WASHINGTON — Combat troops should get 15 months home for every 12 months deployed by October, and 30 months dwell time by October 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Tuesday.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said the anticipated drawdown in Iraq and planned growth in Army and Marine Corps should allow commanders to give servicemembers longer dwell time.

"I think we’re on the right track, though the next few months will continue to be hard," he said.

Most Army units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have seen only a year home for every year deployed, and over the last two years, many soldiers have been deployed on 15-month tours. Gates said the last of those extended tours is scheduled to end in early summer.

By October 2010, Gates said, commanders plan to give troops 24 months at home between deployments, for retraining and resetting. By late 2011, when most U.S. ground forces are expected to be out of Iraq, that dwell time would grow to 30 months.

The longer dwell times come as U.S. plans to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan in coming months. Gates said two more brigade combat teams could be sent to that country by late spring and a third by the end of the summer.

The secretary called Afghanistan "our greatest military challenge right now" and reiterated President Obama’s focus on the Pakistan/Afghanistan region as the United States’ top military priority. That drew praise from most of the Democrats and the committee, along with questions of how quickly troops will be withdrawn from Iraq.

Committee members said they were also encouraged by Gates’ comments regarding more cooperation with the State Department and other nonmilitary agencies in rebuilding both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to the three brigade combat teams slated for deployment, military commanders have asked for a fourth to be sent to Afghanistan. That would nearly double the 31,000 U.S. troops already in country.

Gates said no decision will be made on that request until experts determine what logistics and infrastructure would be needed to support such a force. He also warned that both the military and new administration need to develop clearer goals in the region for the near future.

Afghanistan has one of the poorest economies in the world, Gates said, and no one should expect it to become a bustling democracy in the next few years.

"Our goal needs to be to make sure Afghanistan does not become a base for terrorists to launch attacks," he said. "If our goal is to create some Central Asian Valhalla, we will lose. Nobody has the time, the patience or the money to do that.

"There is an economy there to be developed … but we need to keep our objectives there realistic. Otherwise, it will be a failure."

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