Belt-tightening at bases in US starts to strain
While Fort Carson scrimps, Anniston Army Depot works through a backlog of repairs.
An Army long strained by the manpower demands of Iraq and Afghanistan is increasingly facing a new obstacle at home: The service is fast running out of money.Skip to next paragraph
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It is a story with a Dickensian twist – a tale of two bases that show how a force that received more than $100 billion for the current fiscal year doesn't have enough cash to mow the lawns or pay utility bills at installations nationwide.
The money is going to the war effort – to places like Anniston Army Depot in Alabama, where tanks chewed up by enemy mortars and desert sand are stripped down to the bolts and rebuilt before being sent back to Iraq.
Like many bases, Fort Carson in Colorado has helped pay the cost, closing two mess halls and skimping on staffing – even at a time when the base is growing.
The cuts are typical wartime belt-tightening. Yet they presage more difficult choices ahead, as the cost of waging America's wars of today throws into doubt not only the Army's readiness at home but also its preparations for the wars of tomorrow. With the annual cost of the Iraq war doubling since 2003 to about $100 billion, by most estimates, and with the Army needing $17.1 billion for repair and "reset" alone next year, "something has to go," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
Squeezing installations can achieve only so much, and the Army brass worries that the service's cherished program to modernize the force could be next. Already, House appropriators have approved a plan to cut the Future Combat System (FCS) by $325 million next year – in part to pay for the soaring cost of reset, ammunition, and fuel in Iraq.
While experts disagree on whether the primary money problem is the Iraq war or the Army's overambitious goals, they agree that the war's bulging budgets have added pressure – and congressional scrutiny – that might not have existed otherwise.
"The picture that emerges is that the Army simply can't make ends meet," says Dr. Thompson. "[FCS] doesn't deliver very much in the near term, and that's when all the Army's problems are."
Because of the escalating cost of the Iraq war, Army officials announced last week that they were banning all nonessential travel and cutting back on purchases not tied directly to the war. This mounting focus on the war – to the exclusion of virtually all else – is most obvious at the Army's installations, where the conflict in Iraq is not thousands of miles away but in every flip of the light switch and turn of the lug wrench.
Just a few miles up the road from Talladega Superspeedway, the mechanics, welders, and metalsmiths of Anniston Army Depot style themselves "the pit crew of America's war fighters," says Paul Harper, general manager of production operations.
In truth, they do more than change the tires and fill the gas tank. Depots are where the Army sends equipment when it needs an overhaul, and at Anniston the race to keep America's tanks and trucks running has lasted three years now.
The war in Iraq, in particular, has worn out the Army's arsenal. Damage from bombs and mortars is to be expected in any war. But that alone is not what keeps Anniston in an almost constant buzz – repairs going on night and day, two shifts, with only Sundays off.
First, there is the dust, and it is everywhere – jamming bearings, gumming filters, and turning finely tuned electronics into scrap. Even in Anniston, the dust from Iraq "gets everywhere," says mechanic Reggie Henry. "Sometimes you open the doors and it kicks up little sandstorms."
Add to that the Army's operational tempo, and equipment has been wearing out five to 10 times faster than anticipated. Humvees that were already a decade old have been loaded with 100 pounds of armor they were not designed to carry and then driven five times more than expected. Helicopters are being used twice as much as planned. Tanks are driving 4,000 miles a year; they're programmed to drive 800.
On Anniston's work floor, tanks and other tracked vehicles line up single file – the battle-hardened, the blown-up, and the sand-gutted. Throughout the facility, stacks of refurbished drive shafts and new transmissions are everywhere. Outside, dozens of railroad cars bearing tanks are backed up at the entrance. Three train engines are working double time to shuttle equipment around the base's 47 miles of track.
In 2003, Anniston had 2,429 employees who worked 2.6 million manhours. This year, the numbers have jumped to 4,661 employees and 6.3 million manhours. The story is the same across the Army's other depots. During the first years of the war, Army units left much of their equipment in Iraq to cut down on transportation costs. Now the Army needs to work through the backlog, repairing vehicles that need more than routine maintenance.