Remarks by Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D
at the Center for American Progress,
Washington, DC, March 16, 2006
I'd like to speak for a few minutes today about the impact that the war in Iraq is having on the Army's arsenal of weapons and other warfighting equipment. The reason I am focusing on the Army is that it has borne most of the burden of prosecuting the military campaign in Iraq.
An Army basically consists of three things -- equipment, people, and ideas about how to use them.
Public debate about the U.S. presence in Iraq has focused mainly on the latter two elements -- the impact of the war on people, and the adequacy of our ideas for achieving military success.
Because our military equipment has generally performed well, you don't hear much about it unless there is a specific problem -- deficient body armor, vulnerable vehicles, and so on.
The Army and other services have a system for dealing with these specific deficiencies as they arise, and that system seems to be working better today than in past wars.
But behind the scenes there is a bigger, longer-term problem looming for which the solutions are tentative at best. That problem is the gradual wearing out of an arsenal that hasn't seen sustained renewal since the end of the Cold War.
The war in Iraq is being waged with weapons that were built during the Reagan years and upgraded during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Because the rate of repairs and replacements slowed markedly after the collapse of communism, today's arsenal is fairly old, and Iraq is accelerating the pace of the aging process.
For example, during his tenure as defense secretary, Dick Cheney terminated production of the Army's only heavy tank, its only heavy attack helicopter, and its principal infantry fighting vehicle.
Since no new programs materialized to take the place of these signature systems on the battlefield, the Army is prosecuting the war in Iraq with weapons that largely predate the information age.
It has worked hard to refurbish the oldest systems and upgrade them with new armor and electronics, but there's little question that the force is gradually wearing out.
OPERATING TEMPO AND CONDITIONS
You can easily see why if you consider conditions in Iraq.
First of all, the equipment is being operated much more intensively than in peacetime...
-- Six times the normal rate in the case of armored vehicles
-- Ten times the normal rate in the case of medium and heavy trucks
Second, the operating environment in Iraq is quite harsh -- extreme heat, frequent sandstorms, decrepit infrastructure.
And then there are the insurgents, who have settled on roadside bombs as their preferred method of impeding the progress of U.S. forces.
Aside from the direct toll that improvised explosive devices take on U.S. equipment, there is an indirect toll resulting from the need to load up vehicles with added armor they were not originally designed to carry.
When you combine these various stresses with the advanced age of many systems sent to Iraq, it's not hard to understand why a recent Army study found one year of service in Iraq wore out equipment as much as five years of peacetime service.
Despite such stresses, the Army has managed to maintain a high state of readiness for most of the equipment in the theater.
The mission-capable rate for armored vehicles and trucks is about 90%, while the availability of helicopters is in the 70-80% range.
This is accomplished through intensive battlefield maintenance backed up by periodic overhauls as forces rotate in and out of the war zone.
Unfortunately, there are some types of equipment such as up-armored vehicles left behind for follow-on forces that never get the full repair treatment. The Army estimates that many of these will eventually be lost to the force as they become too worn out to maintain.
RESETTING THE FORCE
For most of the equipment, though, the Army has put in place a tiered system of repair, restoration and replacement that is designed to keep its arsenal in a high state of readiness for the Iraq campaign and beyond.
The program is informally referred to as "reset," but it involves more than simply returning equipment to its prewar state.
Much of it will be modernized in the course of overhauls to introduce new communications links, new sensors, and enhanced protection.
For example, the Abrams tank that has proved so decisive in urban warfare is being upgraded with a second-generation, forward-looking infrared system that allows crews to target distant threats.
And virtually all of the service's ground vehicles will be equipped with a new wireless network called Blue Force Tracker that facilitates finding and communicating with friendly forces in the heat of battle.
Beyond these various technology insertions, the service is shifting to a modular combat organization focused on agile, self-sufficient brigades rather than larger, more cumbersome divisions.
The modular "brigade combat team" is supposed to enable flexible, networked operations that can respond faster to wartime problems and opportunities.
That all sounds fairly encouraging, but if you step back a few paces from the reset process, you realize that the Army is trying to achieve at least four different goals at the same time...
-- First, it is trying to keep an aging fleet of combat systems in a high state of readiness.
-- Second, it is trying to adapt that fleet to a type of warfare for which it was not originally designed.
-- Third, it is trying to selectively introduce new technologies into the fleet.
-- And fourth, it is trying to reorganize the fleet for the modular, networked operations of the future.
Accomplishing so many objectives simultaneously would be difficult even in peacetime; attempting them all in the midst of an ongoing military campaign is ambitious indeed.
And it's expensive.
The service requested $1.2 billion for reset in 2003, $3.7 billion in 2004, and $6.5 billion in 2005.
In the current fiscal year, it is seeking an additional $9 billion, and warning that expenditures of similar magnitude will be required for at least two years after it is extricated from Iraq if the force is to be fully restored to former levels of readiness.
Regrettably, past experience suggests that once the service starts reducing its presence in Iraq, political enthusiasm for sustaining the reset effort will wane rapidly.
Even if the political system does the right thing and keeps reset on track, there are a number of equipment concerns arising out of Iraq that are not adequately addressed in Army plans.
The most pressing is that the service has not thought through what the character of the Iraq conflict may mean for future force protection requirements.
Iraq has provided extremists around the world with a game plan for tying down U.S. forces, and that means the Army should expect to endure similar irregular-warfare campaigns in the future.
It therefore is essential to understand which force protection measures can negate the simple but lethal tactics that insurgents have employed, and incorporate those measures into future combat systems.
A second equipment concern arising out of Iraq is that intelligence-gathering assets seem ill-suited to the kind of unconventional adversaries the Army is facing.
Although most of the intelligence failures in the campaign are traceable to a lack of language skills and local sources, there are also important shortfalls in equipment.
For instance, brigades and smaller units need their own unmanned aerial vehicles so they can conduct reconnaissance of nearby areas.
And the software code for fusing multisource intelligence is so deficient that deployed units are writing their own software to get around barriers to integration.
A third equipment problem is that the Army's antiquated line-of-sight communications systems can't keep up with the timing and tactics of modern warfare.
Blue Force Tracker is a good first step toward providing better communications, but the Army needs to move faster to field networks such as WIN-T, which will provide continuous links to troops on the move.
A fourth equipment issue is the surprising versatility of heavy armor in conducting counter-insurgency operations and urban warfare.
Before the Iraq war, heavy tanks were considered sunset systems not worthy of major consideration in future war plans.
But pitched battles in places like Fallujah proved that the Army needs to keep upgrading its heavy armor, because there is no credible alternative that provides the combination of survivability and lethality found in a tank.
Finally, the Army's plans for equipping the force need to reflect the fact that the reserve component is a central player in both stability operations and homeland defense.
Not only have deploying reserve units arrived in theater with equipment inferior to active-duty units, but non-deploying units have been stripped of items needed for homeland defense to keep the campaign in Iraq supplied.
There are sound reasons why the National Guard and Army Reserve received inferior equipment in the past, but Army leaders need to ask themselves whether experiences since 9-11 call into question the validity of a tiered readiness model.
The bottom line on all the equipment issues arising out of Iraq is that the Army has done a good job of adapting old equipment to new missions, but it needs sustained funding to prepare for a future in which both its active and reserve components are likely to be in constant demand.