( Reuters ) - The U.S. Army aims to cut the length of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan this summer, its top general said on Tuesday, as commanders seek to reduce severe war strains on the force.
Gen. George Casey said the Army hopes to move from 15-month to 12-month deployments once the U.S. military completes a planned drawdown to 15 combat brigades in Iraq in July.
Casey said shorter tours should be possible even if Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, recommends a pause in drawdowns, as is widely expected, after the current series of planned withdrawals is complete.
"If Gen. Petraeus is able to execute the announced plan of getting to 15 brigades by July, it would be our goal at that point to return to 12 months," Casey, the Army chief of staff, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services.
"We believe it will still be possible, even with a pause, to go from ... 15 months to 12 months," Casey said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the switch from year-long to 15-month tours last April as the United States poured extra troops into Iraq to curb rampant violence.
The United States now has about 158,000 troops in Iraq and should have about 140,000 there in July after the planned drawdowns are complete, the Pentagon has said. There also are 28,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Casey has said repeatedly the Army is "out of balance." Fighting the two wars simultaneously with frequent, repeated and long deployments, has placed great strain on troops, their families and military equipment, commanders say.
Army officials have acknowledged, however, that even a return to 12-month tours of duty will be only a first step in relieving the stress. Currently, soldiers have only 12 months back home before their next deployment.
Casey has said his long-term goal is to give soldiers three years at home for every one year deployed but he has acknowledged that is not realistic any time soon. He said he hopes to get to a ratio of 2-to-1 by around 2011.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the armed services committee, said the strain on the Army was subjecting the United States to an unacceptable degree of risk.
"These levels of deployment without adequate rest for the troops and repair and replacement of equipment simply cannot be sustained," said Levin, who like most Democrats favors a swifter and deeper withdrawal from Iraq.
"We must find a way to bring the Army back in balance."