WASHINTON — WASHINGTON -- The deployment of U.S. combat reinforcements to the Persian Gulf has pushed the military's transportation program near the breaking point, forcing the Navy to charter at least 32 more cargo ships and prompting an urgent appeal yesterday for help from NATO allies.
Military officials were not ready to concede any serious shortfalls in their ability to move troops and cargo, but they acknowledged that the latest phase of the U.S. buildup placed new demands on a system that strained to get an initial force of more than 230,000 military personnel to the region.
"We're talking about a lot more heavy equipment," said a senior Air Force officer at the Pentagon. "The magnitude will be unbelievable."
President Bush announced plans Nov. 8 for a major increase in U.S. forces assigned to Operation Desert Shield, including the addition of at least three armored divisions from Germany and the United States. More than 1,000 additional tanks may be sent to U.S. ground forces in Saudi Arabia.
The reinforcements should push total U.S. strength over 400,000 personnel, by most military estimates.
In Brussels, Belgium, yesterday, William H. Taft IV, the U.S. envoy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, made what other U.S. officials described as an "urgent" appeal to NATO allies to help ship and fly U.S. combat troops and equipment to the Persian Gulf.
The appeal, made during a meeting at the NATO headquarters, coincided with a renewed effort this week by the Bush administration to seek both financial and military contributions from foreign governments to help defray the enormous expense of U.S. operations in the gulf.
A U.S. official at the NATO mission was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that Mr. Taft's request centered on the need for passenger planes. But a spokesman for the Military Airlift Command raised the possibility that European air carriers may be needed to help move cargo, as several have done already, leaving the flying of troops to the U.S. Air Force.
The Military Sealift Command said that, as of yesterday, 64 cargo ships -- 51 of them foreign-flag vessels -- were chartered to meet the need for large cargo carriers, partly because of the shortage of efficient roll-on, roll-off freighters in the U.S. reserve fleet. All of the ships assigned to load from European ports are foreign-operated.
During the initial stages of Operation Desert Shield, the Navy hired 32 cargo ships, including 23 vessels from Panama, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Britain and several other countries.
Although Vice Adm. Francis A. Donovan, chief of the Sealift Command, told Congress in September that each foreign ship cost the Navy about $10,000 a day, officials acknowledged that daily rates now ranged from $8,500 for a Norwegian freighter to $27,000 for a larger Italian ship hired for a trans-Atlantic voyage to the Persian Gulf.
The USNS Antares, one of eight SL-7 fast sealift ships used to carry tanks and other heavy equipment at twice the speed of most freighters, remains disabled and unusable, said Marge Holtz, a spokeswoman for the command. In August, the ship developed severe boiler problems while headed to the Persian Gulf and had to be towed across the Atlantic.
In addition, some of the 43 ships activated from the Ready Reserve Force have broken down, forcing more reliance on foreign commercial ships.