Armor Brigade Getting Ready For Iraq

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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. — 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 Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, from Fort Riley, Kan., racing to prepare for a return to Iraq in February — 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:

•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.

•A shortage of rifles and other individual soldier equipment they are supposed to have, thanks to the Army’s desire to have tankers and other mounted soldiers conduct infantry-like tasks in Iraq.

•A 40 percent turnover of personnel since the brigade’s return from Iraq — meaning little time for leaders, from tank commander to brigade commander, to turn new soldiers into cohesive combat teams.

•Doubt about whether hardened Humvees await the brigade in theater.

•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.

•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 brigade’s 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 brigade’s combat preparations was alarmed: “They’re hurting; their stuff is broken. They haven’t finished the reset from the first time they went to Iraq [and] they’ve come to NTC at a lower training level than most arriving units.”

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 brigade’s two tank battalion task forces are taking only half their armored vehicles — two companies’ worth of tanks and a company of Bradley fighting vehicles — to war. The other three companies will convert to “motorized” — i.e. Humvee-mounted — 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 brigade’s armor units the pick of the brigade’s tanks. Still, the rate at which the tanks have broken down is troubling.

“There is no question that we have had [operational ready] rates go up and down, and they have not been great,” said Kearney, assistant division commander of the 24th Infantry Division, which has oversight of the two active-duty brigades at Fort Riley.

“We have not had the OR rates that some people would come to expect us to have.”

“Getting our tank fleet ready to go is our most important and time-consuming project,” 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 brigade’s own tanks — the ones it uses now and is taking to Iraq — 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 brigade’s tanks. When these steps are not performed regularly, maintenance problems are inevitable.

“Tanks are designed to be run,” said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Valdez, platoon sergeant with 1st Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment. “If they sit, things just go bad with them.”

Exacerbating the situation is the tanks’ age; they have been at Fort Riley since just after the 1991 Gulf War.

“We have pretty much the oldest tanks in the Army’s inventory,” said Staff Sgt. Kurt Daniel, a tank commander in Valdez’s platoon. Now that the tanks finally are being given a thorough workout, their age is showing.

Bishop identified the tanks’ fire control system as the source of most of the faults.

“That’s the most delicate part of the tank,” he said.

Valdez, who said one of his platoon’s 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.

“We’re gonna probably achieve all the standards that we need to achieve before we go,” Bishop said. “We have raised our readiness for our tank fleet out here significantly.”

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 doesn’t 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.

Bishop’s 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 “not knowing if everybody’s going to have M4s or not.” The pistol is accurate only to 50 meters, he noted.

Valdez, the platoon leader, noted the contrast between the M4’s 30-round magazine and the pistol’s 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.

“Every heavy brigade in the United States Army is doing the same thing,” Kearney said. “I don’t know what the M4 production line was, but it was never designed to outfit the whole Army.”

An Army officer in Washington, D.C., who tracks the issue, said there is a shortage of small arms, radios and other equipment “across the board,” but particularly in the National Guard brigades deploying to Iraq.

The shortages, he said, were the result of several factors:

•The need to outfit multiple heavy units deploying to Iraq with gear for dismounted soldiers.

•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.

• “Combat attrition is taking a toll,” he said. “Not just equipment that has been destroyed or damaged, but equipment that is simply wearing out. I’m seeing some figures that units are putting six or seven years’ worth of peacetime mileage on their wheeled vehicles in theater.” Work required to refurbish or replace these vehicles causes a backlog in the industrial base.

•And, he said, “the industrial base is not large enough to get equipment to soldiers as quickly as possible.”

•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 “units of action” that result.

Lack of prep time

Other gear — including the Modular Load-carrying Lightweight Equipment individual load-bearing system and the “Blue Force Tracker” digital communications system that allows commanders to track friendly forces across the battlefield in real time — also has yet to arrive. Leaders are confident they’ll 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.

“Everybody in the Army was trying to get us these things,” Kearney said. “It just didn’t work.”

Commanders say they know some of these issues have caused “anxiety” 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 harm’s 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 Army’s individual replacement system has robbed the unit of 40 percent of the soldiers who saw combat in Iraq, 60 percent remain, including many NCOs.

“The silver lining in the short turnaround [between tours] is that a lot of people know about Iraq and impart that to the new guys,” said Lt. Col. Eric Wesley, commander of 1-13 Armor.

Daniel, who was part of the brigade’s first tour in Iraq, agreed, saying this time around younger soldiers had greater faith in what their NCOs were saying. The new soldiers’ attitude, Daniel said, was, “He knows what he’s talking about, he’s been there.”

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.

“I feel a lot more prepared than I did the first time,” Daniel said, something he attributed to knowing what he was going to face.

“This time we’ve got a clear guidance on [rules of engagement] and the political situation that exists in Iraq. We understand we’re trying to restore Iraq … [so] they can experience freedom. Before it was just ‘defeat Saddam’ and there was nothing after that.

“The younger guys now see the bigger picture,” Daniel continued. “A lot of the younger guys before, they didn’t really get it.”

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 afternoon’s work — fixing another tank.
Bishop identified the tanks’ fire control system as the source of most of the faults.

“That’s the most delicate part of the tank,” he said.
Really? I thought it was the soldiers who operate it...?
"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 brigade’s tanks. When these steps are not performed regularly, maintenance problems are inevitable."

The hydraulic curse of the Chieftan strikes again.
Off topic, Yes, apologies to all for going off topic, but it's typical of politics out here.
The PM has got himselve into a mess again, and has woken up Muslim sensibilities in the south.
The 4th army which 'polices' that part of the world always had it's commander and senior staff special chosen for their political sensitivity on Islamist mesures.
The PM rocked the entire military about three years ago when he promoted 'unsuitable' senoir officers to most of the militarys highest positions. Officers where chosen for their political reliability, close family ties and the other Thai trait of having served in the same class as the PM at the Chermalanko (spelling) military school.
All Army, Navy, Airforce and Police officers candidates attend for basic and advance cadet military training. Then around gradauation move to their chose force.
This gives the Thai sysem of a horizontal maffia.
Officers move up the chain of command and all have pledged to assist their fellow class members in the attempt to get their gang to the top of the national heap.
We then have the other Thai trait. Thais are very polite people. They are educated from babies to be polite and correct. I find Thai policemen to be polite and friendly almost respectful in the minor dealing I have, ususally motoring document checks or immigration matters where the officers are serving police with full police powers.
However a display of ignorance toward the system, King, Religion, Country, brings a violent reaction of force which the authorities are known for.
The student 'revolt' of 73 the demonstration against Army rule in 92 and now the Tak Ben ? demonstration in the south all ended in a massive violent reaction by the authorities.
The PM is the riches man in the country, he was before he bought the last election and now he can prove his only about No 8 on the list.
Howeve he does have the habit of talking then thinking. As a junior minister in the Government that gave us the financial crash of 97, he promised to solve bangkok traffic problems in six months. Then plan to buy Liverpool football club was his way of taking the heat off a major political mess up and now the Doves of Peace are his way of diverting the politacl heat over the southern problems.
Many Thais accept that floating millons of paper birds down to spread peace is a good buddist idea and it appealed to many mainly the young from the north.
it will not solve the problem. The South needs intigrating more into Thai society, it has only been part of Thailand since 1908, when Britian and Siam carved up a Muslim state between them.

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