• NEW: Defense secretary extends Army tours to 15 months
• NEW: Rep. Ike Skelton says extension will tax already strained troops
• Change applies to active-duty soldiers already in Iraq; it’s effective now
• Money used to entice troops to stay in military; some could get $150,000 bonuses
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Tours of duty for members of the U.S. Army will be extended from 12 months to 15 months effective immediately, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Wednesday.
"What we’re trying to do here is provide some long-term predictability to our soldiers and their families," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.
In exchange for the extension, Gates said the service will be able to give all units a year at home between deployments.
He denied the order was a sign that the Army has passed its breaking point under the stresses of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying the service has met or passed its recruiting and retention goals.
But he added that the military has been "stretched" by the conflicts.
And he blasted Tuesday’s leak of that proposal to the media, saying the Defense Department hoped to give the troops 48 hours’ advance notice of the decision.
The order covers the active-duty Army, which provides most of the estimated 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. National Guard and reserve troops would continue to spend a year in the war zone, Gates said.
About 15,000 more troops are expected to be deployed to Iraq in coming months to support the efforts to pacify Baghdad and other provinces.
The Marines, whose members serve seven months deployed, are unaffected by Wednesday’s order, said Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Troops now held beyond 12 months are paid an additional $1,000 a month. That policy will continue, Gates said.
Also, the Army has struggled to entice soldiers and Marines not to leave the service. The campaign to retain soldiers has reached $1 billion, with bonuses soaring nearly sixfold since 2003. (Read full story)
Army: Money crunch ahead
Last week, the Army warned program managers to prepare for a possible money crunch if President Bush vetoes an emergency war spending bill that calls for the eventual withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.
But analysts say Pentagon staff will be the first to face cuts. In a memo sent Monday, the Army Budget Office warned that a resolution to the standoff between Bush and Congress over the bill "is doubtful before the end of April."
It said managers needed to plan to stretch current funds into June, with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan exempt from the restrictions. (Read full story)
News of the budget crunch and the announcement of deployment extensions sparked outrage from Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
A well-respected Democratic voice on military issues in the House and a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, Skelton said the extensions "will have a chilling effect on recruiting, retention and readiness."
In a prepared statement released by his office, he characterized the extensions as "an additional burden to an already overstretched Army."Quote