Features

June 1, 2006  

Combat fatigue

Vehicle wear and tear in Iraq jeopardizes U.S. Army readiness

In wartime, seemingly small things can have large meanings. So it was with an Army helicopter recently returned to the U.S. from Iraq for refurbishing. As Pamela Hess of UPI reported, the helicopter already had been cleaned and stripped before it was shipped back to the States. Nonetheless, when technicians took it apart, more than 230 pounds of sand spilled out of the cockpit.

That battle-worn helicopter could be a metaphor for the fate of Army equipment in Iraq as the protracted counterinsurgency campaign there enters its fourth year. Only 15 percent to 20 percent of the service’s equipment is in-theater at any given time, but it takes a beating when it is. According to research conducted by the Rand Corp., a year of service in Iraq causes as much wear and tear to equipment as five years of peacetime training.

The problem is made worse by the fact that so much of the Army’s equipment was old before the Iraq operation began. For example, the Army’s Humvees average 14 years of age, and were only expected to last for 15 years. So a year of carrying added armor in the heat and dust of Iraq takes a heavy toll. The vehicles can be restored to a like-new state through a process called recapitalization, but that costs $52,000 per vehicle and the Army owns 120,000 Humvees.

Similarly, the service’s Abrams main battle tanks — which have long since passed the midway point in their 20-year service life — are operating at more than six times their projected peacetime tempo in Iraq, and often in circumstances that accelerate wear, such as traveling on paved roads rather than soft ground. Even when the treads and transmission of the rugged Abrams hold up, more fragile items like sensors and communications items may fail.

None of the combat systems deployed to Iraq has escaped such stresses. Helicopters operate at two to five times normal rates. Armored vehicles such as the Bradley operate at six times normal rates. Trucks are used at 10 times the normal rate. When high operational tempos are combined with elemental forces, enemy attacks and the need to carry added armor, the cumulative impact on the equipment is profound. One in eight trucks sent to Iraq is expected to end up “washed out” — too damaged to repair — and the rest will require intensive maintenance if they are to remain in working order.

READINESS AT A PRICE

Despite the many stresses at work in Iraq, the Army has done a good job of preserving and protecting deployed equipment. Mission-capable rates for ground vehicles exceed 90 percent, and mission-capable rates for helicopters approach 80 percent. Virtually every U.S. vehicle in the country that did not arrive already equipped with armor now carries it, and in many cases the armor has been strengthened to provide greater protection. The Army has established a comprehensive program for maintaining combat systems in-theater, and rotating them back to the U.S. when heavy repairs are required.

The fact that the service is able to maintain its diverse and aging inventory of equipment in such a high state of readiness while waging a multifront war is testament to the diligence and expertise of the Army Materiel Command. That it is successfully transforming itself into a modular, networked force at the same time verges on the miraculous. Nonetheless, there are long-term problems associated with the impact of operations in Iraq on Army equipment that must be faced.

First, restoration and replacement of worn-out equipment cannot be accomplished quickly after U.S. forces depart the country. It will take years, and the service can barely begin refurbishing some items until troops are gone. For instance, “stay-behind” equipment such as up-armored vehicles that remain in Iraq for use by follow-on forces rather than returning home with rotating units will only be restored when they are no longer needed in the war zone. The same is true for much of the “prepositioned” equipment — equipment forward-deployed on ships and foreign bases rather than being organic to combat units — that was sent to Iraq when the war began. Full restoration of the equipment inventory thus will require elevated funding levels well into the next decade.

Second, operations in Iraq have provided the Army with insights about counterinsurgency warfare that must be incorporated into the recovery process. It is not enough simply to restore battle-worn combat systems to their prewar state, because much of the equipment lacked features useful in fighting irregular forces. With America’s enemies undoubtedly drawing their own lessons from Iraq, it is essential that equipment be recapitalized or replaced to a standard reflecting the experience of that conflict.

Third, readiness in Iraq has been bought in part by degrading the capabilities of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve. Depleted inventories of reserve equipment must be rebuilt, not only because of the central role reserve forces have come to play in overseas conflicts, but also because of their growing responsibilities for homeland defense. Both the foreign and the domestic components of reserve missions have grown since Sept. 11, 2001, and Army investment plans must reflect that fact.

RESET TAKES TIME

The Army refers to its equipment recovery initiatives as “reset.” There are at least four types of activity included in reset: sustainment, restoration to standard, recapitalization and replacement. Sustainment is simple maintenance and repairs, whereas restoration to standard requires more intensive treatment that may have to be conducted in depots. Recapitalization involves stripping a system to its original frame and then rebuilding it to a like-new state (zero hours/zero miles). Replacement means buying new equipment, either because systems have been destroyed by enemy attacks or because they are worn out to a point where repair isn’t economical.

In practice, the major categories of reset break down into more specialized actions. For instance, some recapitalized equipment is rebuilt to original configuration, while other equipment is upgraded to reflect lessons learned or the availability of new technology. The time and skills required to restore equipment within a category can vary, depending on how degraded the equipment is and what standard of future performance the service seeks. Most of the Army’s capital equipment will eventually pass through every stage of reset, from repair to restoration to recapitalization to replacement. But operations in Iraq have accelerated the life cycle of deployed equipment, increasing support costs.

