Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Reserves lack gear, training for Iraq

Reserves lack gear, training for Iraq
Unit's disobedience of orders highlights ongoing problems

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/18/04

Sending part-time soldiers to a full-time war has left the policemen, teachers, shopkeepers and accountants who man the reserves and National Guard facing dangers neither they nor the Pentagon anticipated, say defense analysts and retired general officers.

The latest episode that they say demonstrates that the Pentagon did not adequately prepare troops for a long-term counterinsurgency in Iraq came last week when a group of Army reservists refused to go on a supply mission because they considered it too dangerous.

"I think it goes back to the fact that the assumption on the part of the administration was that once Baghdad fell . . . everything else would fall in line," said retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor. "They certainly didn't anticipate the chaos and the emerging insurgency."

A group of 19 soldiers of the 343rd Quartermaster Company, based in Rock Hill, S.C., told relatives last week that they did not go on the resupply mission because their vehicles were in poor condition and were inadequately protected and that the fuel they were to carry was contaminated.

Army officials said Monday that they are investigating what they are calling an isolated incident. The military said no decision has been made about possible disciplinary action against the soldiers.

The issue of adequate equipment and training has boiled to the surface just two weeks before the presidential election, in which the war in Iraq has become a crucial campaign issue between President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.

While this was not the first time soldiers in Iraq have complained publicly about a shortage of body armor, a lack of protective measures for vehicles and aircraft or inadequate training for specific missions, it is believed to be the first time they have cited one of those factors in disobeying direct orders.

"The basic problems are that our reserve forces are not postured to participate in a protracted insurgency or guerrilla campaign," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank.

The newest equipment

While regular forces are able to adapt to changing conditions more rapidly, Thompson said, the National Guard and reserves are structured more for traditional warfare and lack the equipment and training necessary for fighting a counterinsurgency war such as the one U.S. forces are faced with in Iraq.

But Col. Al Jones, chief of operations and training for the First Army based at Fort Gillem in Forest Park, said reserve units deploying to Iraq are often given newer, state-of-the-art equipment before stateside active units.

"It is as equal as we can make it here," Jones said. "Based on the mission requirements, [reserve units] are given some of the newest equipment available." The First Army is responsible for equipping and training Army Reserve and National Guard units based east of the Mississippi River prior to their deployment to Iraq.

Jones also said the training of National Guard and Army units is continually changing to reflect the evolving situation in Iraq.

National Guard and reserve forces now make up about 40 percent of the U.S. troops in Iraq, and they are expected to continue to carry much of the burden in the conflict.

Trainor said the National Guard and reserves traditionally have gotten less training and poorer equipment than the active forces. "It's not that they are deliberately short-shrifting the Guard and reserve; it's a matter of how you prioritize limited resources," he said.

"It's clear that what we're seeing here is a result of decades of underfunding the Army in equipment and training," Thompson said.

Improvised armor

One of the first major complaints by troops in Iraq was a lack of proper body armor, not only for Guard and reserves but for active forces as well.

Many soldiers were sent to Iraq with Vietnam-era Kevlar flak jackets designed primarily to stop shrapnel, not high-velocity AK-47 rifle bullets. From May through December 2003, the Pentagon scrambled to supply troops with updated body armor that uses boron carbide ceramic plates, but they were still about 40,000 short at the end of the year.

Some soldiers improvised by cutting steel plates and inserting them into their flak jackets, while others had their families buy the modern body armor and send it to them.

When the insurgents in Iraq began targeting convoys with roadside bombs and ambushes, troops complained about a lack of armored Humvees and armor plating for larger trucks. The Pentagon ordered more armored Humvees, but when troops devised their own armor plating, Army officials stopped them from using it.

The Army Reserve's 428th Transportation Company, out of Jefferson City, Mo., received a donation of 13,000 pounds of specially fabricated steel plates for its unarmored trucks before it left for Iraq. But the Army discouraged the unit from taking the plates along, because they did not meet military specifications.

Changing missions

A lack of proper training was cited as a prime cause of one of the most notorious episodes arising from the war: the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Testimony at a hearing on whether Pfc. Lynndie England, one of several soldiers charged with abusing Iraqi prisoners, should be court-martialed revealed that her unit had had its original mission changed to guarding prisoners, one for which it had never been trained.

Jones, of the 1st Army, said units are trained and equipped for a specific mission, which comes from the theater commander in Iraq. But those missions sometimes change once they get overseas, Jones said.

Trainor said that, of the National Guard and reserve units sent to Iraq, "some were top-notch and some less so, and we're paying the consequences for it."

Added Thompson, of the Lexington Institute: "The reason the Army is in this problem is that it didn't prepare the reserves for the kind of war we find ourselves in."

— The Associated Press and other news services contributed to this article.