Subscription only article. www.armytimes.com November 22, 2004 Ready or not An armored unit grapples with broken gear and equipment shortages as it races toward its next war deployment By Sean D. Naylor Times staff writer FORT IRWIN, Calif. â Twenty months into the war in Iraq, there are few better places to judge the resulting strains on the Army than at the National Training Center. Here in the high Mojave desert, units scheduled for deployment conduct mission rehearsal exercises, working out the kinks in their standard operating procedures and familiarizing themselves with tactical challenges they will face downrange. The balmy sunshine of mid-November found 1st Armored Divisionâs 3rd Brigade Combat Team, from Fort Riley, Kan., racing to prepare for a return to Iraq in February â just nine months after the brigade came home from there. Officers and noncommissioned officers from Riley say they expect to be ready when they deploy But leaders of the 3,500-soldier team acknowledge they face a series of challenges, including: â¢Poor tank-operational ready rates, which fluctuate between 55 percent and 70 percent, far lower than the 90-percent goal for a unit to be considered fully mission-capable. â¢A shortage of rifles and other individual soldier equipment they are supposed to have, thanks to the Armyâs desire to have tankers and other mounted soldiers conduct infantry-like tasks in Iraq. â¢A 40 percent turnover of personnel since the brigadeâs return from Iraq â meaning little time for leaders, from tank commander to brigade commander, to turn new soldiers into cohesive combat teams. â¢Doubt about whether hardened Humvees await the brigade in theater. â¢Late fielding of several digital command-and-control systems, meaning soldiers will have, at most, a few weeks to learn how to use and repair the high-tech gear before relying on it in combat. â¢The absence from the mission rehearsal exercise of Special Forces, psychological operations and civil affairs teams that will be attached to the brigade in Iraq. That means relationships that could prove critical to the brigadeâs success or failure will be developed in combat. The problems have some observers worried. A former Army officer who has paid close attention to the brigadeâs combat preparations was alarmed: âTheyâre hurting; their stuff is broken. They havenât finished the reset from the first time they went to Iraq [and] theyâve come to NTC at a lower training level than most arriving units.â Busted tanks The issue raising the most concern here is the condition of the M1A1 Abrams tanks. At the direction of Gen. George Casey, senior U.S. commander in Iraq, the brigadeâs two tank battalion task forces are taking only half their armored vehicles â two companiesâ worth of tanks and a company of Bradley fighting vehicles â to war. The other three companies will convert to âmotorizedâ â i.e. Humvee-mounted â formations. Joining 3rd BCT will be the 1st Squadron of the 11th Cavalry Regiment, the traditional Opposing Force at NTC. Despite its moniker, the squadron is structured and equipped more like a mechanized infantry battalion. It will deploy with just one of its three Bradley companies, with the other two companies also going motorized, Brig. Gen. Frank Kearney of Fort Riley said in an interview here. This scaled-down tank deployment gives the brigadeâs armor units the pick of the brigadeâs tanks. Still, the rate at which the tanks have broken down is troubling. âThere is no question that we have had [operational ready] rates go up and down, and they have not been great,â said Kearney, assistant division commander of the 24th Infantry Division, which has oversight of the two active-duty brigades at Fort Riley. âWe have not had the OR rates that some people would come to expect us to have.â âGetting our tank fleet ready to go is our most important and time-consuming project,â said Col. Dave Bishop, commander of 3rd BCT. The tanks the brigade is taking to Iraq this time were left behind in its last deployment, when soldiers used tanks already in theater. The brigadeâs own tanks â the ones it uses now and is taking to Iraq â sat in storage for a year, and that had negative consequences. It is important to regularly drive tanks, rotate their turrets, raise and lower their main guns and keep their seals lubricated, said Lt. Col. John Hinkley, commander of the 125th Forward Support Battalion, responsible for performing high-level maintenance on the brigadeâs tanks. When these steps are not performed regularly, maintenance problems are inevitable. âTanks are designed to be run,â said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Valdez, platoon sergeant with 1st Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment. âIf they sit, things just go bad with them.â Exacerbating the situation is the tanksâ age; they have been at Fort Riley since just after the 1991 Gulf War. âWe have pretty much the oldest tanks in the Armyâs inventory,â said Staff Sgt. Kurt Daniel, a tank commander in Valdezâs platoon. Now that the tanks finally are being given a thorough workout, their age is showing. Bishop identified the tanksâ fire control system as the source of most of the faults. âThatâs the most delicate part of the tank,â he said. Valdez, who said one of his platoonâs four tanks was down for maintenance, also noted that every tank in his platoon suffered hydraulic problems since coming to NTC. Moving forward Despite these obstacles, leaders are not sounding the alarm. âWeâre gonna probably achieve all the standards that we need to achieve before we go,â Bishop said. âWe have raised our readiness for our tank fleet out here significantly.