Reset expenditures have grown in every year since the Iraq campaign began — from $1.2 billion in 2003 to $3.7 billion in 2004, $6.5 billion in 2005 and about $9 billion in 2006. The latter figure will support repair and overhaul of 85 helicopters, 700 tanks, 1,200 armored infantry vehicles (Bradley’s and M113s) and 9,000 Humvees. This money is provided as part of emergency supplemental appropriations outside the Army budget, which has raised concerns that funding may dry up before reset is complete. If it does, the Army will exit Iraq in a diminished state, forced to choose between near-term recovery of aging systems and investment in future capabilities.

LESSONS LEARNED

The Army did not expect to wage a protracted counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, but the experience has yielded valuable lessons about how to approach development of future tactics, training and technology. Many of the technology lessons can be applied through the reset process, because overhauls and repairs provide an opportunity to install new features. Among the most pressing lessons concerning equipment needs, five stand out.

First, the Army’s combat systems were designed for a world in which front lines were well-defined and enemies wore uniforms — in other words, a world that doesn’t resemble the irregular warfare of Iraq. In order to cope with the more fluid and confusing setting of counterinsurgency operations, soldiers and systems will require better protective gear. The service has improvised a number of near-term fixes, but long-term improvements are not fully thought through. For instance, the service is years from deploying laser countermeasures on its helicopters that can counter heat-seeking missiles, even though the Air Force began doing so years ago.

Second, brigade combat teams and smaller units need more control over reconnaissance assets such as unmanned aerial vehicles. Having to wait in line for reconnaissance from higher echelons, other services or national agencies doesn’t work well when operations are fast-paced and unpredictable. Steps should be taken in the near term to equip smaller maneuver units with better organic equipment for collecting imagery, monitoring enemy electronic signals and enhancing situational awareness.

Third, the Army’s communications equipment is antiquated and vulnerable, as red-team leaders at the National Training Center have warned for years. The service needs to move expeditiously to field resilient “communications on the move” to maneuver forces, presumably utilizing the same War fighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) that will provide the information backbone for Future Combat Systems. There is no compelling need to wait for the complete Future Combat Systems technology package to be fielded — sometime in the next decade — when key communications technologies have been demonstrated viable.

Fourth, the Army needs better tools for rapidly intercepting, analyzing and jamming enemy electronic signals, including equipment that can quickly correlate the diverse signals associated with enemy attacks. The service monitors more than 80,000 frequencies continuously in Baghdad, and has identified recurrent patterns in the transmissions of enemy fighters. But because of deficiencies in the software code of fielded systems, soldiers are forced to write their own programs to generate timely, useful information. A near-term fix to this problem is desperately needed.

Finally, heavy armored vehicles turn out to be much more useful in urban battles with irregular forces than Army planners anticipated. From the battle of Baghdad to Fallujah, the Abrams tank and Bradley infantry fighting vehicle have proven themselves indispensable — a point repeatedly made in after-action reports. The Army has responded by expanding the program to recapitalize and upgrade aging armored vehicles with items such as a second-generation forward-looking infrared system. That effort must be kept on track, because although the service needs vehicles that are more readily deployable, there’s not much point in getting to a fight fast without the protection or firepower needed to prevail.

RESERVE READINESS

Many equipment requirements coming from Iraq converge with future goals the Army was pursuing. For example, the service has a comprehensive plan for recapitalizing or replacing the four types of rotorcraft in its fleet, including buying a new armed reconnaissance helicopter and extending the service life of the workhorse CH-47 cargo helicopter. As long as these plans are adequately funded, there isn’t much else aviation modernization will require over the next decade besides self-protection and communications upgrades noted above. However, there is an area where the goals of Army recovery are not well-defined, and that is with regard to the reserves.

The Army National Guard and the Army Reserve began the Iraq war with less-capable equipment than the active force and have lost ground as the occupation progressed. In the case of the National Guard, nondeploying forces have transferred more than 100,000 items to deploying forces, while deploying forces in turn have left behind more than 60,000 major items when they departed Iraq so the equipment could be used by follow-on forces. Much of this stay-behind equipment will wear out in-theater and never find its way back to the units from which it was drawn.

The drawdown of National Guard equipment in the U.S. to support the war effort is so extensive that it raises doubts about preparedness for homeland defense. For example, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2005 that nondeployed Guard units in the U.S. had virtually no night-vision goggles or chemical-agent detection equipment on hand. Obviously, there are urgent reasons for transferring equipment to units deploying overseas and the demand for equipment by deploying reserve units has risen as their portion of the war-fighting burden has grown (reserve personnel made up 22 percent of the U.S. force in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, 30 percent in 2004 and 36 percent in 2005). But the Army hasn’t fully spelled out how it plans to restore the Reserve’s depleted equipment inventory.

During the Cold War, there was an underlying logic to using a tiered-readiness model for equipping the Army that favored active-duty units. Reserve forces were not expected to play a central role in overseas conflicts and homeland defense was an afterthought. Today, though, the reserves are critical to the success of the long war against terrorists, and their role in homeland defense is a higher priority. So the old model for equipping the force doesn’t reflect current national needs. As the Army implements reset into the next decade and assimilates the lessons of Iraq, it needs to give more attention to equipping the Guard and Reserve with cutting-edge, capable equipment.

LAWRENCE KORB is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. CAROLINE WADHAMS is a senior national-security policy analyst at the center. LOREN THOMPSON is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute. Their study, “Army Equipment After Iraq,” was published in April and is available from the center’s Web site.

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