The strain on the Army from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has become so great that top officials are now privately saying the only long-term solution may be to make the overall size of the Army bigger, adding as many as 60,000 troops, ABC News has learned.
It's not a request or a recommendation yet, but senior Army officials have discussed this for weeks and are now in agreement that the Army could meet its worldwide obligations more easily by expanding the overall size of its force.
There are currently 501,000 troops with the level expected to reach 512,000 by the end of next year. To add an additional 60,000 is a costly proposition that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has consistently opposed.
In a sign of the strain on U.S. troops, a brigade from the Army's 1st cavalry division was ordered today to return to Iraq a month earlier than planned, while another Army unit, now fighting in the violent city of Ramadi, has been ordered to extend its year-long stay in Iraq by another six weeks.
Both are examples of the trend where troops are spending more time in Iraq and Afghanistan and less time at home.
In August, one soldier at Camp Victory in Iraq told ABC News he's missing out on his kids' childhoods.
"I've got a wife and four kids back home I miss terrible. I miss them very much. They're growing up without me," said Sgt. Major Norm Vasparrentak.
Concerns About Future Threats
The reason senior Army leaders want to go to a bigger Army is that they are worried about their ability to fight future threats. One official told ABC News, other than the troops now in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are only two to three combat brigades -- that's 7,000 to 10,000 troops -- who are fully trained and equipped to respond quickly to a crisis.
"If we keep forces in Iraq too long, we risk running into a situation where the force begins to break," said former U.S. Army officer Andrew Krepenevich.
Increasing the size of the Army would take time and money, so to deal with the strain in the short-run, officials are also considering another costly and unpopular idea -- using more National Guard troops in Iraq.
The strain has also spread to the equipment, with the Army now saying it will cost $17 billion a year to repair and replace equipment in Iraq. Right now, some soldiers in the U.S. don't have all the tanks, artillery and other equipment needed to train because when they return home, units deployed to Iraq leave their equipment behind in that country for their replacement units.
The military does this because it's more cost-efficient than shipping the equipment back and forth, and it speeds up the turnover time between units.
These challenges are about to hit the taxpayers hard. The Army is pushing for a big increase in its next budget of, perhaps, more than $20 billion a year.
ABC News' Luis Martinez contributed to this report.