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Military scrambles to meet repair demands

As the Pentagon comes to terms with equipment shortages caused by prolonged fighting in Iraq, it has prepared an emergency spending plan totaling nearly $100 billion — as much as $30 billion more than expected.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In muddy gravel lots, along weedy railroad tracks and in grassy fields, the flotsam of war is washing up at a sprawling Army-run repair post: five- and 10-ton trucks, road graders, river boats, forklifts, coils of tank track, piles of road wheels and Humvees by the score, doors pocked with shrapnel scars, windows riddled with bullet holes or frosted white by explosive heat, their fenders gashed by rocket-propelled grenades, their crews' names still etched on the windshields.

When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was confronted by a soldier in Kuwait recently about why troops in Iraq had to scrounge for parts, he might have pointed to the Red River Army Depot on the outskirts of Texarkana for the answer. Here, in unadorned open-air factories, bustling hives of workers struggle through budget limits and a burgeoning repair load to keep the troops equipped.

Growing repair bill
Twenty-one months after U.S. forces entered Iraq, the Defense Department is only now coming to terms with the equipment shortages caused by the prolonged fighting there. The Pentagon has prepared an unprecedented emergency spending plan totaling nearly $100 billion — as much as $30 billion more than expected as recently as October — say senior defense officials and congressional budget aides. About $14 billion of that would go to repairing, replacing and upgrading an increasingly frayed arsenal.

"There's no lack of work and only more on the horizon," sighed Dennis L. Lewis, chief of the business office at the 29-square-mile depot. "There's no end in sight."

To critics of the Pentagon leadership, the ongoing scramble at the Army's five repair depots speaks volumes about poor war planning, and about Rumsfeld's stubborn determination to transform the military rather than focus on the more prosaic task of rebuilding what the defense chief last week called "the Army you have ... not the Army you might want."

"We need to modernize; we need to do things in better ways," retired Gen. Wayne Downing, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "But the world has changed, and you can't make the world into what you want it to be. You've got to accept the world for what it is."

Expectations give way to reality
The full implications and costs of the original plan are starting to come into focus at such places as Red River. Expectations for a short, easy war — a conflict from which the Army's supply systems could have easily rebounded — have given way to the reality of hundreds of battered Humvees cast aside here for want of money and time to repair them.

Rumsfeld's intended transformation of the Army into a quick, mobile force, meanwhile, has started to rub against the daily demands of patching enough tanks and trucks together to keep fighting the war. Instead of concentrating on building the faster-traveling "modular" Army of the future, workers and planners here must also focus on maintaining the lumbering Bradley Fighting Vehicles and behemoth tractor-trailers needed to sustain the current force.

As the conflict continues, the country's battered war materiel is making its way back for repair — and so is the bill. The emergency spending request that President Bush will send to Congress early next year will include billions of dollars to "reset the force," in military parlance. The Army alone has requested $9.2 billion to repair, replace and upgrade equipment, congressional and Pentagon officials said. The Marine Corps may seek as much as $5 billion more.

Those figures dwarf the "reset" requests in two previous war supplemental spending bills. In fiscal 2004, which ended Sept. 30, the military spent $2.2 billion to repair tanks, trucks and other equipment for land forces, said Amy Belasco, a defense budget specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

"This year, they're finally starting to realize they can't get by with some minimal amount of money," said Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "My biggest criticism is that the administration is not standing up and clearly saying, 'Listen, this is what this is going to cost.' "

"The higher the number, the better," agreed Kevin Roper, Republican staff chief of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, "because at some point soon, this is going to catch up to the nation."

'There are going to be a lot more bills'
Earlier requests for force reset funding were so small because the military had planned for a shorter war, said Col. Curtis McCoy, the Army budget officer in charge of planning for equipment repair and replacement. By now, the Army expected to have fewer than 20,000 troops in Iraq, not the 138,000 currently there, he said. The repair depots and their private-sector partners could thus have stretched the reset over several years, readying some equipment for future conflict while the Army waited for weapons systems that are being developed. Older equipment damaged in the battlefield would have been cast aside, instead of adding to the repair backlog, as the more modern systems of the transformed force came on line.

"If [the war] had held the course as we thought it would have, we'd have a division left there, and this equipment would have all been home awhile ago," McCoy said. "That didn't happen, and there are going to be a lot more bills."

