Lengthy Operations Deplete Military Readiness

January 2007
By Maryann Lawlor
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Cpl. Kelvin Brodie, USMC, checks radio equipment inside his high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle at Camp Blue Diamond in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. Analysis of U.S. Marine Corps vehicles and communications equipment in Iraq reveals that the protracted engagement there is affecting overall military readiness.
Researchers describe short- and long-term costs of drawn-out conflicts.

Inadequate funding and prolonged operations in Iraq are taking a toll on U.S. Marine Corps equipment and threatening U.S. military readiness to fight and render humanitarian aid. These circumstances already are influencing training and consequently effectiveness and could affect re-enlistment numbers if not corrected. Adjusting resources is one issue; however, the situation also calls for overhauling acquisition practices so near- and mid-term needs can be met.

Researchers at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., and the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Virginia, examined the status and readiness of the Marine Corps in light of military operations in Iraq. After analyzing written reports and interviewing members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees as well as Marine Corps leaders, they determined that substantial issues loom outside the human tragedies of the war. The operations that evolved from ousting Saddam Hussein to establishing stability are stretching the service beyond its capacity to supply its troops with the best warfighting tools. And perhaps more troubling is the outlook for the future. In their final report, titled Marine Corps Equipment After Iraq, the researchers predict that U.S. security might be compromised if changes are not made as early as fiscal year 2007.

According to Max A. Bergmann, a research associate at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the final report, both the circumstances that led to the current situation and the solutions to alleviate it are complex. If each is not addressed by both military and civilian leaders, the consequences could be dire, he states.

The research team ascertained that several factors contributed to the lack of equipment. “Part of it is just due to the fact that the military as well as the civilian leadership didn’t believe that we were going to be in Iraq for this long, so they failed to adequately prepare for it. When you don’t adequately plan for something, you start getting desperate for equipment,” Bergmann says.

During the past three years, the Marine Corps has employed 40 percent of its ground equipment, 50 percent of its communications equipment and 20 percent of its aviation assets in Iraq. This equipment is being used at a rate that is approximately nine times as planned because of the protracted operations. In addition to overusage, the area of operation’s harsh environment also is wearing out equipment faster, Bergmann notes. “For instance, the Marines are running out of a few different kinds of helicopters. They basically don’t have enough to meet their current needs, and there is no production line that’s active and can provide more. The planning just wasn’t there,” he says.

To meet the current requirements, the Marines need to develop a new heavy-lift helicopter, Bergmann says. “They’re facing real problems when it comes to even maintaining the current equipment levels into the future. The CH-53 is old, and the service does not have enough of them, but the new version will not be available for 10 to 15 years,” he explains.

Communications equipment shortcomings have occurred as well, although not necessarily in the same ways. Bergmann notes that when the war began in March 2003, the Marine Corps was using several different types of radio systems. As a result, troops in an Abrams tank had to move to different computers or use different cell phones to communicate with SEAL teams, for example. Nothing was streamlined, he says. The military services are investing in streamlining communications technology now, and interoperable blue force tracking equipment is a good example of this effort, he adds.

The Marine Corps was not the only service caught in this dilemma. Researchers from the same organizations that conducted the Marine Corps equipment study examined the U.S. Army earlier last year. They found that the operations in Iraq also caught the Army in a transition phase, and consequently that service was not uniformly modernized when the war began.

It has been difficult to modernize and fight the war in Iraq at the same time, Bergmann notes. “These are the sort of difficulties that you get in if you don’t go in prepared and contemplate all the angles,” he states.

Initial operations were successful, and these problems did not undercut the mission, he allows. “But when you’re in Iraq, and you’re starting to become more of an occupation force, you need to have very good intelligence. And you need to be able to communicate well with all sectors of the military. They’re gradually getting there, but it’s just really hard when you also need to spend resources to repair tires and to fix transmission systems in the Humvees,” he points out.

But funding is only one of the issues that must be addressed when it comes to deploying new capabilities. Innovative technologies require additional training, a task that is tough to schedule when fighting a war. “If you’re not trained well in using it, there’s a point when new technology can undercut your ability and almost create more confusion,” Bergmann maintains. “We’ve all gotten a new device—like a VCR—and we know how the old one works, but we’re not sure how this one works. And we’re not getting shot at when we’re trying to figure out how to use the VCR.”

 
The Marine Corps plans to purchase 1,100 Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles (EFVs) to replace its aging fleet of Amphibious Assault Vehicles. Researchers analyzing the current state of equipment suggest that the service order only 600 EFVs and supplement them with U.S. Army armored personnel carriers.
Low readiness rates and equipment shortages are two additional reasons training is a challenge. In the Army, for example, there are almost no combat-ready units outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bergmann relates. In addition, because all of the units’ equipment is deployed, troops stationed stateside are not necessarily training with the same systems they will be using once deployed.

“The Marine Corps and the Army have been slow to adapt to the reality that they didn’t expect the war to last this long. Eventually you get in the situation where you realize you don’t have the equipment necessary to train the troops.

“They also didn’t reassess their modernization programs and take this into consideration. As a result, they’re caught in a situation where they aren’t modernizing in a way that is most efficient and they are modernizing in a way that is potentially taking money away from other areas that are more nuts-and-bolts issues. It’s a trade-off that the Army and the Marine Corps have been really slow to make,” he says.

Bergmann believes this situation stems from the budget activity that occurred after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At that time, rather than determining what they would need to fight a new type of war, not only the Marine Corps and Army but the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force as well seized the opportunity to obtain financing for pet projects, he claims. “Instead of saying, ‘Why do we need this battleship? Why do we need this helicopter?’ they focused on the big-ticket items. The Army could get Future Combat Systems funding, and the Marine Corps could continue with the V-22,” he says.

