New York Times
March 20, 2007
By David S. Cloud
FORT POLK, La., March 14 — For decades, the Army has kept a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division on round-the-clock alert, poised to respond to a crisis anywhere in 18 to 72 hours.
Today, the so-called ready brigade is no longer so ready. Its soldiers are not fully trained, much of its equipment is elsewhere, and for the past two weeks the unit has been far from the cargo aircraft it would need in an emergency.
Instead of waiting on standby, the First Brigade of the 82nd Airborne is deep in the swampy backwoods of this vast Army training installation, preparing to go to Iraq. Army officials concede that the unit is not capable of getting at least an initial force of several hundred to a war zone within 18 hours, a standard once considered inviolate.
The declining readiness of the brigade is just one measure of the toll that four years in Iraq — and more than five years in Afghanistan — have taken on the United States military. Since President Bush ordered reinforcements to Iraq and Afghanistan in January, roughly half of the Army’s 43 active-duty combat brigades are now deployed overseas, Army officials said. A brigade has about 3,500 soldiers.
Pentagon officials worry that among the just over 20 Army brigades left in the United States or at Army bases in Europe and Asia, none has enough equipment and manpower to be sent quickly into combat, except for an armored unit stationed permanently in South Korea, several senior Army officers said.
“We are fully committed right now,” said Col. Charles Hardy of the Forces Command, which oversees Army training and equipping of troops to be sent overseas. “If we had a fully trained-up brigade, hell, it’d be the next one to deploy.”
The 82nd recently canceled its annual Memorial Day parade because most of its 17,000 soldiers are overseas. When the First Brigade, which got the rotating assignment as the ready brigade in December, leaves for Iraq over the summer, the 101st Airborne Division, at Fort Campbell, Ky., will take over responsibility for the ready brigade. But its soldiers are preparing to go to Iraq this year as well.
[Gen. Richard Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, told Congress in testimony on March 15 that with the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army does not have the time or the resources to prepare for most of the other missions it could potentially face.]
Military officials say that the United States, which has more than two million personnel in active and reserve armed forces, has a combat-tested force that could still emerge victorious if another major conflict arose. But the response would be slower, with more casualties, and would have to rely heavily on the Navy and Air Force, they said.
Despite tensions with Iran and North Korea, another crisis requiring troops does not appear imminent.
If ground forces were needed urgently, Army commanders said they could draw units quickly from Iraq and send them wherever they might be needed, rather than relying solely on the ready brigade to provide a fast reaction force.
The Pentagon can also draw on 28 combat brigades in the reserves, several of which the military is making plans to mobilize later this year or early next to relieve some of the strain. But those units face even deeper problems than the active duty brigades because of equipment and training shortfalls.
Altogether, Army officials said 23 brigades, including one National Guard brigade, are now deployed overseas. Once the reinforcements called for by the White House are in place, 17 Army combat brigades will be in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, Army officials said, along with four more deployed in various locations, including as peacekeepers in the Sinai desert.
In effect, the Army has become a “just in time” organization: every combat brigade that finishes training is sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan almost immediately. Equipment vital for protecting troops, like armored vehicles, roadside bomb jammers and night vision goggles, is rushed to Iraq as quickly as it is made, officials say.
The 2007 Pentagon budget includes $17.1 billion to reset Army equipment, with a separate fund of $13.9 billion in emergency funds to replace or repair gear damaged in combat. Even so, units at home preparing to deploy are facing equipment shortages and have all but given up preparing for anything other than their next tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.
[“We do have shortages in the nondeployed forces,” General Cody conceded in his unusually candid testimony to Congress. There were not enough vehicles, radios and night vision gear, and there are “spot shortages” in weapons, he said, noting that those units constituted the nation’s strategic reserve.]
Later this year, the Army will probably be forced to send its first brigades back to Iraq with less than a year at home resting and training, senior Pentagon officials said. Another alternative, they said, would be to lengthen the tours in Iraq to 18 months from a year.
