Anyone who follows coverage of U.S. military operations in Iraq can see that the Army’s personnel system is experiencing considerable stress. Less apparent to many observers is what the war is doing to the Army’s inventory of combat systems. 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 is 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.
According to the Association of the United States Army, during fiscal 2005 the Army deployed 23% of its trucks, 15% of its combat vehicles and 15% of its 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 of time — over two years in the case of some Chinook helicopters — and may not received 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 higher than typically prevails in peacetime. The operating tempo, or “optempo,” 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 utilized at up to ten 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, who seldom misses an opportunity to shoot an RPG at whatever U.S. vehicle is going by.
Considering all the insults visited on Army equipment in Iraq, it is impressive that the mission-capable rates of ground vehicles such as Abrams and the humvee have been maintained at 90% in the war zone, and the mission-capable rate for helicopters is a respectable 77%. But this high state of readiness is being bought at a price. The equipment in Iraq is being rundown rapidly, while reserve equipment in the U.S. is being transferred to deploying units so extensively that non-deploying National Guard units have virtually no night-vision goggles, up-armored humvees or chemical-agent detection equipment. The Bush Administration has done a good job of funding near-term sustainment requirements, but it needs to offer a more complete explanation of how it plans to replace the prematurely aged fleet of combat systems that eventually will depart Iraq.
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