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    Middle East
     Feb 7, 2007
How the US Army's being worn down in Iraq
By David Isenberg

Recently, the Washington Post reported that US President George W Bush's "surge" of troops to Iraq by 21,500 "would create major logistical hurdles for the US Army and Marine Corps". That's a nice way of putting it, like calling a tsunami a maritime disturbance or an earthquake a tectonic-plate adjustment.

The truth is that after nearly four years of fighting in Iraq, the US military is deeply stressed and worn out by its operations there. While most dispassionate observers are aware of this, it is not

something the Bush administration likes to talk about. Nevertheless, the truth is that from a US military perspective, Iraq is increasingly burdensome.

Consider the following facts. Last year senior Marine Corps officials admitted that if the war in Iraq ended tomorrow and marine units were shipped home, it would cost US$12.8 billion to re-equip them with vehicles and gear lost in combat and through wear and tear. That outlay would take up a significant portion of the corps's yearly budget, which in 2004 stood at nearly $17 billion.

Last July, Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Bush noting that up to two-thirds of the army's combat brigades were not ready for wartime missions, largely because they were hampered by equipment shortfalls.

Much of the equipment deployed in Iraq is beginning to wear out as a result of heavy use, harsh operating conditions, and the frequent attacks launched by insurgents. Furthermore, the quantity and quality of weapons in units away from the war zone are eroding as equipment is transferred to deploying units. The latter problem is particularly pronounced in the reserves, which already were functioning with a deficit of modern equipment when the war began.

Last February the US Army asked for $9 billion to "reset" its war-depleted stocks - most of it to replace and repair tanks, helicopters and vehicles. Just about five months later, army chief of staff General Peter Schoomaker said the army needed $17.1 billion in fiscal 2007 to "reset" or restore the service's equipment stocks.

Since the Iraq insurgency heated up in autumn of 2003, the US Army's combat losses include at least 20 M1 Abrams tanks, 50 Bradley fighting vehicles, 20 Stryker wheeled combat vehicles, 20 M113 armored personnel carriers, and 250 Humvees. The number of vehicles lost in battle comes to nearly 1,000 after adding in heavy and medium trucks and trailers, mine-clearing vehicles, and Fox wheeled reconnaissance vehicles. Nearly all these losses were caused by improvised explosive devices in Iraq.

The situation was so serious that the Office of the Secretary of Defense considered adding tens of billions of dollars to the army's base budget in the Pentagon's new six-year spending plan to address funding shortfalls that armed-service officials say could threaten the viability of US ground forces.

In fact, Schoomaker withheld a required 2008 budget plan from Pentagon leaders last August after protesting to then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the army could not maintain its current level of activity in Iraq plus its other global commitments without billions of dollars in additional funding.

That decision was believed to be unprecedented and signaled a widespread belief within the army that in the absence of significant troop withdrawals from Iraq, funding assumptions must be completely reworked.

Actually, it could be even worse. Reset costs have not been incorporated into the Pentagon's baseline budget, and many observers have predicted that it will take two years of supplemental appropriations after an end to operations in Iraq to reset the force fully. If these supplementals end once the US withdraws from Iraq, the military, and especially the army, will face a major budget crisis, because the costs of resetting the force will have to compete with other priorities within both the Pentagon and the rest of the federal government.

The army has deployed significant portions of its trucks, combat vehicles and helicopters in Iraq. Much of this equipment does not rotate out when troops do, either because the army is trying to minimize transportation costs or because it wants to retain key items such as up-armored vehicles in the war zone.

As a result, the equipment is exposed to continuous use for long periods - more than two years in the case of some Chinook helicopters - and may not receive scheduled maintenance in a timely fashion. The army conducted an analysis of how such stresses affect fielded equipment, and concluded that a single year of deployment in Iraq would cause as much wear and tear as five years of peacetime use.

That is hardly surprising, given the fact that much of the equipment in Iraq is being used at a rate several times what typically prevails in peacetime. The operating tempo of helicopters is twice as high in the war zone as elsewhere. Combat vehicles such as the Abrams tank and Bradley fighting vehicle operate at five or six times normal rates. And trucks are used at up to 10 times their peacetime rates (which helps explain why so many are washed out by the end of their time in Iraq).

But high utilization rates are only the beginning of the problem, because the conditions under which systems operate in Iraq are harsher than those encountered in peacetime training exercises. For example, Abrams tanks are designed to operate in open country, but in Iraq they often travel on paved roads, accelerating wear. Their mechanical and electronic systems are exposed to sand, wind, precipitation and vibration far in excess of what would be experienced in peacetime.

Maintenance is deferred, or carried out in sub-optimal circumstances. And then there is the enemy, which seldom misses an opportunity to shoot a rocket-propelled grenade at whatever US vehicle is going by.

Fixing and replacing army equipment alone could run from $60 billion to $100 billion, according to retired General Paul Kern, a senior consultant to the Cohen Group and the retired head of Army Materiel Command. The total cost for wear and tear on equipment is unclear because it is not known how long US troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan.

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues. The views expressed are his own.

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US military 'loses control' of key Iraqi province (Sep 7, '06)

In the US Army now (Jul 30, '05)

US military in a twilight zone (Jun 1, '05)


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