Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
ANNISTON, Ala. — Field upon field of more than 1,000 battered M1 tanks, howitzers and other armored vehicles sit amid weeds here at the 15,000-acre Anniston Army Depot — the idle, hulking formations symbolic of an Army that is wearing out faster than it is being rebuilt.
The Army and Marine Corps have sunk more than 40 percent of their ground combat equipment into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to government data. An estimated $17 billion-plus worth of military equipment is destroyed or worn out each year, blasted by bombs, ground down by desert sand and used up to nine times the rate in times of peace. The gear is piling up at depots such as Anniston, waiting to be repaired.
The depletion of major equipment such as tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and especially helicopters and armored Humvees has left many military units in the United States without adequate training gear, officials say. Partly as a result of the shortages, many U.S. units are rated “unready” to deploy, officials say, raising alarm in Congress and concern among military leaders at a time when Iraq strategy is under review by the White House and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, is lobbying hard for more money to repair what he calls the “holes” in his force, saying current war funding is inadequate to make the Army “well.” Asked in a congressional hearing this past summer whether he was comfortable with the readiness levels of non-deployed Army units, Schoomaker replied: “No.”
Lt. Col. Mike Johnson, a senior Army planner, said: “Before, if a unit was less than C-1,” or fully ready, “someone would get fired.” Now, he said, that is accepted as combat-zone rotations are sapping all units of gear and manpower. “It’s a cost of continuous operations. You can’t be ready all the time,” he said.
Across the military, scarce equipment is being shifted from unit to unit for training. For example, a brigade of 3,800 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division that will deploy to Iraq next month has been passing around a single training set of 44 Humvees, none of which has the added armor of the Humvees they will drive in Iraq.
The military’s ground forces are only beginning the vast and costly job of replacing, repairing and upgrading combat equipment — work that will cost an estimated $17 billion to $19 billion annually for several more years, regardless of any shift in Iraq strategy. The Army alone has 280,000 major pieces of equipment in combat zones that will eventually have to be fixed or replaced. Before the war, the Army spent $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year on wear and tear.
At Anniston, the sprawling lots of tanks and other armored vehicles are just the start of a huge backlog in broken-down gear.
“There’s stuff, stuff everywhere,” Joan Gustafson, a depot official, said as she wheeled her brown Chevrolet van through a landscape of rolling hills lined with armadas of mobile guns.
“There’s another field of M1s,” she said, motioning toward a swath of M1A1 Abrams tanks next to the winding road. “We’re just waiting for someone to tell us what to do with them.”
The Army’s five depots carry out the highest level of maintenance for Army gear ranging from rifles and other small arms to tanks, helicopters and missile systems. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Army has left behind hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment in Iraq and has relied heavily on field maintenance facilities in Kuwait.
But as the war has continued, Army leaders have recognized that they cannot afford to wait for a drawdown of troops before they begin overhauling equipment — some of it 20 years old — that is being used at extraordinary rates. Helicopters are flying two or three times their planned usage rates. Tank crews are driving more than 4,000 miles a year — five times the normal rate. Truck fleets that convoy supplies down Iraq’s bomb-laden roads are running at six times the planned mileage, according to Army data.
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