The most relentless enemy of U.S. Army combat equipment in the new millennium hasn’t been the Mahdi Army or the Taliban, it has been dust. Insurgent violence waxes and wanes, but the dust is constant. It clogs radiators, contaminates fuel, and shorts out electrical connections. Every Army maintenance crew repairing equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan has a favorite story about tearing down vehicles and finding a hundred pounds of fine sand that has worked its way into the innermost recesses of seemingly sealed systems. Dust may be the biggest reason why Army equipment in war zones wears out four times faster than equipment left at home — an inescapable consequence of harsh terrain, extreme weather, and high operational tempos.
It’s usually an easy call to figure out what to do with vehicles that take an IED hit. You junk them. But what to do with all the other combat-stressed vehicles in the deployed fleet is a harder call, because most of them are not ready for the scrap heap. Some of them will need to be replaced because they are too far gone to be economically fixed, some will need to be remanufactured back to a pristine state, some will need depot-level repairs, and some will only need field-level maintenance. The goal of the Army’s reset program is to make such determinations and then restore vehicles to a high state of readiness as soon as possible. This typically costs over half a billion dollars per year for every deployed combat brigade, so it’s a big part of the service’s logistics budget.
After nearly nine years of continuous warfare, the Army Sustainment Command, Life Cycle Management Command, and other logistics organizations have reset down to a science. They probably could do it more cheaply, but when soldiers are taking fire on a daily basis, saving money isn’t your top goal. The top goal is to keep them alive by assuring they are equipped with the safest, most survivable equipment. And the Army has done that in America’s current conflicts better than in any previous war. It’s an impressive effort that integrates myriad skills provided by public-sector workers and contractors at scores of locations, both at home and abroad.
What worries service leaders is whether reset will be funded at an adequate level of effort once the Army’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down. Under current timetables the service will be largely departed from Iraq in two years, and out of Afghanistan not long after that. Because our political system is not very good on long-term memory or lessons learned, there is a possibility that once casualties decline, reset budgets will be slashed. That would increase the likelihood of soldiers dying in subsequent conflicts by undercutting the readiness and capabilities of the existing fleet at a time when many Army insiders are beginning to doubt next-generation systems will reach the force anytime soon.
One planning issue the Army will need to think through is how to reconcile its reset program with competing industrial activities such as modernization. For instance, service leaders have suggested it might cost over $100,000 to “recapitalize” (fully restore) a Humvee light truck. Does it really make sense to spend money that way when a new Humvee in the latest configuration can be bought for only a little more money? And is there any way public depots and private manufacturers can work more closely together on reset so the service doesn’t in effect have to pay for two parallel industrial bases — one that manufactures and the other that repairs? The latter issue could become urgent if programs like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle slip away in the budget cuts that must be implemented to reduce federal deficits. Reset might then become the only way to preserve some parts of the industrial base.
Reset must go forward, and it must unfold within the legal framework dictated by Congress. But there may be ways of spending less money while maintaining all the industrial skills the Army needs for the future and assuring that our soldiers continue to have the best equipment in the world.
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