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How to fuel up the out-of-gas US military machine

By Neil Abercrombie, Solomon Ortiz / March 19, 2007


Earlier this month, the House Armed Services Committee got a classified briefing about US military readiness. Details were disturbing, but the implication was jaw-dropping: The US armed services are literally at the breaking point. This is not hyperbole or partisan rhetoric. It is stark reality – and it requires immediate attention.

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That's why Congress must reassert its constitutional responsibility to provide for America's armed services. This begins with the Armed Services Committees, which have already begun hearings on the 2008 National Defense Authorization bill.

Consequences of equipment deficit

The readiness challenges facing the US military today are immense. Consider these facts supplied to Congress:

•Not one Army unit in the continental US – including the National Guard – has all the trained personnel and equipment needed to complete their missions today, either in combat or in response to domestic natural disasters or attacks.

•Roughly half of all the ground equipment the US Army owns is currently in Iraq or Afghanistan. Since the start of the war in Iraq, the Army has lost nearly 2,000 wheeled vehicles and more than 100 armored vehicles. Harsh climate and terrain, virtually continuous combat, and the weight of extra armor are wearing out equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan at up to nine times the normal rate.

•The situation is even worse for the National Guard. The regular Army has lost so much equipment that they're using Guard equipment as replacements. Combined with years of underfunding, Guard units are left with only about one-third of their own equipment.

These urgent equipment shortages, compounded by the Bush administration's financial mismanagement of the war effort, hurt the military's ability to fight and train. Both Guard and active Army units are forced to prepare and train for deployment with minimal equipment. That would be like preparing for a football game without ever practicing in pads.

The Iraq war has also badly damaged US military recruitment. In 2005, the Army missed its recruiting goal by more than 8 percent, or almost 6,700 soldiers. Army strength has been maintained by offering expensive reenlistment bonuses.

The Pentagon has resorted to a "backdoor draft" – extending combat deployments in Iraq – just to retain current force levels. The current escalation includes soldiers "backdoor drafted" for duty, and the use of National Guard and Reserve forces as de facto active duty units through multiple, continuous deployments.

Casualties, meanwhile, are coming home at the fastest rate since Vietnam. Media reports about life in outpatient care at Walter Reed, the "crown jewel" of the Army's medical system, have saddened or angered all who read them. This treatment of the men and women who come home from war traumatized in mind or decimated in body reflects badly on America.

Ensuring military readiness is a continuous effort that's been badly damaged by overextension in Iraq. We must shore up both short-term and long-term readiness. Short-term readiness addresses the needs of soldiers in the field today. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have been marked by shortages of basic equipment, from Kevlar vests and helmets to up-armored Humvees, which are better able to protect personnel from roadside bombs.

Long-term readiness encompasses everything from manpower, training, and equipment to pre-positioned stores of military equipment strategically located around the world in case of emergencies. (These stocks have been virtually drained for Iraq operations, the General Accountability Office reports.) It also includes "resetting" the force – restoring equipment to prewar condition – which will be costly.