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WASHINGTON — The U.S. military could run out of eligible Reserve and National Guard forces as it fights the war on terrorism, according to a study published by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm.

According to the GAO, the military is facing “some critical shortages” in its reserve component, particularly in the Army, and won’t be able to sustain mission requirements for the projected three to five years, a period in which the Pentagon has said it expects forces to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“If DOD’s implementation of the partial mobilization authority restricts the cumulative time that reserve component forces can be mobilized, then it is possible that DOD will run out of forces,” the report states.

And while the Chief of Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, said he had not seen the report and couldn’t comment on it specifically, he agreed Thursday that the Army Reserve could not sustain mission requirements under current practices.

To help solve the issue, he’s working on a long-term plan that, if approved, would have the right mix of jobs within the reserve component compared to active force so that no reservist would deploy for more than 12 months every five years. He hopes it will be approved in the next six months.

As the Pentagon continues its efforts to “rebalance” the mix of Guard and Reserves with the active force, some solutions include turning over some jobs to the civilian sector, such as security at bases and ports, Helmly cited as an example. Releasing the reserve forces from such responsibilities would allow them to be deployable.

Current federal law limits the number and duration in which these citizen soldiers, as they sometimes are called, can involuntarily be activated, and at the rate in which the Pentagon is moving, it’s running out of eligible troops, reads a portion of the 99-page report, prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Under current law, under a partial mobilization order, they cannot be involuntarily activated for more than 24 cumulative months. The Pentagon is considering seeking a change to the law to limiting it to 24 consecutive instead of cumulative months, which would allow the military to call mobilize and demobilize Reserve and Guard forces indefinitely.

But that option likely will further demoralize a force already facing a possible mass exodus of troops leading to retention and recruitment woes in the next few years, the GAO study states.

And GAO reported that Army forces “may face the greatest levels of involuntary mobilizations over the next few years, all the reserve components have career fields that have been highly stressed.”

While the Army might face the most critical of shortages, the other services are not immune to criticism of poor management of their reserve forces, the report states.

The Marine Corps has mobilized 100 percent of both its enlisted law enforcement specialists and intelligence officers. The Navy stands at 60 percent law enforcement and 48 percent intelligence. The Air National Guard mobilized 64 percent of enlisted law enforcement specialists and 71 percent of its installation security personnel, and the Air Force Reserve mobilized 93 percent of its enlisted law enforcement personnel and 86 percent of installation security.

Comparing the involuntary call-up to the first Gulf War 14 years ago, the average mobilization for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91 was 156 days. By Dec. 31, 2003, the average mobilization for operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom was 319 days, double the length of mobilizations for Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the report states.

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