WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday that he will soon decide whether to order a temporary expansion of the U.S. Army to cope with ongoing strains posed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates told Army soldiers at Fort Drum in upstate New York that a larger Army could help increase the amount of time that individual soldiers can spend at home between deployments overseas.
"One of the things we're thinking about to help make sure that happens is whether to provide for a temporary increase in the end strength of the Army," Gates said at a town hall meeting with soldiers.
"Frankly, I expect to be making a decision on that within the next week," he added.
A plan backed by Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, would add about 30,000 troops to active duty.
The Army has just recently completed an expansion to 547,000 members.
"We are very mindful of the stress on the force and particularly the stress on the soldiers and their families," Gates told his audience from the Army's 10th Mountain Division, which has seen repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. Army soldiers currently receive 12 months of "dwell time" at home after each 12-month deployment. But Army officials want to extend dwell time to two years.
Gates said the Army may be able to move to 15 to 18 months of dwell time by mid-2010 when the Pentagon would withdraw an additional five or six combat brigades from Iraq.
The United States has 128,000 troops in Iraq but expects to reduce the number to between 35,000 and 50,000 troops by August 2010.
The drawdown from Iraq coincides with a dramatic increase in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon currently plans to have 68,000 troops deployed by the end of 2009 -- more than double the 32,000 forces deployed there last December.
But that might change. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army General Stanley McChrystal, is in the midst of a 60-day review of the American operation that could result in additional troop requests.
"I think there will not be a significant increase in troop levels in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000, at least probably through the end of the year. There may be some increase but not a lot," Gates said.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Eric Beech)