War Stories

Hollow Force

Has Iraq stretched the U.S. military to its breaking point?

Why the Army can't keep its tanks rolling
Why the Army can’t keep its tanks rolling

With a festering insurgency claiming the lives of more than 120 soldiers just this month, the Pentagon is set to request up to 30,000 more troops for the occupation. Senior Army leaders also said this week they will ask Congress for more money to make ends meet in Iraq and rebuild their drained force. Asking for these things is one thing; getting them is another; deploying them still another. Even if the order were cut right now, fresh divisions of troops would take months to get to overseas, meaning today’s stretched force will have to put down the Iraqi revolt, restore security, and conduct the June 30 power handover without reinforcements. The U.S. military remains the most lethal fighting force ever fielded, but one year in Iraq has chewed it up, creating global shortages of manpower, equipment, and spare parts that are not easily relieved.

To a civilian, it may not make sense that a war involving 130,000 troops could strain the 1.4 million-strong U.S. military to its breaking point. Military officers often say that “amateurs study tactics—professionals study logistics.” The reason for this axiom is that even the simplest military task—like moving a unit from point A to point B—requires a Herculean logistical effort. Planes have to be scheduled; trains have to be contracted and loaded; ships must be diverted and filled with military equipment. Just consider what it takes to move a single tank company from Fort Stewart to Fallujah. Soldiers have to spend days inspecting and packing their vehicles before loading them onto trains that will take them to the port at Savannah, Ga. The trains will be met by more soldiers at dockside, who will work with longshoremen and contractors to put the tanks on a ship. Then the ship has to sail across to Kuwait, where it will be met by more troops and contractors. Only then can they roll north to Iraq. Moving one tank company costs a fortune and requires hundreds of people. Now imagine you want to move an entire unit like the 3rd Infantry Division, with hundreds of tanks and thousands of other vehicles. The size and complexity of the task is staggering. It may cost as much as $1 billion to send a division to Iraq. And it can’t be done quickly. Major bases in the United States have a finite “throughput” capacity, meaning that they can only squeeze so many pieces of equipment out the door on any given day.

Ordinarily, the military would short-circuit this logistical nightmare by flying troops overseas to meet up with equipment and weapons it has stashed around the world in “pre-positioned” stocks (“pre-po” for short). However, senior Army officials told the House Armed Services Committee last month that the pre-po stocks were tapped for the Iraq war. Nearly all the equipment in Southwest Asia and on the island of Diego Garcia has been issued, as well as pre-po equipment stashed in Europe—a total of 10,000 tanks, personnel carriers, trucks, and other vehicles. Only the Army’s equipment stock in Korea and the Marines’ stock in Guam remain untouched. There are no pre-po stocks near Iraq for the 3rd Infantry Division (or any other unit) to borrow from. All the equipment will have to be brought from the United States, vastly increasing the cost and difficulty of the operation.

The gutting of the pre-po stocks bodes ill for future military operations. As long as all the gear is being used in Iraq, it can’t be deployed anywhere else. Should the United States need to send troops quickly to another hot spot—say, a humanitarian crisis in Africa or flare-up in the Balkans—there are no pre-po stocks to draw on. That, in turn, will delay any U.S. response abroad, just as it will slow reinforcement of the forces in Iraq.

Army leaders told Congress that it would take years to restore the pre-po stocks. The Army and GAO agree that it will cost $1.7 billion to reconstitute the Army’s pre-po sets being used in Iraq, but only $700 million of that has been found so far. This expense was never built into any of the White House’s regular or supplemental funding requests for Iraq. Rebuilding these stocks, which are critical to the Army’s ability to deploy overseas in a hurry, will have to wait in line with billions of dollars in other unfunded requirements, which, according to the Washington Post, include $132 million for bolt-on vehicle armor; $879 million for combat helmets, silk-weight underwear, boots, and other clothing; $21.5 million for M249 squad automatic weapons; and $27 million for ammunition magazines, night sights, and ammo packs. Also unfunded: $956 million for repairing desert-damaged equipment and $102 million to replace equipment lost in combat.

Changes in the defense industry also undermine military readiness. Since the start of the war, the military has faced a shortage of critical spare parts—including Bradley fighting vehicle treads, helicopter rotor blades, Humvee tires, and other items without which the Army cannot fight. The Army’s demand for these items has skyrocketed since the war began last year, but the defense industry has struggled to keep up after trimming all of its excess manufacturing capacity during the consolidation wave of the last decade. Spare parts for the forces in Iraq have been diverted from units in the States, creating a cascade effect. Now the units on deck for Iraq have problems getting the parts they need to maintain their equipment since those parts have gone to Iraq. Should those units be tapped to deploy, the Army will need to find a way to procure enough spare parts—and critical items like Interceptor body armor—to ensure these units are ready for combat.

At first glance, sending National Guard units to Iraq might seem like a good way to relieve pressure on the regular Army, especially given the fact that soldiers in the 3rd Infantry Division and 101st Airborne Division have already seen combat in Iraq. Unfortunately, America’s military reserves have suffered from decades of neglect, and today they remain unable to deploy anywhere quickly. Even the National Guard’s “enhanced readiness” brigades require 90-120 days to prepare for an overseas deployment where they’ll see combat. In peacetime, these reserve units simply aren’t given the training days or dollars to keep themselves in fighting trim.

A December 2003 study by the Army War College concluded that the war in Iraq had stretched the force to near its “breaking point.” The cumulative effect of logistical problems, spare parts shortages, and unprepared reserves is that the Army will be significantly less ready to fight for the next several years. Should another threat appear on the horizon, these issues will make it exceedingly difficult for the Army to respond with anything close to the force it mustered to invade Iraq last year.

There is some irony in this. Heading into the 2000 election, then-candidate George W. Bush blasted the Clinton administration’s 1990s deployments to places like Bosnia and Kosovo, saying they depleted our military’s readiness. “Our military is low on parts, pay and morale. If called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, ‘Not ready for duty, sir,’ ” said then-Gov. Bush, referring to the readiness of the 10th Mountain and 3rd Infantry divisions after their respective deployments to the Balkans. Today, the same criticism is being leveled at the Bush administration, except that Iraq is having a much worse effect on military readiness than the Balkans deployments ever did.

The administration responds to this criticism by saying that Sept. 11 changed everything and that military force was necessary in Afghanistan and Iraq to respond to the new threat from terrorism. This riposte has merit, but it misses the essence of the new global security environment. Dangerous and unknown threats do exist, therefore the U.S. military must be ready to act on a moment’s notice in ways and places that can’t fully be predicted. By tying the military down in Iraq to the point where it can barely manage to reinforce itself, the Bush administration has hurt America’s ability to respond militarily in the post-Sept. 11 world.

It’s too late to back out of Iraq. The real issue today is how to beat the insurgency without eviscerating the American military to do it. If winning the war will take more troops, then we must send them. Reconciling the need to win in Iraq with the need to sustain military readiness will be hard. It probably means we need to increase the size of the active military and adjust the mixture of active and reserve forces to put more “nation-building” troops like military police and civil affairs personnel on active duty. The Pentagon also needs to adjust its 2005 budget, shifting money from futuristic procurement programs to current operations such as reconstituting the pre-po fleets. And America needs to invest more in its reserves so they’re ready to back up the active force when the military is stretched like it is today. Ultimately, we must win in Iraq. But we cannot afford to focus so single-mindedly on that mission that we neglect our ability to meet other military threats in the post-Sept. 11 world.