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Belt-tightening at bases in US starts to strain

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

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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.

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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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