U.S. Ground Forces Wearing Out

In the spring of 2007, I found myself racing up one of Iraq’s main supply routes toward Baghdad in one of Granite Global’s thoroughly armored tactical combat vehicles. The vehicle — designed with a V-shaped hull to deflect mine blasts — was part of the rolling stock of a group of British contractors who — like their American counterparts — were responsible for providing security escort and other “risk mitigation” services to clients.
As we neared the Iraqi capital, highway traffic began to increase and at one point we found ourselves in a temporary traffic jam, an unnerving prospect for anyone who had been ambushed before.

As during both my of my trips to Iraq there was no stopping. You either wind your way through the jam (to include driving up on sidewalks or over road medians) or hit the siren and get others to clear a path. The problem with the latter is that it draws attention to enemy snipers and RPG men.

The vehicles were amazing, but the stress on them — a combination of overuse, engine strain (from very high speeds, pulling a tremendous amount of weight, and running in extremely high temperatures), as well as being shot at and struck by IEDs — was something few can appreciate unless they’ve spent time roaring up and down those highways.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps were in much worse shape in terms of tactical vehicle wear and tear. I regularly saw — and months later operated in — flat-bottomed Humvees, scarred and pock-marked from hard fighting and lots of highway ambushes, their engines straining from the heavy up-armoring necessary to save lives.

When they were not on the road, many of the Humvees were being serviced: Engines and transmissions were being replaced, new armor and windshields, tires, you name it. And the expense was — and is — enormous in terms of repairing and replacing those vehicles.

During the initial phase of the Iraq war in 2003, Humvees were not armored. That changed with the ambush of the Blackwater contractors, who were killed while driving thin-skinned SUVs in Fallujah in 2004. From 2005 through 2007 — as the enemy IED threat increased in terms of device lethality — the Army and Marines found themselves rethinking overall design requirements for their large fleets of tactical vehicles, not only for service on the deadly highways in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, Africa, and anywhere else in the world were the footprint or tire track of the American infantryman must be made.

But Humvees and the newer mine-resistant-ambush-protected (MRAP) family of vehicles — which may ultimately replace up-armored Humvees — are only one element to consider in the overall recapitalization and modernization necessary for the Army and Marines.

Designers, engineers, contractors, maintenance personnel, and budget planners have always had to consider everything from handguns to howitzers to tactical missiles for U.S. ground forces and every imaginable soldier’s weapon in between. Those considerations have only increased with the current pace of ground combat operations.

 But it’s not just Humvees, small arms, and big guns to consider. There are also helmets, body armor, computers, tanks, trucks, amphibious tractors, fighting vehicles, helicopters, small fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, the Marine Corps’ tactical fighters and Ospreys, and the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS), which that service hopes to field by 2015.

A futuristic “system of systems,” as Boeing refers to it, FCS is to be a fully integrated wireless network linking the individual soldier with a variety of unmanned platforms, robotics, and battlefield sensors. But it won’t be cheap.

Estimates vary on what FCS will cost — $124 to $234 billion over the next five plus-years — but it is only a share of what is needed if America’s already-strained ground combat forces expect to keep up the pace of their current global responsibilities as well as those unforeseen.

Of President Bush’s proposed  $515 billion U.S. Defense budget for Fiscal Year 2009, the Army’s total request is just under $141 billion — 27.3 percent of the entire DoD budget — and the Corps share of the Department of the Navy’s budget (See America’s Naval Supremacy Slipping) is $24.9 billion, about five percent of the overall DoD budget.

That’s $165.9 billion total for ground forces. Of that number $7.5 billion is slated for tactical ground-combat vehicles and vehicle armor. Additionally, $20.5 billion is slated to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 active-duty soldiers and the Marine Corps by 27,000 Marines over the next several years. By 2012, the Army would field a force of 547,000 soldiers, and the Marines would be at 202,000.

But the current Defense budget — just under four percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — doesn’t adequately factor in skyrocketing inflation, endemic developmental problems, evolving battlefield dynamics, and unforeseen threats. And that is a huge problem for an Army and Marine Corps looking to rebuild war-weary regiments for future conflict.

In December 2007, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) introduced a resolution recommending “our nation commit no less than four percent of GDP to annual defense budgets.”

In a Washington Times editorial on Monday, Dole added:

“Today’s defense budget is at one of the lowest levels since World War II — 3.3 percent of GDP, exclusive of supplemental war funding. … It remains important for the Army to develop its Future Combat Systems … Yet at existing funding levels, we risk developing [the program] only to find that we can afford to equip just a small portion of the force.”

Dole’s resolution, currently before the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a start to be sure. But ground combat experts like Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely (U.S. Army, ret.) say four percent may not be enough.
“We need to go four or five percent quickly,” he says, adding, “We must strengthen special operations forces across the board to fight the unconventional wars of the future, and at the same time structure and support the re-building of our conventional forces including our conventional ground forces that have been worn thin with the Middle East campaigns.”

Vallely mentions special operations forces, a critical element that also has expensive recapitalization and modernization requirements, which we will look at in Part 5 of our series.


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