the two weeks now required, Helmly said.

The next period would be “a six- to nine-month window in which your unit is subject to being called up, with as little as five days’ notice,” Helmly said.

The third portion of the cycle would be a period in which troops rest, bring their equipment back up to standard, attend various schools, or leave the service, Helmly said.

The Army Reserve plan will be similar to the Air Force’s AEFs, Helmly said.

The Air Force instituted AEFs in 1999 as a way to give theater commanders a flexible, easily deployed package of Air Force assets, while at the same time adding more predictability to the lives of airmen and their families.

There are 10 AEF wings, each with about 15,000 Air Force personnel. Rotation plans call for AEF wings to be activated on a 15-month cycle, which includes a 10-month training period, two months to prepare for deployment, and three months in which the force is actually eligible to deploy.

Helmly said he hopes to have the Army Reserve’s version of the AEF up and running “within two to three years.”

The new structure will provide “predictability” for reservists, as well as put them on notice that “the world has changed,” Helmly said.

“This is not a case of will you be mobilized, but when,” he said. “And we’re trying to put some predictability into it.”

And AEFs aren’t cure-alls, judging by the Air Force’s post-Sept. 11 experience with its plan: The AEF cycle broke down when Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom added to an unanticipated manning increase in Pacific Air Forces in response to tension with North Korea.

Helmly said he is aware that his decision to adopt the Air Force approach could have some risks.

“There are no knowns,” Helmly said. “We’re treading new, very virgin territory here.”

Retention problems

Helmly also said that the Reserve must guard against a potential crisis in its ability to retain troops, saying serious problems are being “masked” because reservists are barred from leaving the military while their units are mobilized in Iraq.

In a recent memo, Helmly said, he told his subordinates that he was “really tired of going to see our reserve soldiers [and finding] they’re short such simple things as goggles. It’s about damn time you listen to your lawyers less and your conscience more. That will probably get me in trouble. But I told them, I want this stuff fixed.”

Reservists in Iraq have long complained about having to spend a year there with inadequate equipment, including a lack of body armor.

Most reservists went to Iraq on yearlong mobilizations, with a belief that they would be required to spend only six months in the country. But they were told in September that they would have to spend 12 months in Iraq, pushing the total length of many reservists’ mobilizations to 16 months or longer.

Analysts inside and outside the military say these long overseas mobilization could drive reservists out of the military in droves once they begin returning from Iraq over the next several months.

Helmly said plans such as the AREPs are aimed in part at treating soldiers better. He said the reserve force bureaucracy had bungled the mobilization for the war in Iraq, and gave them a “pipe dream” instead of honest information about how long they might have to remain there.

“This is the first extended-duration war our nation has fought with an all-volunteer force,” said Helmly. “We must be sensitive to that.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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