United States ground forces entered Iraq and Afghanistan poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of protracted dismounted operations. While “equipping the man” has long been a maxim for land forces, the balance between fighting from mounted platforms to dismounted actions has radically shifted to the latter type of operation. Harsh terrain and irregular threats have all placed a premium on dismounted operations and the equipment necessary for this kind of fight. Once U.S. forces were engaged in protracted, intensive counterinsurgency and stability operations, they discovered an urgent need for an array of equipment.
Articulating urgent operational requirements and identifying readily available solutions were only two of the problems confronting the U.S. Army in the early years of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. The next challenge was finding appropriate solutions in a timely manner. This necessitated relying on the commercial industrial base. Yet a third challenge was funding. It was necessary to remedy more than a decade of underfunding. In addition, resolving urgent operational requirements did not lend itself to the traditional budget process. As a consequence, the majority of funds to meet these new demands came from supplemental and overseas contingency operations funding.
One of the key lessons to emerge from the experience of properly equipping warfighters in a time of war is the need for institutionalized processes and stable funding to ensure a timely and appropriate response. The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force provides a mechanism for responding to urgent operational needs. The Rapid Fielding Initiative provides for the appropriate outfitting of units heading for combat.
As the current conflicts wind down and deficit reduction pressures grow, the Pentagon and the nation will face the problem of providing adequate support for operational clothing and individual equipment. The clothing and individual equipment industrial base is poised on a razor’s edge. For example, there are only a handful of U.S. companies that can produce and finish advanced fabrics. To ensure the robustness of the soldier equipment industrial base, a smart collaborative industrial policy is needed that will promote continued availability of innovation and surge capacity in the area of soldier clothing and individual equipment.
The Rapid Equipping Force and Rapid Fielding Initiative should be programs of record to ensure that the best equipment is available should units deploy. Appropriate budgets must be set and funds made available for operational units to purchase mission specific operational equipment through rapid acquisition contractual vehicles such as the Defense Logistics Agency’s Tailored Logistics Support contract or General Services Administration contracts.