- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2010

Republican lawmakers say the White House’s firm cap on the now-completed troop surge in Afghanistan is leaving forces more vulnerable to Taliban attacks.

They say there are not enough troops to man C-RAM, a counter-rocket, -artillery and -mortar battery used effectively by soldiers in Iraq to intercept rounds headed for forward operating bases. The U.S. has constructed several forward operating bases to house the 30,000-troop surge, which brought total U.S troop strength to about 100,000.

A military spokesman in Afghanistan told The Washington Times that using civilians to operate C-RAM is not a result of the cap, but Republicans lawmakers say otherwise.

“Our concern has been, if you’re managing your strategy, your tactics by number, that you are going to be making some omissions,” said Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and House Armed Services Committee member. “In particular, we’ve been concerned about not having the troops there to provide defensive protection, sensing and warning, incoming mortar attacks.”

Last month, Northrop Grumman Corp. won a contract worth up to $219 million over three years to provide contractors to operate C-RAM systems in Afghanistan. “C-RAM is an incredible capability and we are proud to continue to help protect the warfighter,” the company said.

But Republicans see problems.

“Basically, Northrop Grumman has been put on contract to man the system, which will cause a delay in fielding the capability,” said Josh Holly, a spokesman for committee Republicans.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a committee member, said contractors can monitor the system’s radar but are not authorized to direct fire at the enemy launching the attack.

“The point of counter-battery is not just to see stuff coming in; it’s to shoot back at them so they don’t keep shooting at you,” said Mr. Hunter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine Corps officer. “Contractors don’t have authority to shoot back. We don’t have military people on radar to say everything is clear shoot back because of the troop cap.”

A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan took issue with this, saying “components” of C-RAM are now operational in country.

“They tell me that the contractors that work C-RAM are a normal process, and not due to any [troop cap] issues,” the spokesman said.

Mr. Kline told The Times he has raised cap-restriction issues with senior commanders, who told him that civilians can fill the gap.

“You’ve got a troop cap and clearly you’re not getting the job done within that troop cap, and so you’re going to send civilians instead so that you can get the protection and stay within the troops cap,” he said. “Why don’t you just say, ‘Look, that troop cap is a mistake and we need to change it by ever how many thousands to get soldiers over there to do this job’? You’ve got politics involved, that’s why.”

Retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, while he was U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, wanted as many as 60,000 additional troops to carry out a strategy aimed at defeating the Taliban, largely in the south and east. But President Obama held firm at half that number, and some of his aides have pushed for a steady troop withdrawal beginning in July.

At the same time the military turns to temporary civilian employees to fill some gaps, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is trying to find $100 billion in savings and has targeted the number of contractors.

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