Because the services did not reassess priorities then, they must reallocate funding now. To illustrate this point, Bergmann refers to the Army’s request for approximately $25 billion late last year. The service said it needed the additional funds to repair existing equipment; however, it did not relinquish its work on the Future Combat Systems program, which will be in development for another 10 to 15 years. The Office of Management and Budget agreed only to an additional $7 billion. “So they’re being forced to re-jig their priorities. That’s finally happening, but we invaded Iraq in 2003, so it’s been too long,” he says.

Bergmann relates that the most startling statistic the team discovered while conducting its research for the report was the drawdown of reserve equipment. The Marine Corps has equipment stored on standby with a few squadrons in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. To fight the war in Iraq, the service has had to draw as much as 70 percent of the equipment normally housed in these areas.

“What that means is that if North Korea were to do something crazy, we wouldn’t have the ability to respond the way we would like because a large amount of the equipment has been shipped into Iraq. Our ability to respond to potential crises—if there’s a tsunami or an earthquake—and to provide humanitarian assistance would stretch us even further. We’ll be able to respond, but not in a way we really should,” he states.

Some high-ranking military officials have echoed this assessment of the situation. During a press conference at the Pentagon in October, Gen. Peter Pace, USMC, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized that more than 2 million U.S. service members not currently in Afghanistan or Iraq stand ready to do whatever is necessary to defend the nation. However, moving into another conflict would involve more brute force than if the United States was not already fighting in Southwest Asia, he added. Precision intelligence is necessary to drop precision munitions, he pointed out, and many of those assets already are being employed in the Persian Gulf region, so they would not be available for use in other locations. The result would be more collateral damage because the military would have to resort to using “dumb bombs,” he said.

One of Bergmann’s colleagues at the Center for American Progress and a co-author of the Marine Corps equipment status report, Lawrence J. Korb, concurs with the assessment and compares the situation to his experience at the Pentagon in the early 1980s. In Korb’s view, it was fortunate that the Soviets did not attack U.S. interests immediately after the Vietnam War because the military and its equipment were in such disarray that the U.S. probably would have lost, he says.

Bergmann does not believe that today’s U.S. military has reached that point. “Right now we could respond to something. It would be a burden, but we could do it. But if we continue on this course, then it’s not just going to be a burden, it’s going to be impossible,” he maintains.

In addition to detailing the shortcomings of the Marine Corps equipment, the research team offered several recommendations about how to address them. In the near term, the team advocates that Congress fully fund the Marine Corps’ request for $6.6 billion reset funding for fiscal year 2007. In addition, Congress should provide approximately $5 billion in reset funding for each additional year the service maintains a major presence in Iraq. The researchers also recommended that Congress continue funding reset for at least two years after the forces leave Iraq.

But resources to replace equipment that is wearing out or has been destroyed in Iraq should not be the service’s only concern. Looking toward the future, the Marines should stop deferring recapitalization of aging equipment and request a level of reset that would support fully revitalizing the force for future operations. Funding approval also should go through the normal budget process and not through supplemental budgets, the researchers say.

The team offered some additional recommendations for change in the long term to ensure future readiness. For example, the report suggests that the Marine Corps’ share of the U.S. Navy budget be increased from 14 percent to 17 percent and its share of the defense budget raised from 4 percent to 5 percent.

Aside from the resource recommendations, Bergmann says the research team suggests changes in military thinking that would help restore readiness. For instance, the services not only need to continue to invest in programs such as the Joint Tactical Radio System, but also they must “make them happen,” he states.

In terms of vehicles, the Marines currently are driving antiquated Amphibious Assault Vehicles that are due to be replaced by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV). Although the EFV is a good weapon system and is faster on the water, the cost has ballooned to the point where the service cannot afford it. “So we recommend cutting that purchase order in half, from about 1,100 to 600 vehicles. To make up for the shortfall, we think the Marines should start looking at other options and start getting creative. The Army’s armored personnel carriers—the Bradley and others—should be purchased by the Marine Corps even though they’re not amphibious because the Marines are fighting in Al Anbar province and don’t need an amphibious capability there,” Bergmann says.

While the research team believes that planning for the future is critical, it should not be done at the expense of meeting current needs, Bergmann adds. “We need to modernize our helicopters, modernize our tanks, Humvees and communications systems, but you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this situation. They’re waiting for their next replacement helicopters, which are a long way off and are going to be fantastic. But they need stopgap measures to fill the hole between now and when those are actually available,” Bergmann states.

Addressing these issues is crucial to the current force in ways that cannot be measured, he adds. Equipment shortages affect morale, which can lead to lower re-enlistment rates as troops feel they are not getting the resources they need to do their jobs. “You’re going to have a real recruitment problem, and all of these problems snowball. That’s the danger—that we won’t have a Marine Corps that’s able to be our emergency response force,” he notes.

Industry can help the Marine Corps and Army build up their readiness by offering products that can be deployed today and that perform as promised. While designing future capabilities is important, today’s needs still must be met. “That would be my advice—not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and to look to technology that we have now to modernize equipment that we have now. Our troops are being shot at now; they can’t really wait that long,” Bergmann states.

 

Web Resources
Marine Corps Equipment After Iraq report: www.americanprogress.org/issues/2006/08/b681083_ct2892871.html
Center for American Progress: www.americanprogress.org
Lexington Institute: www.lexingtoninstitute.org