Instead, it will be a scramble just to keep the troops in the field equipped. Depots are confronting four to five times more equipment wear than the Army anticipated, McCoy said. Meanwhile, the Army is also pressing forward with a huge reorganization to break down vast Army divisions into smaller modular brigades of 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers each. The Army hopes to create as many as 15 of those brigades by 2007, and they will need to be equipped by the depots and defense contractors as well.

Between the demands of "modularity" and resetting the existing force, the Army chief of staff has asked the Defense Department for 41,600 radios and other communication devices, 33,500 M-4 carbine rifles, 25,000 machine guns, 3,700 tactical wheeled vehicle replacements, 1,160 rebuilt tracked vehicles, 373,000 sets of body armor, and 12,500 add-on armor plates, mainly for still-unprotected Humvees, said Gen. Paul J. Kern, commander of Army Materiel Command.

Equipment taxed
The war's length and intensity has clearly left the Army winded. M1 Abrams tanks, which normally accumulate 809 miles a year, are averaging 3,600 in Iraq, said Modell Plummer, director of sustainment for the Army's logistical staff. Bradley Fighting Vehicles, designed to run 872 miles a year, are also traveling 3,600, as they escort water and food convoys across the country. Humvees, accustomed to doing 2,640 miles a year, are seeing 7,400.

In fiscal 2003, the Army's five maintenance depots logged 11 million labor hours and spent $700 million, said Gary Motsek, deputy director of support operations at Army Materiel Command. Last year, with $1.2 billion, they managed 16 million labor hours. In fiscal 2005, they expect to put in more than 20 million — not only on equipment from Iraq, but also on preparing for seven new Army brigades to be established by 2006.

To critics, it is too much.

Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Northern Virginia think tank, said Rumsfeld will not face reality.

"He knows what the situation is, but he has been unready to change his plans," Thompson said. Army officials, speaking for the Defense Department, agree their task is challenging. Repairing equipment while outfitting new Army brigades means "digging tanks out of depot yards that haven't been moved in five years," Motsek said.

"There is no doubt it would be easier not to have to worry about modularity," he said.

But, he added, with the depots running full tilt and the needs of a lighter, swifter Army never more apparent, the Army "has a window of opportunity" it is mobilizing to exploit.

Round-the-clock repairs
At the Anniston, Ala., depot, small-arms workshops operate round-the-clock, seven days a week, repairing machine guns, Motsek said. In 2003, Anniston repaired more than 13,000 weapons. Last year, it was 60,000, Plummer said. Red River, staffed by civilian Defense Department employees, will surge this year from its typical 2.4 million man-hours of work to more than 4 million, Lewis said. Last week, the depot set up 10-hour swing shifts on four assembly lines to rebuild five- and 10-ton Humvees and trucks, and to upgrade Humvees to handle the stress of additional armor plating.

Last winter, the military's biggest shortage was the tanklike tracks of Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Red River went to three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, stripping frayed rubber off battered track, buffing the metal, then applying a new rubber sheath.

This year, the bottleneck is Humvees and small arms, Motsek said. Defense department depots and private contractors rushed last year to install armor plating on the vehicles, only to find the added weight quickly wore down the chassis, springs and shock absorbers, and strained the 6.2-liter engine.

In July, the depot began an urgent project to refit the vehicles with heavier springs, suspensions and rear shocks, and 6.5-liter engines.

The depot has pushed to eight or nine Humvee upgrades a day, said David Hawkins, deputy director of operations, but must get to 14 within days to meet the Army's demand for 3,600 in the coming year.

And other work keeps coming. David May, division chief for heavy tactical vehicles, recalled receiving an e-mail at 4:51 p.m. Dec. 2, with an urgent request: six more 10-ton HMMT trucks as soon as possible for the 82nd Airborne, which just received orders to ship out to Iraq. An additional 224 damaged Humvees recently arrived at Red River from the 4th Infantry Division.

Depot officials insist they can keep pace, but that does not mean they do not worry the work will outstrip their capacity. "Everybody has that fear," Hawkins said.

But for now, the real bottleneck may lie in Washington. Those 4th Infantry Humvees will sit until the Army has the money.

"We'd like to produce them all today so the soldiers have their equipment," Lewis said. "But . . . the reality is, there isn't the funding."