Attrition: The U.S. Army Revives The RIF


November 22, 2009:  Another sign that the things are settling down in the U.S. Army. This comes in the form of the return of a pre-September 11, 2001 personnel policy, letting troops out early. For example, the new rule allows a unit that is about to go overseas, to give troops with less than 180 days left in the service, the option of getting out of their enlistment contract up to 90 days early. Soldiers who take this option will have "Reduction In Force" (RIF) listed as "reason for separation" on their discharge papers. Historically, a RIF was a process whereby the army discharged a large number of troops at the end of a war, or period of emergency. The last RIF was at the end of the Cold War.

The reason behind this new RIF is that it's not worth the effort and expense to send a soldier to a new unit, where he will remain for just a few months. During the Cold War, this was also done when a soldier returned from a tour of duty overseas, and only had a few months of service left. Until 2004, soldiers were released a little early if they were due to get out in late December (the holiday season). Another reason for reviving the old policy is the elimination (for now) of Stop Loss (American soldiers involuntarily kept on active duty).

Starting in January, the use of Stop Loss, will cease. Meanwhile, earlier this year, soldiers subject to Stop Loss began receiving an additional $500 a month for as long as they were on Stop Loss status (usually no more than a year). A new law will also provide the $500 a month bonus retroactively all Stop Lossed soldiers. The army wanted to continue paying the $500 a month bonus as a way to get troops to volunteer for Stop Loss status, but Congress refused to go along.

In any event, the U.S. Department of Defense planned to halt using "Stop Loss" in two years (except for a few emergency cases) anyway. Over the last year, about 12,000 soldiers have been affected by Stop Loss (kept on active service despite scheduled retirement or discharge) at any given time. Many officers and NCOs believe that the end of Stop Loss will cause more casualties, and make units less effective in combat. That's because key people will no longer be going into combat with their units.

Use of Stop Loss peaked in 2005, at 15,758 troops a month. The lowest number held was in May, 2007 (8,540), but climbed back to 12,000 a month because of the demands of the build up for the Surge Offensive in Iraq that year. On average, over the last eight years, about 6,500 soldiers were on stop loss status at any given time.

There are still 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and 60,000 in Afghanistan. But more troops are coming home from Iraq, and not being replaced. However, many soldiers that previously would have gone to Iraq, and recently returned, are now headed to Afghanistan. Thus the continued use of Stop Loss, at least until the end of this year.

Stop Loss is mainly used to maintain the combat ability of units headed overseas. Because of retirements, schools, leave, expired enlistments and so on, military units today can have over twenty percent of their troops away, or about to leave, at any one time. To keep units headed overseas up to strength, the U.S. Army began using the "Stop Loss" rule seven years ago. This meant that troops could not retire, and if they were at the end of their enlistment, they had to stay in the service, until their tour of duty in Iraq was completed. The main reason for this policy was to save lives. The majority of people stop lossed were NCOs (usually squad and team leaders about to be discharged, or senior ones about to retire) and technicians. The NCOs were critical in combat, the glue that held units together.    Replacing these leaders just before a unit ships out to a combat zone, leaves troops with unfamiliar replacement leaders, which leads to mistakes, and dead soldiers.

Stop Loss also halted scheduled transfers from a unit so affected. The Stop Loss has been applied separately to active duty and reserve units, causing some morale problem in Iraq when reserve units were under Stop Loss and active duty units were not. So far, some 100,000 active duty and reserve troops have been hit with a Stop Loss order, and served another few months, or as much as a year.

During World War II, troops were in "for the duration" (of the war.) Historically, that was the exception, not the rule in the American military. During the American Revolution and American Civil War, troops served fixed enlistments and left when their six months, two years or whatever were up. This had a very negative effect on their units, which suffered by losing experienced troops.

The government was wary of issuing a "for the duration" order for the War On Terror because of the potential political backlash, and the difficulty of attracting recruits for an all-volunteer force. During the Korean and Vietnam war there was a limit of 13 months service in the combat zone and enlistments were rarely extended involuntarily. Iraq was another one of those wars where the government felt it could get away for a little "for the duration lite", which is what Stop Loss is.

Stop Loss has been part of the enlistment contract since the 1970s. Basically, troops take on an eight year obligation when they enlist, even if the specified period of active service is only four years. Normally, the rest of the obligation is served in the IRR (Individual Ready Reserve), which usually requires no contact with the military. Thus, at the end of three or four years, troops receive a document saying they have been "released from active service." Four or five years later, they get their discharge. It's just another example of why you should always read the fine print.





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