Army officials said no soldiers were sent overseas without adequate training and equipment. And they point to continued strong recruiting and retention numbers as proof that morale remains high.
But after insisting for years that one year at home is a minimum amount of time necessary to prepare a unit to conduct counterinsurgency operations, commanders now say that, by speeding up equipment overhauls and compressing training, they can do the job in 10 months or less.
Over time, the shortened training schedules will inevitably begin to affect the performance of troops in the field, some officers said.
Senior Pentagon officials worry about those deepening strains. Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a secret report to Congress last month that upgraded from “moderate” to “significant” the risk of failing in its mission that the military faces this year in carrying out tasks in Iraq, Afghanistan and any other hot spots that might emerge.
[“We have the best counterinsurgency army in the world, but they’re not trained for full-spectrum operations,” General Cody said in his testimony.]
The Marines, which are also heavily engaged in Iraq, are facing similar strains.
Fort Polk is one of the last stops many combat units make before deploying to Iraq. During the cold war, the installation trained soldiers to fight the Soviets in Europe. The 82nd, based in Fort Bragg, N. C., used to parachute into Louisiana to keep its airborne skills sharp, but that tradition has been abandoned.
Now, even though the terrain bears little resemblance to Iraq’s desertlike conditions, the emphasis is solely on preparing infantry units to handle the chaotic sectarian conflict and random violence they are likely to encounter there.
Within the 82nd’s current First Brigade, about 4 soldiers in 10 have done previous tours in Iraq, making preparations to go back easier, said Col. Charles Flynn, the brigade commander. Last week, the brigade was spread out throughout the wooded training area at Fort Polk, in an exercise that featured simulations of the kind of Iraqi villages and roadside bomb attacks that many soldiers had actually experienced in previous deployments.
But almost all are in new jobs. Lt. Col. Michael Iacobucci, now a battalion commander, had served as a battalion executive officer in the 82nd when it was in Iraq in 2003. After coming home, Colonel Iacobucci, who is from Albany, had moved with his family to Australia as part of a three-year military exchange program.
He rejoined the 82nd in August, eager to go back to Iraq, he said while driving in a Humvee through the mock Iraqi villages. Before units were actually preparing to go into combat, their performance at Fort Polk would be graded only when the two-week exercise was over, said Lt. Col. Arthur Kandarian, a trainer. Now, the lessons are frequently spelled out as they happen, to get soldiers ready faster.
“It was treated as more of a test, and it was a closed-book test,” he explained. “Now it’s a coaching situation because we’re in a war.”
Training is being compressed at almost every stage, Army officers said. Soldiers who before 2003 spent months in specialized courses and on firing ranges now take compressed classes taught by so-called mobile training teams and hone their weapons proficiency on simulators, Army officers said.
“The biggest problem I’m seeing is unfamiliarity with equipment,” said Capt. Christian Durham, an instructor at Fort Polk, who sees all the units that rotate through before heading to Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Army is struggling just to keep up with current troop demands. The five additional combat brigades ordered by President Bush in January will raise the total American force level in Iraq to 160,000 troops, including combat and support troops, by June. That has forced the Army to take steps to supply troops faster to maintain the higher force levels.
Two Army brigades, one at Fort Riley, Kan., and another at Ft. Hood, Tex., that were not scheduled to return to the combat rotation until 2008 were ordered in December to speed up preparations so they will be ready to deploy by October, said Lt. Col. Christian Kubik, a spokesman for the First Infantry Division.
The Pentagon also informed the 172nd Stryker Brigade, which returned in December from a 16-month tour in Iraq, that it had to be ready for possible deployment between October and December, according to Maj. Michael Blankartz, a brigade spokesman.
Normally, a brigade is given half a year to overhaul its equipment, but the Alaska brigade, now part of the 25th Infantry Division, has only four months, he said. The timetable for preparing its troops is even more accelerated.