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WASHINGTON — Pentagon planners on Tuesday downplayed congressional concerns over the continued need for augmentee troops to fill gaps in combat units overseas, assuring lawmakers that the individuals are trained and equipped for their new jobs.

U.S. Joint Forces Command officials estimate they’ll have about 17,000 individual augmentee and in-lieu-of positions to fill in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal 2008, about the same number currently in those countries.

The number has risen steadily since 2004, but service officials told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday they hope to reduce that number in coming years.

“Over time, we would like to get back to those roles in our core competencies within the Air Force and get out of those tasks that are not,” said Brig. Gen. Marke Gibson, deputy chief of staff for operations at Air Force Headquarters. “We have a plan over the next 12 months to pull us out of those noncore competencies, but we still stand ready to contribute.”

Still, each of the service representatives said they are confident their troops are being properly trained and equipped before deployment, and the moves haven’t hurt morale among their units back home or in combat zones.

Most of the augmentees and in-lieu-of forces are pulled from their normal assignments and deployed to perform that same work with downrange units, according to Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, director of joint training for U.S. Joint Forces Command. Only about 6 percent of those reassigned troops are placed in completely new fields of work, he said.

But lawmakers expressed concern that the typical preparation training for the augmentees — a few weeks of specialized training related to their work plus a week of combat zone refresher courses — is not enough to prepare many of the reassigned troops.

“If I was selected as an individual augmentee with the type of training you described, I’d be very uncomfortable with going into Iraq,” Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, said. “I think we’re shortchanging troops in the training they need by switching them from one position to another.”

Other lawmakers directed concerns about how the new troops mesh with existing units, noting the importance of cohesion in combat situations.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said he has concerns that Navy augmentees working with Army units often wear different uniforms than their new peers, making them symbolically different than those troops and potentially a target in a combat situation.

Defense officials said combat commanders can order the reassigned troops to change uniforms to that of their assigned units if they believe it creates danger or tension for the servicemembers.

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