Belt-tightening at bases in US starts to strain

While Fort Carson scrimps, Anniston Army Depot works through a backlog of repairs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Anniston's race to rehab

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.

This is reset, and last year the Army asked for $13.5 billion to do it. So long as the war continues, officials say, the Army will need at least that much to keep its equipment in working order. It often means tearing a vehicle down to the frame. In Anniston, it takes an average of 63 days per vehicle.

At the Red River Army Depot in Texas, Humvees actually come out of reset as a new model, with new transmissions, suspension systems, and engines. "Humvees go back to zero hours, zero miles," says Gary Motsek, director of support operations for Army Materiel Command.

Reset is one of the main reasons the cost of the Iraq war has increased so rapidly. The higher cost of fuel and ammunition has played a major role, too. "Before the war, we made about 35 million small-arms cartridges," says Mr. Motsek. "Now, we're producing more than 1.4 billion."

To make up for those costs, the Army has done what it always has done: skim from installations. "Installations have always been underfunded," says Ned Christensen, spokesman for the Pentagon's Installation Management Agency.

Belt-tightening at Fort Carson

But Cheryll Ingersoll has never seen anything like this in her 40 years at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colo. Even before the war, the Pentagon was looking to save money by cutting services on bases. The war has only made things worse, says Ms. Ingersoll, the post's garrison resource manager.

Some $4 million of the budget simply failed to show up. "Most of the money that used to go to the installations and everywhere is now being redirected for the war," she says.

So Fort Carson has shut two dining halls and – like all Army posts – instituted a hiring freeze. Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio hasn't paid its utility bill since March. And Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri "can only fund payroll and most of the utilities for the rest of the year, so everything else is pretty much wiped out," says Ingersoll.

There are a lot of complaints and some brown grass at bases nationwide, but these are not the sorts of cuts that will affect the war effort, she acknowledges. The greater concern for many in the Army is what else might be sacrificed as the war continues. Last month, the Army chief of staff pleaded with Congress not to fund the current war at the cost of future plans. "We must not mortgage the future readiness of the force by focusing our resources solely on the current challenges," said Gen. Peter Schoomaker in a June 27 hearing.

To the Army, the future is the Future Combat System, a spectacularly complex and costly system of new weapons and cutting-edge communications currently under development. At a total cost of $161 billion, it promises a new generation of vehicles, fleets of drone aircraft and artillery, and computer networks that connect every soldier on the battlefield.

In many ways, FCS is the keystone of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's vision to transform the Army into a smaller, more agile fighting force. But it also will not field its first fully equipped brigade until 2014.

It is the armed forces' historic conundrum: Pay for the current force or invest in the future force? In the past, the Army has repeatedly opted for a more low-tech, manpower-intensive force. Through FCS, Mr. Rumsfeld and General Schoomaker are trying to change that – but Iraq may undermine the attempt.

"The other services are moving in the direction of cutting [manpower] in order to pay for modernization," says Steven Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. With the Army stretched in the Middle East, he adds: "That is not something the Army can do right now."

In budget debates this spring, lawmakers clearly prioritized Iraq over the FCS. Some even sought to cut money for the FCS if the Army didn't spend its money to fully cover reset costs first. In the end, say some analysts, the Army has enough money to do what it needs to do. "They appear to be getting what they're asking for" through the annual budget and wartime supplemental spending, says Mr. Kosiak.

To him, the question is whether the Army is asking for – and prioritizing – the right things. In a sign of what could come, the Army has already begun to amend the FCS, cutting certain programs and modifying others. "Part of [the problem] is having modernization programs that aren't affordable," says Kosiak. "A lot of people look at [the FCS] and think it is a substantially more ambitious plan than they need."

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