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.
Mr. Hunter, who received a private Pentagon briefing last week on efforts to defeat improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, said that effort also relies too much on contractors.
"One of the reasons they have to have so many contractors in theater is because of that troop cap," Mr. Hunter said. "When you have [the Defense Department] talking about we have to cut down on the number of contractors, it's a self-imposed headache because of the president's troop cap in Afghanistan.
"Say you get some extra Predators [unmanned aerial vehicles]. But what is really one of the most important things is being able to analyze all the video coming down to you," he added. "If you don't have people to analyze it and watch it and people who know what they're looking at, then you might as well be watching Sports Center."
The Pentagon has been reluctant to disclose what roles contractors are performing in Afghanistan, according to a July 2 report by the Congressional Research Service. At that time, the Pentagon had more contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan (207,600), the report said, than troops (175,000).
By December 2008, with the Afghanistan war 7 years old, contractors accounted for 69 percent of all Defense Department employees, which the Congressional Research Service called "the highest recorded percentage of contractors used by DOD in any conflict in the history of the United States."
The report said the Pentagon has not provided a breakdown of contractors' duties in the country, except for security personnel data. "DOD officials have stated in the past that they will start providing data on the breakdown of services in Afghanistan in the next quarterly census," said the Congressional Research Service. "However, to date, they have not done so."
Mr. Kline said the White House should breach the cap by a few thousand troops if it means better security for forward operating bases.
"Look, we shouldn't be fooling around with this," he said. "If we need these troops to provide the protection of our forces over there, we ought to just do it and not be constrained by some number."
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