Equipment, stockpiles wear thin as U.S. tries to keep up conditions, morale in Iraq

WASHINGTON—The Army's Bradley fighting vehicles and M1 Abrams tanks are eating up the tracks they run on at an astounding rate in Iraq.

Humvee tires are wearing out much more quickly as well, and harsh desert conditions are taking a toll on helicopter blades and engines.

The Army's chief logistics and materiel commanders said that although they try to prepare for the worst, few saw any need for 130,000 troops in Iraq this long after the war, and no one anticipated that mines and rocket-propelled grenade attacks would require Bradley fighting vehicles to escort every convoy running from Kuwait into Iraq.

"Did we do enough? Probably not," said Gen. Paul Kern of Army Materiel Command. "Did we plan for this many people, this long? Some did; some didn't.

"The cost is in the billions. We ate up our stockpiles," Kern said at a recent Pentagon briefing.

But Kern also said that things were better for soldiers now, about six months after the war began.

He said that widespread soldier complaints in the spring about slow mail delivery, an endless diet of Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs) and a shortage of bottled water have largely been dealt with.

Mail delivery now takes an average of 10 days from the United States to a soldier serving in Iraq. And each soldier should be getting four bottles of water per day in addition to a veritable river of purified water that's being produced by portable reverse osmosis purification plants.

Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee told Knight Ridder that a private contractor, Kellogg Brown and Root, built and staffed almost all of the 32 dining halls where most American troops deployed to Iraq now get two hot meals per day. Brownlee added that 13 newly built ice plants would be operational in Iraq in October. Kellogg Brown and Root is a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., which Vice President Dick Cheney ran before he became the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2000.

"Soldiers' quality of life is less than adequate overall. We have guys living in tents in the dirt. The units on the ground are living hard; others are living in air-conditioned palaces," said Maj. Gen. Chris Christianson, the new chief of Army logistics, who was on the staff of Lt. Gen. Dave McKiernan, the ground commander in Iraq during the war.

He said Kellogg Brown and Root had the single-source contract for food, laundry, showers, toilets and bug control for American troops in Iraq and is the contractor for transportation and distribution of food and water and mail.

Christianson noted that today almost 90 percent of all soldiers' mail consist of packages from home, while personal communication is almost entirely by e-mail. "This is a huge volume; six or seven trucks with two containers of mail per truck goes to each brigade every three days," he said. "Some folks are even mailing air conditioners to their soldiers."

Kern said that the most critical shortage is track and suspension systems for the Bradley fighting vehicles, which normally run only 800 miles in an average year but are running 1,200 miles per month escorting convoys in Iraq.

"They are changing track every 60 days when normally they would do that only once a year," Kern said. "We are air shipping replacement track to Iraq now."

"Our predictions were for higher use of these vehicles but we did not foresee the need to secure all our convoys with Bradleys," Kern said. He added that the prediction was that Army's Red River Depot, which rebuilds worn-out track, and Goodyear and United Defense, which manufacture new track, would catch up on the backlog orders in about three months.

The commander added that there was a major shortage of power generators. "It's a demand problem," Kern said. "It gets to 140 or 150 degrees inside a tank or a tent. The locals don't do anything during the day due to the heat, but we work days. There is a huge demand for power to provide cool areas for our computers and our people" and to power refrigerated trucks storing frozen food.

Kern said the brigade of Stryker wheeled fighting vehicles scheduled to deploy to Iraq in October could prove to be "a better fit for convoy duty than the Bradleys—they have good armor, good weapons, good speed and a good ride."

Kern said that despite new advances in technology that automatically track shipping containers and their contents from the United States to the port in Kuwait, the system from Kuwait into Iraq left a lot to be desired.

Logistics communications in Iraq were "disastrous," he said.

He said there was no communication with the logisticians once they crossed into Iraq during the war and immediately afterward. "When it came to requisitioning parts we used the sneaker system—you put on your sneakers and head to the rear to find what you need."

Christianson said the two main jobs he sees in transforming Army logistics are fixing a creaky battlefield distribution system and bringing the logisticians online from the rear to the front. "This is going to require significant changes to get it right," he said.