Voyage delays key equipment for troops

Heavy tanks aboard ships are rerouted after Turkey refused to accept forces

War In Iraq

March 29, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The war in Iraq is providing Pentagon officials with a biting reminder that the nation's most powerful tank divisions can't run to a fight - they have to sail to it, at speeds no faster than about 22 knots.

At a time when Army leaders near Baghdad say they want more tanks and artillery to protect their vulnerable supply lines, the nearest heavy armored division is still at least a week away, its soldiers flying in from Texas but its equipment still sailing around the Arabian Peninsula headed for Kuwait.

A second heavy division assigned to the war hasn't even moved its equipment out of Texas and is awaiting the assignment of its own fleet of ships to begin the monthlong process of steaming across the ocean into battle.

The delay in getting more heavy armor into Iraq has been caused largely by the failed negotiations to base the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division in Turkey. The three dozen ships now headed for Kuwait, loaded with the 4th Division's equipment, spent most of March bobbing in the Mediterranean Sea while talks with the Turkish government dragged on. Those ships were supposed to deposit their cargo in the Middle East a month ago and return to the United States for another load.

But some officials at the Pentagon, particularly in the Army, say the problem also stems from the top-level strategy of sending mostly light infantry divisions and Marine forces to the war first, followed later by the Army's heavy armor.

To accelerate that schedule now, as some Army officials desire, would stretch the Pentagon's cargo ship capabilities beyond any of its expectations - requiring it to float two heavy divisions at sea simultaneously, while continuing shipments to support and replenish the troops already in the fight.

"You can't send everything the Army owns all at one time; you have to roll it in over a period of months," said retired Brig. Gen. Boyd E. King, a former director of transportation for the Army. "And those heavy divisions are the toughest to move. They can spread your sealift resources pretty thin."

Logistics and supply operations, typically just a background concern handled by back-office warriors, have become vital, life-and-death elements in the war with Iraq. Surprised by the frequency of guerrilla attacks on their long supply lines, some Army officials at the Pentagon say they are inclined to wait for the 4th Infantry Division to arrive in Iraq before attempting any aggressive movement against the enemy's more organized forces.

Dug in to wait

That tactic could leave tens of thousands of American and British soldiers dug in across central Iraq for a week or more, waiting as reinforcements slowly churn toward Kuwait. Soldiers from the 4th Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, are already landing in Kuwait to meet up with the supplies arriving in the next few days, but then they must assemble the troops and march toward Baghdad.

The Army is redoubling efforts to move its 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a smaller, specialized force in Fort Polk La., designed to provide security and protect installations and supply lines. Its equipment consists mostly of armed Humvees and light vehicles that can be rushed to Iraq on cargo planes.

But most other Army units can't move their equipment on airplanes. Virtually all of the tanks and heavy equipment needed to fight a ground war have to travel by ship because they are too heavy and abundant to fly. Most food and supplies also move by sea because of the vast quantities necessary to support a 250,000-troop force.

The nation's fleet of military cargo ships is much improved from the first Persian Gulf war, mostly due to the addition of 19 large tank-carrying vessels built over the past five years. Older ships in the fleet also are in better condition. Most are maintained by part-time crews that were hired after 1991, when the otherwise dormant vessels reported widespread problems trying to power up for war.

Today the United States owns 99 cargo ships for moving military supplies overseas - fewer than 12 years ago, but a fleet that is generally in better shape and can haul more supplies.

`From fort to foxhole'

Still, it is not enough. The Pentagon has already chartered 35 foreign ships to haul military supplies for the war in Iraq and nearly as many tankers for delivering fuel. Even with those additions, the wartime supplies have not moved at the Pentagon's ideal pace - 5 1/3 divisions "from fort to foxhole" in 75 days. The first cargo ships were called up more than 100 days ago, and so far the rough equivalent to four divisions is in place - two Army divisions and one Marine Corps Expeditionary Force.

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