Monday, July 31, 2006

The Army is showing the wear and tear of constant battle after nearly five years of war, cutting resources to nondeployed forces to make sure front-line troops stay at the highest combat readiness.

The daily assault of improvised explosive devices and a harsh environment of grinding sand and searing heat have sidelined scores of armored vehicles and combat aircraft. The Army is scrambling to “reset” the force — an effort to repair or replace disabled equipment — but it lacks the needed cash.

Although the situation is not a crisis for troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is worried.

“I remain concerned about the serious demands we face,” Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said in response to critics who say the Army’s readiness is slipping. Gen. Schoomaker has asked Congress for $17 billion in an emergency appropriation and then nearly $40 billion to be spent in three years, once hostilities end.

The shortfall is giving President Bush’s critics a new opening to attack his conduct of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, much as they did two years ago over a lack of armored vehicles to protect troops from roadside bombs. For a president who campaigned in 2000 on restoring readiness to the armed forces, anecdotal reports of shortfalls of basic equipment is embarrassing as Iraq consumes more than $5 billion a month in Pentagon funds.

Gen. Schoomaker told Congress last month that the war is putting a tremendous stress on equipment. The M1A-1 battle tank, planned at an annual usage rate of 800 miles a year, goes in excess of 4,000 miles in Iraq. Trucks run at up to six times their programmed mileage.

Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and vocal critic of the president on Iraq, said front-line units remain combat-ready, but nondeployed brigades back in the States are suffering.

“It’s these units that are critically short of equipment, personnel, causing the vast majority of them to be rated at the lowest readiness level,” said Mr. Murtha, who has announced plans to seek a Democratic leadership post next year.

Mr. Murtha contends that Army units at Fort Hood, Texas, home to the 4th Infantry and 1st Cavalry divisions, lack sufficient equipment with which to prepare for deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Bases have had to cut operations, such as shorter mess-hall hours, to save money. Army repair depots do not have enough money to fix broken weapons systems, and the congressman said the Marines are suffering a similar plight.

Retired Gen. John Keane, Army vice chief of staff in the early days of the Bush administration, has recently visited Fort Hood and Fort Bragg, N.C. He has viewed firsthand the shortfalls, but says that the Army overall is in good shape and can recover when more money hits the pipeline.

“The readiness of their equipment is being degraded by the lack of a supplemental [appropriation] to return equipment as soon as possible, and it also affects the training money you have to do — all the training they would like to do,” Gen. Keane said in an interview. “They are not broken units, but their state of readiness is not as high as the commanders want them to be.”

With a good portion of the Army’s 10 active divisions and the Marine Corps’ two divisions either deployed or preparing to go back overseas, it is increasingly important that other units stay ready to fight another war, such as a conflict with North Korea.

Mr. Murtha said it would “be impossible to sustain a second front, almost impossible to deploy to a second front.” The congressman, a Marine Vietnam combat veteran, has said in the past that the Army is broken.

Gen. Keane, however, “totally and completely disagrees.”

“The quality of troops is high. Morale is high. Retention is what it should be. You look these guys in the eyeballs. They are committed as anybody I’ve seen. The junior officers, sergeants, officers at the battalion and brigade levels are much better than when I was at their level of responsibility.”

He pointed out that the retention rates of the two Army divisions now in Iraq are well over 100 percent of their goals.

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