FORT MONROE, Va. -- The US Army, struggling to cope with stepped-up operations and extended deployments of its soldiers to Iraq, has shortened the duration of several of its bedrock training courses so that troops can return to fighting units on the front lines more quickly, according to senior training officials.
One training course that is considered the "first step" in educating newly minted sergeants -- the noncommissioned officers considered the backbone of Army units -- has been cut in half to 15 days. Meanwhile, an intensive program designed to prepare young officers for advanced leadership has been compressed from eight months to less than five months so that the Army can fill positions in constant demand from commanders in the Middle East.
In a series of interviews in recent weeks, Army training officials expressed confidence that soldiers are able to master the skills they need to perform their jobs, and stressed that their units are gaining invaluable, real-time experience in both wars. But they also acknowledged that it is becoming increasingly difficult to prepare them for all the missions they are assigned, such as tank crews and artillery battalions that are participating in patrols and counterinsurgency operations.
"We are doing everything we can without jeopardizing the quality of the training to make it more efficient and compress it," Colonel Joe Gallagher, chief of plans for the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, said in an interview earlier this month. "The whole intent is to get the soldier into the unit where he can be used faster. Time will tell if something is missing."
Gallagher is among a team of officers at the Civil War-era post at Fort Monroe who are engaged in a day-to-day struggle to keep an Army of volunteers that has been at war longer than World War II trained and ready to respond to the unpredictable.
The training command, which operates more than two dozen schools and training centers around the country and overseas, estimates it will train and educate 511,000 soldiers this year. To accomplish this complex task, Gallagher and his team are constantly updating a detailed matrix of unit deployment schedules, lessons learned from the battlefield, and staffing levels so that the Army can place soldiers in the right classrooms and training bases, -- at the right time -- during the limited window between deployments.
The Army has two major types of training: individual training to teach soldiers for their particular specialty, such as infantry, engineering, or military police; and collective training, in which units hone battlefield tactics in a series of combat-related field exercises. In recent years the Army has overhauled its field training regimen to better prepare soldiers for the guerilla and urban warfare they will face in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Units preparing to deploy overseas receive a heavy dose of "live-fire" combat weapons training and spend hours sharpening critical skills -- how to conduct patrols, clear dwellings of possible insurgents, and defend convoys from roadside bombs. All soldiers, meanwhile, receive enhanced instruction in cultural issues to help them better interact with local inhabitants in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, soldiers have dramatically less time to spend in the classroom.
The Army's goal has been to keep its front-line units home for at least two years for every year spent overseas to give them time with their families and enough time to rest, repair damaged equipment, conduct field training, and attend a series of increasingly advanced technical schools. However, to sustain the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq -- including the "surge" security plan -- the Army can keep most fighting units home for only a year before sending them back to the war zone.
President Bush's decision last spring to quell widespread violence in Iraq by deploying 30,000 additional troops -- followed by the extension of all Army combat tours from 12 months to 15 months -- will mean some units have less than a year at home, and in the classroom, between deployments.
Soldiers face a "time-restricted environment," said Colonel James Markley, the training command's director of training development.
As a result, the duration of the Warrior Leader Course, which the Army says is intended to teach sergeants to "lead from the front," has been cut in half from 30 days, and two follow-up courses for noncommissioned officers have also been drastically shortened.
The Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course, which assesses leadership and technical skills, used to last up to 15 weeks, depending on a soldier's area of expertise; now it often lasts eight weeks, according to Training and Doctrine Command. Likewise for the Advanced Noncommissioned Officer Course, which prepares sergeants first class and staff sergeants to become senior noncommissioned officers.
Newly promoted captains now take a Captains Career Course, designed to prepare them to be company commanders or battalion or brigade staff officers, for a little less than five months, lopping three months from the normal eight-month curriculum.
"You go through and you prioritize what is most important," said Gallagher.
To help compensate for less time in the classroom, the Army has established a growing number of mobile training teams. These small groups of instructors, relying on computers and other advancements, bring some training courses to soldiers in the field.
The Army is also increasing its reliance on "distance learning" and other computer-based education tools so that soldiers can earn some certifications without having to travel to a specific training site. And many training courses are now held more often to accommodate deployment schedules.
"We have done that in basic training, advanced individual training, basic officer leadership . . . and we are starting to do it in the Captains Career Course," Gallagher said. "You don't make the family or soldier any happier if you bring him home and you send him off to school by himself for 6 to 8 to 12 weeks."
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.