The top U.S. commander in Iraq complained to the Pentagon last winter that his supply situation was so poor that it threatened Army troops' ability to fight, according to an official document that has surfaced only now.
The lack of key spare parts for gear vital to combat operations, such as tanks and helicopters, was causing problems so severe, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez wrote in a letter to top Army officials, that "I cannot continue to support sustained combat operations with rates this low."
Senior Army officials said that most of Sanchez's concerns have been addressed in recent months but that they continue to keep a close eye on the problems he identified. The situation is "substantially better" now, said Gary Motsek, deputy director of operations for the Army Materiel Command.
Sanchez, who was the senior commander on the ground in Iraq from the summer of 2003 until the summer of 2004, said in his letter that Army units in Iraq were "struggling just to maintain . . . relatively low readiness rates" on key combat systems, such as M-1 Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, anti-mortar radars and Black Hawk helicopters.
He also said units were waiting an average of 40 days for critical spare parts, which he noted was almost three times the Army's average. In some Army supply depots in Iraq, 40 percent of critical parts were at "zero balance," meaning they were absent from depot shelves, he said.
He also protested in his letter, sent Dec. 4 to the number two officer in the Army, with copies to other senior officials, that his soldiers still needed protective inserts to upgrade 36,000 sets of body armor but that their delivery had been postponed twice in the month before he was writing. There were 131,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at the time.
In what appears to be a plea to top officials to spur the bureaucracy to respond more quickly, Sanchez concluded, "I cannot sustain readiness without Army-level intervention."
Sanchez, who since has moved back to his permanent base in Germany, did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment.
His letter of concern has surfaced after repeated statements by President Bush that he is determined to ensure that U.S. troops fighting in Iraq have all that they need to execute their missions. "I have pledged, as has the secretary of defense, to give our troops everything that is necessary to complete their mission with the utmost safety," he said in May. Earlier this month in Manchester, N.H., he said, "When America puts our troops in combat, I believe they deserve the best training, the best equipment, the full support of our government."
A copy of Sanchez's letter was given to The Washington Post by a person familiar with the situation who was dismayed that front-line troops had not been adequately supplied. That person also disagrees with the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, but said that was not part of the motivation in providing the document.
The disclosure of Sanchez's concerns also follows recent comments by former ambassador L. Paul Bremer, Sanchez's civilian counterpart in running the U.S. occupation of Iraq, that he believed more troops were needed in Iraq and had asked the Bush administration to send them.
Lt. Gen. Claude V. Christianson, the senior logistics officer on the Army staff at the Pentagon, said the readiness problems in Iraq peaked last fall but largely have been addressed. He said they were caused by a combination of problems in the supply pipeline and an unexpectedly high pace of combat operations as the Iraqi insurgency flared last year.
"All of a sudden, at the end of July , the insurgency started to do that IED business all over Iraq," he noted, using the acronym for "improvised explosive device," the military's term for roadside bombs. In response, the pace, or "operating tempo," for U.S. troops jumped, causing them to use their tanks and other armored vehicles at much higher rates than had been expected.
"The tanks are operating at 3,000 to 4,000 miles a year," Christianson said, which he noted is about five times the rate they are driven while being used for training at their home bases. The readiness rate for M-1 Abrams tanks fell to 78 percent last October, he said, compared with an Army standard of 90 percent. Because of the intensity of recent operations, said Motsek of the Army Materiel Command, the readiness rate for the tanks recently dropped from 95 percent to 83 percent.
Readiness rates also generally dipped last spring when insurgents destroyed seven bridges along the main supply route from Kuwait to Baghdad, Christianson said. In some cases, he said, supplies were cut off for "several days."
But he said the supply situation has improved since then, even as the pace of U.S. combat operations has remained intense. The waiting period for critical spare parts in Iraq is now about 24 days, about half of what it was when Sanchez wrote his letter, Christianson said.
The body armor problem -- which had become a hot-button issue with Congress after some families bought protective armor privately and shipped it to their relatives in the Army in Iraq -- was solved sooner, Christianson noted, with all troops in Iraq equipped with updated gear by the end of January, about seven weeks after Sanchez wrote his letter.
Christianson said Sanchez sent only one such statement of concern from Iraq. "It's the only one we received from Rick that had anything to do with readiness," he said. He said he had not been shocked by the letter because Army logisticians were aware of the problems, agreed with Sanchez's assessment of them and already were taking steps to remedy them.
Motsek said the readiness of ground combat systems such as tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles remains a concern but no longer must be handled on an "emergency" basis, with tracks and other heavy parts being shipped by air. "We are now at the point where we can routinely ship tracks" by sea, which is far less expensive, he said. That is mainly because the manufacturing capacity to produce tracks has expanded to meet the unexpected surge in demand caused by fighting in Iraq, he said.
Sanchez's letter was sent after the most intense insurgent offensive the U.S.-led occupation force had seen up to that point. In a series of attacks that coincided with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan near the end of October last year, 87 U.S. service members were killed. Under Islam's lunar calendar, Ramadan this year began a few days ago.
Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.