The Gazette (Colorado Springs) May 1, 2005
COSTS HIGH, OPTIONS FEW
By Tom Roeder
Commuting to war is not cheap.
It cost nearly $7 million to ship 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment vehicles from Fort Carson to Kuwait this year, and this is the third time the Army has run up a seven-digit tab to haul the unit’s tanks and trucks halfway around the world.
The military has spent $13.7 billion to ship troops, vehicles and supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan to support the first commuter war in U.S. history.
Unlike past conflicts, troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — and their equipment — come home on a one-year rotation. For the 5,200-soldier Fort Carson regiment, that has meant moving nearly 300 armored vehicles, 57 aircraft and about 900 trucks and Humvees halfway around the globe — three times.
The Army says the expensive system is necessary to ensure the rigs get repairs and the soldiers are adequately trained.
During the Vietnam War, troops came and went but the tanks and howitzers stayed in the jungle. During the Persian Gulf War and World War II, troops and equipment stayed overseas for the duration.
But it appears that without radical changes, today’s Army can’t avoid repeatedly moving thousands of troops, tanks and trucks.
And even the Pentagon’s harshest critics say the cost is probably justified.
“It sounds expensive as hell,” said Winslow Wheeler, a longtime defense spending critic with the Washington think tank Center for Defense Information. “But they probably had no choice.”
Even John Pike, executive di- rector of GlobalSecurity.org, a frequent critic of Pentagon spending, said, “I think in the real world it may be close to being unavoidable.”
The constant movement of about 100 freighters and thousands of railroad cars is driven by several factors, outside experts and the Army say.
After a year of heavy use in the desert climate, vehicles such as the Army’s 70-ton M1A2 tank transform from fierce fighting machines into repair nightmares. The sandfilled environment wears out drive trains and infiltrates electronics, requiring overhauls best accomplished at stateside posts.
Repairs in Iraq are difficult because bases there don’t have everything available back home. Tasks such as removing 25-ton turrets from 70-ton tanks require big tools that aren’t readily available in the field.
And much of the Army’s ability to overhaul its equipment rests with civilian employees who work at American bases and depots. Soldiers in combat are too busy with dayto-day repairs to complete major overhauls, the Army said. Instead, the overhaul work is done between deployments when troops have more time.
“Getting it all repaired is a monumental task,” said retired Army Gen. William Tuttle, considered the nation’s leading expert on military logistics.
Another factor driving the need to ship vehicles is that every Army unit is equipped differently.
The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, for example, would have a difficult time using gear from another unit.
“Although the Army is changing . . . units are not yet carbon copies of each other,” said Lt. Col. Jerry Healy, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.
If units were to use different equipment in Iraq than they trained on at U.S. bases, he said, it could extend deployments by weeks or months as soldiers learn to fight with unfamiliar gear.
And getting every unit a second set of equipment so one could be left in Iraq would be prohibitively expensive.
At $2 billion or more per brigade, providing duplicate tanks, trucks and cannons would cost more than $100 billion, about a quarter of the annual Pentagon budget.
Tuttle said the Army tried and failed with a cheaper method early in the war. The 3rd Infantry Division, from Fort Stewart, Ga., left its vehicles in Iraq for other units to use, and “the stuff was so beat up that units had a very difficult time with it.”
Stopping the shipping cycle to leave soldiers and their vehicles in Iraq for the duration of the war is another cost-saving option that’s been rejected.
“It wouldn’t work,” Tuttle said, noting that volunteer soldiers would be less likely to reenlist in an Army that requires longer stays in a war zone.
In more traditional wars, troops could periodically pull back from well-defined battle lines. The enemy’s guerrilla tactics in Iraq mean soldiers can never relax.
Rotating people through the war zone has been ruled out, too. That method was discredited in Vietnam because it interfered with teamwork and training.
Moving equipment to support more than 150,000 troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan is a delicate ballet, said Air Force Col. Angie Faulise of U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
“It’s an amazing feat of transportation and planning, for it starts a couple of years out,” she said.
First, commanders determine what units they’ll need in Afghanistan or Iraq. Then, even as some units fight, planning begins for the next rotation.
Unit commanders usually start working with planners a year before a deployment.
Transportation needs are calculated based on square footage rather than weight. Practically everything except the troops is sent by ships, which can haul more at a lower cost than airplanes.
The cargo generally leaves from bases on rail cars a month before troops depart and is routed to ports from Seattle to Philadelphia for loading on ships.
The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s gear went to ports on the Texas Gulf Coast.
About 75 percent of the shipping is handled by governmentowned freighters. The same ships then haul equipment from other units back to U.S. ports.
The biggest trick is making sure troops and equipment arrive in the war zone at the same time, Faulise said. “Just marrying up all of those moving parts is a definite challenge.”
On top of shipping troops and gear, Transportation Command also ensures that everything from bullets to fresh lettuce is in ample supply.
Still, the Army is moving to reduce the amount of equipment shipped back and forth to Iraq. Units are leaving some of the most heavily armored trucks and Humvees in Kuwait. But for the foreseeable future, most gear will be shipped.
Shipping gear saves money, Healy said.
“Rotating equipment spreads the high usage across a large set of equipment rather than risking the total wear-out of sets with high replacement costs,” he said.
That doesn’t mean experts aren’t looking for alternatives to waging a commuter war.
“I’m sure,” Faulise said, “that’s being debated at the war colleges around the country right now.”
© Copyright 2005, The Gazette, a division of Freedom Colorado Information