In the rush to transport U.S. military might to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon has lost track of its spare parts. Pentagon sources tell us that the military doesn't know exactly what it has in the Persian Gulf.

The chaos is made worse by the fact that Operation Desert Shield is gobbling up spare parts like the Washington Redskins offensive line at the training table.

Despite the extreme desert conditions, the Pentagon apparently shipped spare parts to Saudi Arabia as if it were outfitting a peacetime military base in the United States. Not only are the troops going through more spare parts than anticipated, but they are also using up different ones than anticipated.

The soldiers who have died during the buildup have been victims of training mishaps. So far, the deaths can be blamed on hazardous and unfamiliar conditions, but the heat and sand are starting to take their toll on equipment too.

In addition to the reported incidents, the troops are encountering a rash of unreported equipment failures including problems with handguns, helicopters and tanks.

One problem is that the mobile Army was designed to fight in frozen Russia, not in the Middle East sandbox. That's why, for example, that the instruction manual for the M-1 Abrams tank warns, "do not park tank in sun, unless necessary." And it warns that the gun barrels must be kept covered lest sand, dust or mud clog them and lead to an explosion. The sand is also chewing the rubber right off tracked vehicles including tanks and Bradley armored vehicles. Desert Shield officers pack 9mm Beretta handguns. But the fine desert sand is jamming many of the guns, and the troops are asking for their trusty old .45-caliber guns.

The sand is also chewing up helicopter rotors -- a problem that the antitank helicopter, the Apache, can ill afford. As we reported last year, there are numerous problems with the Apache. It is a fabulous fighting machine, when it works. As many as half of the mock desert battles using the Apache in the United States had to be abandoned because the air filters gagged on sand.

Even if the equipment was tailor-made for the desert, the Pentagon would still have a problem. One Pentagon insider with inventory-control experience told our associate Jim Lynch that the Pentagon doesn't "have the slightest idea" what exactly it has in Saudi Arabia. "We don't have a good central inventory system," he said. The military has access to state-of-the-art inventory control, but instead orders its inventory in piecemeal fashion, with the Pentagon's many branches not consulting with each other.

Sears does a better job of tracking its merchandise, one source told us. "We're really back in the dark ages on our inventory control." Why? "There's no glamor in it."

There is also no glamor in fixing up the neglected fleet of C-141s, one of the military's primary cargo planes in the gulf. The flying mules were riddled with stress fractures long before Saddam Hussein marched troops into Kuwait. Now the overworked C-141s are flying 10-hour days in the worst of conditions.