If It Ain’t Broke

Before accepting dire assessments of Army readiness, it’s worth asking: Ready for what?

Before accepting dire assessments of Army readiness, it's worth asking: Ready for what?

Table 8 is the Super Bowl of live-fire gunnery practice for Army tank crews. It's a Top Gun shootout where bragging rights go to the crew that most rapidly destroys multiple pop-up enemy tanks on a mock battlefield, at distances up to two miles, on the move, day and night. For decades, Table 8 has been the culmination of a tank crew's six-monthlong gunnery training. But commanders in Iraq need infantry on the ground more than they need crews able to blast enemy tanks at long distance, so tank commanders routinely ship out to Iraq without ever having qualified on the Table 8 course.

Army leaders judge a unit's readiness by whether it is fully staffed, equipped and trained to wage the type of war for which it was designed. Tank crews are not practicing slugging it out with enemy tanks on mock battlefields, but instead are spending their training time on lifesaving combat skills-how to take out enemy snipers, clear houses and buildings of guerrilla fighters-in short, skills needed for fighting irregular warfare in Iraq and Af-ghanistan. But the Army leadership sees the training shift as a crisis in readiness.

"Readiness continues to decline for our next-to-deploy forces," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody told members of the House Armed Services committee on March 13. "We have the best counterinsurgency army on the planet, but they're not trained to full-spectrum operations." By full-spectrum operations, Cody is referring to high-intensity warfare.

So, if an Army tank unit has skipped its Table 8 gunnery, or has not spent a month in the Mojave Desert in California at the Army's National Training Center fighting mock high-intensity battles against massed enemy tanks because the commander has decided training time is better spent preparing to patrol Baghdad's streets, then the unit could be deemed unready even though in Baghdad, the unit is likely to spend far more time patrolling city streets in up-armored Humvees than in tanks.

Is there an Armywide readiness crisis? Yes, according to the Army's traditional Cold War readiness model. Under it, all active-duty units had to be at a roughly even and fairly high level of readiness so in the event of a major war the entire Army would be ready to fight on short notice. But in today's conditions-supporting overseas rotations for two ongoing wars-units must cycle through deployment, resting at home and then preparing again to deploy. Maintaining the entire Army at high-level readiness simply isn't possible given current wartime demands.

According to some Army leaders and Congress members and much of the media, the demands of persistent irregular fighting have crippled the Army. An April 16 Time magazine cover story examines "America's Broken Down Army." According to Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., Army readiness hasn't been this poor since the years after Vietnam. A plethora of retired Army generals have been quoted in press accounts about the Army's broken state.

What's the evidence? One commonly cited factor is that some Army units have skipped training rotations at the NTC and so are missing out on desert training to prepare for Iraq. But American troops in Iraq don't fight in the desert. They fight in cities. The Tigris-Euphrates River valley, with its rice paddies, palm groves and countless canals, is terrain that troops liken to Vietnam. Even the NTC no longer offers the open desert battlefield it once did. It is now a cluster of small towns and villages designed to prepare soldiers for urban combat. Counter-insurgency warfare is small unit warfare, but the NTC was designed to train large units in big wars.

Lavishly Equipped

If the Army really is broken, then it's the most lavishly equipped broken Army in history. When the 3rd Infantry Division invaded Iraq in 2003, units were lucky if their commander's vehicle had the satellite-based Blue Force Tracker battle command network. As the 3rd ID returns for its third tour in Iraq, nearly every vehicle carries the device. Soldiers spend more time today on small arms ranges than at any time in the past few decades, in large part because vast quantities of training ammunition are available.

Soldiers are far better equipped than ever before with more radios, better gun sights and more night scopes. When soldiers returning from Af-ghanistan identified shortages and inadequacies of personal equipment in 2001, the Army developed the Rapid Fielding Initiative to quickly provide about 50 items, including boots, the new combat helmets, squad radios and advanced weapons sights. Since the start of the program in October 2002, Army officials say they have equipped nearly 800,000 soldiers with the total RFI kit, and have issued 900,000 sets of improved body armor, and plan to have the entire Army outfitted by September.

Army officials say supplies of spare parts have never been so high, and an incredibly efficient system now speeds parts to the battlefield within days of an order. The Army maintains sizable stocks of equipment, primarily in Kuwait, ready to repair battle losses or otherwise damaged equipment. A December 2006 Congressional Research Service report said that pool of equipment included as many as 400 types of vehicles and 174,000 pieces of equipment. That's in addition to items that Army units leave in Iraq to be handed off to new arrivals. They include up-armored Humvees, specialized vehicles to disarm improvised explosive devices and body armor. There are approximately 300,000 such pieces of equipment in Iraq, including more than 26,000 vehicles, according to the Army.

Cody testified March 13 that readiness and equipment levels among units in Iraq and Afghanistan are at their highest levels in four years. It is among nondeployed units that shortages exist, he said. When pressed on shortages among home-stationed units, Cody said they lacked trucks, mainly, with some "spot shortages" of radios and night-vision goggles. The truck shortage has occurred because once a truck is up-armored, it typically remains in Iraq rather than being shipped home. The Army requested $1.3 billion in the 2008 defense budget for new trucks to equip units while at home station.

By some accounts, the Army's battle fleet is being ground down by the high operational tempo of repeated deployments. Since 2002, Congress has provided the Army with more than $38 billion in supplemental appropriations for repair, replacement and modernization. For 2007 alone, it received $17.1 billion for reset, nearly double the previous year's allocation of $8.6 billion. Reset funds are for rapidly refurbishing equipment for units preparing to deploy. The Army has used that money not only to replace losses and fix war-worn equipment, but also to buy new equipment and upgrade its entire battle fleet.

The Government Accountability Office noted in a Jan. 31 statement before the House Armed Services Committee that the Army has been unable to confirm that the $38 billion Congress appropriated for reset has been spent on resetting. The Army has used a broad definition of reset, and those funds were mixed in with operating expenses and procurement accounts to modernize and upgrade equipment. When a helicopter, tank or Bradley Fighting Vehicle goes into the repair shop, it is restored to a zero-hour, zero-mile condition, and upgraded to the most advanced version. The Army said last summer that it had reset 1,920 aircraft, 14,160 tracked vehicles and 110,800 wheeled vehicles.

This year, the Army plans to reset 500 tanks and more than 300 Bradleys returning from Iraq; an additional $2.4 billion in 2007 reset funds will go for updating 400 Abrams tanks and more than 500 Bradleys, now sitting in storage, to modern digitized versions. The Army contends that this will simplify its logistics by standardizing vehicles. The Army also continues to spend billions on new weapons systems that won't reach the battlefield for years to come. The 2008 budget contains $3.5 billion for the Future Combat Systems whose units won't be fielded for 10 years, at least.

There is no question that the Army is stressed by repeat combat deployments as the war in Iraq enters its fifth year. But the operational tempo of Special Operations far exceeds that of the regular Army and there's not much talk of broken Special Operations forces. Bringing the definition of readiness into the 21st century and retooling it for long-duration, irregular wars as well as major conflicts might well change the assessment of today's Army units. But using new measures aligned with today's battles would rob anecdotal evidence of its power, and could prevent Army leaders from using the tale of a broken force to lobby for a larger share of the defense budget.