Stretched US pilots may quit military
By Eric Rosenberg in Washington
January 10, 2004
Another US helicopter has crashed in Iraq, killing all nine soldiers on board and fuelling Pentagon fears that some of the military's most experienced pilots might quit after prolonged deployments to dangerous hot spots like Afghanistan and Iraq.
With the first of 118,000 US troops leaving for Iraq in a rotation aimed at replacing war-weary soldiers, analysts said the US military is overstretched by deployments in Iraq and elsewhere. They said this was forcing the Pentagon to keep thousands of soldiers and reservists in uniform long beyond their release dates, with potentially dangerous effects on morale.
"There is no question that the force is stretched too thin," said David Segal, director of the Centre for Research on Military Organisation at the University of Maryland. "We have stopped treating the reserves as a force in reserve. Our volunteer army is closer to being broken today than ever before in its 30-year history."
At least 14 US helicopters have crashed in Iraq since the war supposedly ended last May, claiming some 58 lives and underscoring the vulnerability of an essential cog in US military operations there.
On Thursday a Black Hawk crashed near Falluja in western Iraq. Officials declined to specify what caused the crash, but witnesses said rocket fire brought it down.
General E. J. Sinclair, commander of the US Army Aviation Centre at Fort Rucker, Alabama, said last week that continuous foreign assignments were "going to cause some problems".
He illustrated his concern by describing the plight of a senior US Army aviator who watched from afar while his newborn daughter grew into her toddler years. The army major has seen his daughter for 12 days in the past two years.
"I can't bring him back in my right mind and tell him after a month or two he has to go to Korea for a year-long assignment without his family. But that's what's happening," General Sinclair said.
Exacerbating the problem is a sharp increase in deployment times. The army announced last northern summer that US troops in Iraq would be there for one year, up from the typical six-month deployment.
Retention concerns are especially acute in the service's aviation branch because of the extra investment in time and money required to train pilots to fly helicopters such as the Apache, Black Hawk and Chinook.
The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and US commanders concede that the 1.4 million members of the US armed forces, which have been cut by about a third since the end of the Cold War, are stretched by deployments in South Korea and Europe as well as post-2001 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But Mr Rumsfeld says he has seen no evidence so far in a large continuing Pentagon study to support calls from analysts and some army officials to boost the service's strength by 20,000 to 500,000 troops.
Signs of strain are appearing, however. Mr Segal said the National Guard ended last year at about 10,000 below its recruitment target and he predicted there would be more severe recruitment and retention problems next year.
To stem losses, the army has started offering re-enlistment bonuses of up to $US10,000 ($12,900) to soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.
At the same time, it is preventing soldiers who are rotating home from retiring or handing in their notice for up to 90 days after returning to their home bases.