By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
ANNISTON, Ala. -- Field upon field of more than 1,000 battered M1 tanks, howitzers and other armored vehicles sit amid weeds here at the 15,000-acre Anniston Army Depot -- the idle, hulking formations symbolic of an Army that is wearing out faster than it is being rebuilt.
The Army and Marine Corps have sunk more than 40 percent of their ground combat equipment into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to government data. An estimated $17 billion-plus worth of military equipment is destroyed or worn out each year, blasted by bombs, ground down by desert sand and used up to nine times the rate in times of peace. The gear is piling up at depots such as Anniston, waiting to be repaired.
The depletion of major equipment such as tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and especially helicopters and armored Humvees has left many military units in the United States without adequate training gear, officials say. Partly as a result of the shortages, many U.S. units are rated "unready" to deploy, officials say, raising alarm in Congress and concern among military leaders at a time when Iraq strategy is under review by the White House and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, is lobbying hard for more money to repair what he calls the "holes" in his force, saying current war funding is inadequate to make the Army "well." Asked in a congressional hearing this past summer whether he was comfortable with the readiness levels of non-deployed Army units, Schoomaker replied: "No."
Lt. Col. Mike Johnson, a senior Army planner, said: "Before, if a unit was less than C-1," or fully ready, "someone would get fired." Now, he said, that is accepted as combat-zone rotations are sapping all units of gear and manpower. "It's a cost of continuous operations. You can't be ready all the time," he said.
Across the military, scarce equipment is being shifted from unit to unit for training. For example, a brigade of 3,800 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division that will deploy to Iraq next month has been passing around a single training set of 44 Humvees, none of which has the added armor of the Humvees they will drive in Iraq.
The military's ground forces are only beginning the vast and costly job of replacing, repairing and upgrading combat equipment -- work that will cost an estimated $17 billion to $19 billion annually for several more years, regardless of any shift in Iraq strategy. The Army alone has 280,000 major pieces of equipment in combat zones that will eventually have to be fixed or replaced. Before the war, the Army spent $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year on wear and tear.
At Anniston, the sprawling lots of tanks and other armored vehicles are just the start of a huge backlog in broken-down gear.
"There's stuff, stuff everywhere," Joan Gustafson, a depot official, said as she wheeled her brown Chevrolet van through a landscape of rolling hills lined with armadas of mobile guns.
"There's another field of M1s," she said, motioning toward a swath of M1A1 Abrams tanks next to the winding road. "We're just waiting for someone to tell us what to do with them."
The Army's five depots carry out the highest level of maintenance for Army gear ranging from rifles and other small arms to tanks, helicopters and missile systems. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Army has left behind hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment in Iraq and has relied heavily on field maintenance facilities in Kuwait.
But as the war has continued, Army leaders have recognized that they cannot afford to wait for a drawdown of troops before they begin overhauling equipment -- some of it 20 years old -- that is being used at extraordinary rates. Helicopters are flying two or three times their planned usage rates. Tank crews are driving more than 4,000 miles a year -- five times the normal rate. Truck fleets that convoy supplies down Iraq's bomb-laden roads are running at six times the planned mileage, according to Army data.
Equipment shipped back from Iraq is stacking up at all the Army depots: More than 530 M1 tanks, 220 M88 wreckers and 160 M113 armored personnel carriers are sitting at Anniston. The Red River Army Depot in Texas has 700 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 450 heavy and medium-weight trucks, while more than 1,000 Humvees are awaiting repair at the Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania.
Despite the work piling up, the Army's depots have been operating at about half their capacity because of a lack of funding for repairs. In the spring, a funding gap caused Anniston and other depots to lose about a month's worth of work, said Brig. Gen. Robert Radin, deputy chief of staff for operations at the Army Materiel Command at Fort Belvoir.
"Last year we spent as much time trying to find available money as managing our program," he said. "We don't want to go into the next rotation . . . with equipment that's at the far end of its expected life."
Responding to urgent requests from the Army and Marine Corps, Congress approved an extra $23.8 billion in October to replace worn-out equipment in fiscal 2007. With the money, the Army plans to double the workload at its depots, which will repair and upgrade 130,000 pieces in 2007, up from 63,000 last year. This will include a quadrupling of the number of tanks, Bradleys and other tracked vehicles overhauled, from 1,000 to 4,000.
At Anniston, which will handle 1,800 combat vehicles in fiscal 2007, a cavernous 250,000-square-foot repair shop is humming as damaged tanks are rolled in one by one and disassembled with the help of giant cranes. Removing an M1 tank's turret alone takes a day and a half, and the entire overhaul requires 54 days and costs about $1 million, said Ted A. Law, the depot's vehicle manager.
Earnest Linn, 58, a heavy-mobile-equipment mechanic who as of January will have worked at Anniston for 30 years, said that "it's never been like this" since the end of the Vietnam War.
In October, Anniston became the official repair facility for the Army's newest armored vehicle, the Stryker. Repairs for those vehicles will soar from eight in fiscal 2006 to 75 this fiscal year -- including 58 that received some level of battle damage, said Gregory McMath, program manager for Stryker repair.
"This one hit a triple-stacked land mine," he said, peering up into the underbelly of a Stryker ripped open by the blast. Some of the Strykers are coming in with 40,000 miles on their odometers, he said.
Workers at Anniston take pride in patching, rebuilding and testing the broken-down gear and returning it to like-new condition. Often, they must innovate by taking parts from wrecked vehicles if new parts do not exist or have not been ordered in time.
"The supply system can't keep up with us," said Rodney Brodeur, division chief for turbine engines, speaking over the clang and whir of his workshop. It is projected that in 2007, Anniston will rebuild 1,400 turbine engines for M1 tanks, compared with 800 this year.
Fine sand and heavy use erode the blades on the tank engine rotors, eventually leading the blades to snap off and stall the engines. Such erosion, which is invisible to the Army's field mechanics, can lead to catastrophic failure without timely maintenance.
"If your Cadillac stops by the side of the road, that's an inconvenience," Brodeur said. "If the tank quits in the middle of the fight, that's a hard target."