â Both he and Kearney said the exercise at NTC enabled the brigade to put the tanks through several exercise-breakdown-repair cycles, gradually improving fleet conditions. The three Riley companies and two Irwin companies leaving their heavy gear behind expect to use Humvees that are up-armored or were armored in theater. But those Humvees are in use by other units. Originally, departing units were to hand off the Humvees to arriving units. But now that so many units are staying in Iraq for a month or two longer than first envisioned, questions have been raised about how it is possible to equip two units with one set of stay-behind gear. Bishop said he doesnât think the units his brigade combat team will replace have been identified to have their tours extended. But Kearney acknowledged there still were some issues to be worked out. Some answers may emerge from a conference held at Forces Command headquarters the week of Nov. 8 on that very topic. Demand for gear The decision to convert so many heavy units to motorized formations also created a huge demand for equipment mounted soldiers never use, but dismounted troops find it hard to do without, such as rifles and night-vision goggles. The Army supply system is finding it hard to keep up with the demand. Bishopâs brigade requested 542 M4 carbines from the Army, which promised, instead, that number of the older, longer M16A2 rifles. But by Nov. 10, just a couple of days from the end of their rotation at NTC, the Army had yet to deliver the rifles or night-vision goggles that also had been requested. Most four-man tank crews have only one or two M4s between them; the other soldiers are armed with 9mm pistols. Daniel, the tank commander, said NCOs are worried about ânot knowing if everybodyâs going to have M4s or not.â The pistol is accurate only to 50 meters, he noted. Valdez, the platoon leader, noted the contrast between the M4âs 30-round magazine and the pistolâs 10-round magazine. Kearney said getting enough rifles for the 3rd BCT reflects the challenge of getting gear to units whose mission is growing beyond traditional roles. âEvery heavy brigade in the United States Army is doing the same thing,â Kearney said. âI donât know what the M4 production line was, but it was never designed to outfit the whole Army.â An Army officer in Washington, D.C., who tracks the issue, said there is a shortage of small arms, radios and other equipment âacross the board,â but particularly in the National Guard brigades deploying to Iraq. The shortages, he said, were the result of several factors: â¢The need to outfit multiple heavy units deploying to Iraq with gear for dismounted soldiers. â¢National Guard and Reserve units are deploying at a higher rate and for longer periods than was planned. They need simple command-and-control equipment just to communicate with active-duty units. â¢ âCombat attrition is taking a toll,â he said. âNot just equipment that has been destroyed or damaged, but equipment that is simply wearing out. Iâm seeing some figures that units are putting six or seven yearsâ worth of peacetime mileage on their wheeled vehicles in theater.â Work required to refurbish or replace these vehicles causes a backlog in the industrial base. â¢And, he said, âthe industrial base is not large enough to get equipment to soldiers as quickly as possible.â â¢The conversion of units like 3rd Infantry Division to a modular force design, which creates a demand for new equipment to outfit the extra brigade-size âunits of actionâ that result. Lack of prep time Other gear â including the Modular Load-carrying Lightweight Equipment individual load-bearing system and the âBlue Force Trackerâ digital communications system that allows commanders to track friendly forces across the battlefield in real time â also has yet to arrive. Leaders are confident theyâll get it before going into combat, but acknowledge it would have been better if they could familiarize their soldiers with the gear during their training here. âEverybody in the Army was trying to get us these things,â Kearney said. âIt just didnât work.â Commanders say they know some of these issues have caused âanxietyâ among their troops, but they are putting an official-Army face on their problems and projecting a confidence that the service will not allow them to go into harmâs way unprepared. And they cite several factors they say will offset readiness problems. One is the combat experience retained in the brigade from the previous rotation. Although the Armyâs individual replacement system has robbed the unit of 40 percent of the soldiers who saw combat in Iraq, 60 percent remain, including many NCOs. âThe silver lining in the short turnaround [between tours] is that a lot of people know about Iraq and impart that to the new guys,â said Lt. Col. Eric Wesley, commander of 1-13 Armor. Daniel, who was part of the brigadeâs first tour in Iraq, agreed, saying this time around younger soldiers had greater faith in what their NCOs were saying. The new soldiersâ attitude, Daniel said, was, âHe knows what heâs talking about, heâs been there.â In fact, despite the numerous challenges that have surfaced as the brigade readies itself again for war, those who took part in the previous deployment are feeling better about this one. âI feel a lot more prepared than I did the first time,â Daniel said, something he attributed to knowing what he was going to face. âThis time weâve got a clear guidance on [rules of engagement] and the political situation that exists in Iraq. We understand weâre trying to restore Iraq â¦ [so] they can experience freedom. Before it was just âdefeat Saddamâ and there was nothing after that. âThe younger guys now see the bigger picture,â Daniel continued. âA lot of the younger guys before, they didnât really get it.â As the shadows lengthened over the high desert, a few yards away from where Daniel and Valdez stood, a handful of troops laughed and joked, showing no signs of anxiety or poor morale. Beside them, more soldiers applied themselves to their afternoonâs work â fixing another tank.