Critical U.S. military war stocks in South Korea -- including M1A1 tanks, howitzers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles -- fell into such significant disrepair in the past year that it could have slowed a U.S. ground response to North Korean hostilities or another Pacific conflict, unreleased classified and unclassified U.S. government reports show.
Problems included faulty engines and transmissions and cracked gun tubes, with some tanks requiring more than 1,000 hours of maintenance to fix fully -- a condition that would have delayed for days their use in a conflict, reports by the Government Accountability Office and Army officials say.
But even after government inspectors found, starting in October 2004, that at least half and as much as 80 percent of the heavy weapons and other fighting gear were not "fully mission capable," inaccurate military reports led the Pentagon and Congress to believe that readiness was high.
The commander of U.S. forces in Korea, Gen. Leon LaPorte, testified before the Senate in March that the equipment, known as "prepositioned stocks," was "in very good shape." Tensions were high at the time with North Korea, which declared in February that it had produced nuclear weapons to defend itself from the United States.
The gap in military readiness in South Korea -- which the Pentagon and the Army said they have since fixed -- occurred as the Defense Department was hard-pressed to field equipment for war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military has pulled large amounts of hardware for those operations from stockpiles it maintains worldwide, and until recently the South Korean cache was the biggest single overseas store of Army combat material remaining, a GAO report completed last month but not yet released said.
The Army, and to a lesser extent the Marine Corps and Air Force, has steadily depleted stocks of heavy weapons, Humvees, spare parts, ammunition and other supplies stored in Europe, Southwest Asia, the Pacific and on ships, the report said.
The Defense Department "faces some near-term operational risks should another large-scale conflict emerge because it has drawn heavily on its pre-positioned stocks to support ongoing operations in Iraq," the report said. A copy of that report, as well as a classified GAO study detailing problems with the South Korean stockpiles, was made available to The Washington Post.
The Pentagon in August wrote that it agreed with the GAO recommendations on South Korea and was taking "aggressive steps" to improve the situation; it also agreed to assess the short-term risks of shortfalls and poor condition of all equipment stored overseas. The Defense Department has estimated that replenishing the Army and Marine Corps stocks around the world will cost $4 billion to $5 billion.
For years, military services have stored equipment and supplies overseas to speed the U.S. response to conflict by allowing troops to marry up with their gear abroad rather than transporting it by costly airlift or the far slower sealift.
The Army controls the bulk of U.S. military prepositioned stocks, and has drawn on them most heavily, the GAO said. But the Marine Corps has used the majority of equipment from five of the 16 ships that store equipment abroad, and the Air Force has shortages in spare parts and has used 43 percent of its "base sets" -- the tents, aircraft hangars, generators, and maintenance shops needed to set up air bases in austere locales.
Until 2003, the Army had at least four "brigade sets" worth of tanks, armored vehicles, Humvees and other gear -- each designed to support a brigade of 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers -- stored in Europe, Kuwait, Qatar, South Korea and on ships. By last year, that number had dropped to one -- the South Korean set -- and is currently two, although the Army plans to increase that to six by fiscal 2007, Army Materiel Command (AMC) officials said.
Serious disrepair in the South Korean stockpile, known as APS-4, came to light in October 2004, when an Army 4th Infantry Division team inspected the brigade equipment stored at Camp Carroll in Daegu, Korea, and reported that 79 percent did not meet operational standards.
That and following inspections uncovered hundreds of pieces of equipment that were "not mission capable," with problems including serious engine deficiencies, cracked and pitted gun tubes, and faulty seals and O-rings on M1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Paladin howitzers, the GAO said. In addition, it said, the equipment was missing "critical parts."
For example, despite efforts to keep APS-4 intact, at least 50 .50-caliber machine guns were removed from tanks stored there for use in Iraq, and several Humvees were removed to replace other Humvees shipped from Korea to Iraq, AMC officials said yesterday.
As a result, commanders said that if hostilities broke out in the region, it would have required a surge of maintenance workers to fix the gear, delaying its use for days, GAO and Army officials said.
"It would have taken some extensive maintenance on some of the systems to get them out the door," said Gary Motsek, director for support operations of AMC, in an interview yesterday. "It would have taken extra days to issue the system. . . ."
Motsek blamed the problem on the Army's reliance upon an undersized, less costly South Korean workforce to manage upkeep of the stocks. "You can't maintain it on the cheap like that," he said, saying the Army is negotiating a new long-term contract for the work.
But the GAO report pointed to other factors, including the diversion of millions in Army funds allocated for APS-4 to other purposes, a "dysfunctional" system for managing the stock, as well as a lack of Pentagon oversight of the South Korean gear and overseas stockpiles generally.
Army officials said flawed reporting kept leaders in the dark about the broken gear. "The reporting mechanism didn't reveal the problems until it kind of bubbled up last fall," said Lt. Gen. Claude V. Christianson, the Army's logistics chief. Over the past six to seven months, Motsek said the Army has spent $34 million and assigned as many as 90 mechanics, 60 inspectors, and about 20 quality control personnel to bring the Army equipment in South Korea back up to standard by last month.
"We've spent a tremendous amount of effort and resources," said Gen. Benjamin S. Griffin, AMC's commander. "Today, we think it's in pretty doggone good shape."