One of the biggest lessons to be relearned from Iraq is that there is no safe place on the battlefield for soft-skinned or poorly-trained troops
There were many subtexts to the story
of the 343rd Quartermaster Company and its purported refusal to conduct a convoy mission in Iraq. Neela Banerjee and John Kifner reported on one of the most important of these narratives in Saturday's New York Times
-- the systemic weaknesses among U.S. Army "rear area" units, which have been systematically exploited by the insurgent enemy in Iraq. The non-contiguous, non-linear, unconventional battlefield has totally destroyed the Army's doctrinal battlefield framework of "deep", "close" and "rear" areas -- and with it, the Army's paradigms for training and equipping units. The story of why today's military logistics units, housed largely in the Army Reserve and National Guard, are so unprepared is a long one, but an important one. Ms. Banerjee and Mr. Kifner provide some of this background.
Under a reorganization of the military after the Vietnam War, support functions were passed from the Army to the Reserve. Historians say the idea was to protect the Army from being sent into another unpopular war because widespread support would be needed to call up the reserves.Analysis
In his biography of Gen. Creighton Abrams, "Thunderbolt" (Simon & Schuster, 1992), Lewis Sorley wrote than General Abrams built into the restructuring "a reliance on reserves such that the force could not function without them, and hence could not be deployed without calling them up."
The reliance on the Reserve and National Guard also increased with the shrinking of the active military from roughly 2.1 million at the end of the Persian Gulf war to some 1.4 million today.
But for years, under what is called the Tiered Resourcing System, new equipment went to those most likely to need it - the active Army - while the Reserve and the Guard got the hand-me-downs.
"In addition to personnel shortfalls, most Army Guard units are not provided all the equipment they need for their wartime requirements," said Janet A. St. Laurent of the General Accounting Office in testimony before Congress in April. Ms. St. Laurent noted that many Guard units had radios so old that they could not communicate with newer ones, and trucks so old that the Army lacked spare parts for them.
Army officials concede that the old approach to training and equipping the Guard and Reserve did not prepare them for the new realities of Iraq. Progress appears to have been made in providing modern body armor and some other equipment, families and soldiers say.
The Army says it is on schedule to armor all its Humvees in Iraq by April 2005, despite the fact that only one factory in the United States puts armor on the vehicles. Moreover, the Guard is developing a plan to heighten the training and preparedness of its soldiers, under which a given unit could expect to be deployed every six years.
But the glaring problem for soldiers and families remains the vulnerability of trucks. In a conventional war there would be a fixed front line and no need for supply trucks to be armored. But in Iraq, there are no clear front lines, and slow-moving truck convoys are prime targets for roadside attacks.
Gen. James E. Chambers, the commander of the 13th Corps Support Command, to which the recalcitrant soldiers who refused the assignment are attached, told a news conference in Baghdad: "In Jim Chambers' s opinion, the most dangerous job in Iraq is driving a truck. It's not if, but when, they will be attacked."
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According to figures compiled by the House Armed Services Committee and previously reported in The Seattle Times, there are plans to produce armor kits for at least 2,806 medium-weight trucks, but as of Sept. 17, only 385 of the kits had been produced and sent to Iraq. Armor kits were also planned for at least 1,600 heavyweight trucks, but as of mid-September just 446 of these kits were in Iraq. The Army is also looking into developing ways to armor truck cabs quickly, and has ordered 700 armored Humvees with special weapons platforms to protect convoys.
: The Army has been incredibly, painfully, and disappointingly slow to adapt to this new reality. During the late 1990s, I served as a military police lieutenant and captain, and watched the Army struggle to find a new warfighting paradigm that would enable it to fight and win the next war. Its theoreticians developed a "contemporary operational environment" which was supposed to look more like tomorrow's battlefields than the old fight against the Soviet hordes in the Fulda Gap. But this "COE", as it was known", never really amounted to much more than incremental change. Massive "Warfighter" computer exercises, which simulated division and corps-level maneuvers, were still fought in much the same way. And as several high-ranking officers have noted, the Army typically called "EndEx" when U.S. forces secured their objective, without paying any thought to the complex warfighting that must be done next to secure the peace. Some doctrinal changes were made in the late 1990s, but not many.
But one area where change barely happened at all was in the area of equipment. In the Army's first digitized division, used as a test-bed for all sorts of organizational and technological innovations, little thought was given to the way that an asymmetric, noncontiguous, nonlinear battlefield would interact with poorly-armored, poorly-protected, and under-equipped support forces. Despite planner predictions that tomorrow's forces would move farther and faster than any in history (see, e.g., the 3rd ID march on Baghdad), their support units received no additional armor or armament with which to deal with the inevitable bypassed forces, insurgents, or myriad threats they would face as they rushed to keep up with the tanks and infantry.
Now look, you can't armor an entire fuel truck or ammo truck. Putting that much armor would make the truck so heavy that would drive even slower than it does, or drink so much fuel that it wouldn't be worth it to drive it up. But you can build an armor "bathtub" for the crew, and you can put ring mounts on these trucks (many already have them) with .50 caliber machine guns or Mk19 grenade machine guns in order unleash a can of whoopa** on any insurgent who tries to ambush them. And once you've turned every U.S. Army convoy into a bristling hornet's nest of heavy weaponry, with armor bathtubs to protect the crews from all but a direct IED hit, then you have effectively defeated two of the insurgents' best weapons -- the direct-fire ambush and the IED. You may still lose a few trucks and shipments, but you save your crews and you probably kill a few more insurgents too.
If this is so simple, why has the Army not done this yet?
I could give you a thousand answers for that one, but the biggest one is this: inertia
. The Army's procurement's process work at something slower than glacial pace; federal regulations sharply limit what the Army can do with simplified acquisition authority and off-the-shelf acquisition authority. Every new program must go through a series of tests and procurement hurdles designed to ensure that our warfighters get only the best equipment -- but these obstacles have a downside. Many of the key systems today's soldiers use were thought of during the 1970s, procured during the 1980s, and fielded during the 1990s (with some notable exceptions). So even some really bright planners had looked at Mogadishu and Bosnia and come to these conclusions, it would take the Army a while to turn its procurement ship around to start doing the right thing. On top of the significant inertia problem, you also have a lot of parochialism and institutional conservatism, which complicate any change in the Army -- particularly one which would make support units look and fight more like combat units. And finally, there is a great deal of friction in the process, especially since procurement programs of this size would require Congressional approval.
What can be done now?
Well, the Pentagon could get serious about its bolt-on armor packages so that soldiers don't have to make their own armor with sandbags and Iraqi manhole covers. The Army could also step up the pace to lateral transfer more crew-served weaponry into logistical units and turn them into truly combat-capable units. In addition to heavy weapons, these units continue to suffer for sufficient numbers of hand-held GPS units, advanced SINCGARS radios, squad radios, and live-fire combat training prior to deployment. All of these moves could be accomplished via internal Army or Pentagon directives -- no Congressional action required. Sure, a few sacred cows might have to be slaughtered, but as they saying goes, sacred cows make the best hamburger.