4 of Army's 10 divisions at low combat readiness

U.S. troops back from Iraq will be at that status for months, top official says

December 06, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Four of the Army's 10 divisions are returning home from Iraq duty with some of the lowest combat-readiness levels seen in years, a status that is expected to last for up to six months, a senior Army official said yesterday.

The official termed the low readiness ratings a "manageable risk" against the possibility of another war on the Korean peninsula or elsewhere and said it was necessary to provide troops time off, retrain soldiers and refurbish or replace equipment. "It's not a decision. It's a fact of life," said the official.

But lawmakers and analysts worried that the development shows how strained the Army has become since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - particularly with the ongoing mission in Iraq - and might require increasing the size of the overall 480,000-soldier Army.

"I think it's an indication of a long-term problem," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who just returned from a trip to Iraq and said the low readiness could dog the Army as the occupation continues into the coming years. "We are stretched pretty thin."

Dan Goure, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a national security think tank, noted that with some Army divisions slated to head to Iraq and others regrouping at low readiness levels, "eight of the 10 Army divisions will be non-usable [elsewhere] for that period."

The development could pose a political problem for President Bush, who as a candidate three years ago chided then-President Bill Clinton for letting two Army divisions just back from the Balkans fall to one of the lowest readiness levels, known in the Army as C-4. That is the level some of the Army divisions back from Iraq will face, the official said.

The four divisions in question - the 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division - all were at the highest rating for combat, known in Army circles as C-1, when they went to Iraq during the past year.

But the senior Army official, who briefed a small group of reporters on the condition he not be named, said the divisions will slip to C-3, meaning the unit "may need help" completing its mission, or C-4, defined as being able to complete "some or little" of their combat mission. The lowest rating is C-5, meaning a unit is out of commission and is being reorganized for another task.

The 3rd Infantry is back home at Fort Stewart, Ga., and the other three divisions are expected to return to their U.S. bases over the next four months. The specific readiness levels for each division are classified, the official said.

The lower readiness levels are expected to last from four to six months, partly because of the repair and replacement of equipment, such as the divisions' hundreds of helicopters and thousands of tanks, Humvees and other vehicles.

Also, troops have to be retrained in their required combat skills, such as firing tank rounds. For the occupation duty in Iraq, some soldiers have traded their tanks for Humvees to patrol Iraqi streets. Now they must become proficient again at their usual military jobs.

Another factor is that, after one-year duty in Iraq, the soldiers need time off to spend with their families, the official said. Moreover, the 101st Airborne and the 3rd Infantry divisions are each being reorganized from three brigades to four or five brigades as part of an Army experiment to increase the combat power of the divisions. That reorganization will also affect readiness.

The official likened the rebuilding of the military equipment to a 50,000-mile checkup on the family car, an effort to "extend the life" of tanks and helicopters. But the official noted that the tanks and helicopters are operating, and that the soldiers from the divisions could be sent overseas to a potential hotspot such as Korea.

"If something happened somewhere else, we would send them," the official said. "There's risk. It's a manageable risk."

At the same time, the official noted that the "ethos" of the Army was to make sure all its divisions are at the top combat readiness, meaning to be ready to fight a world-class power,

But the official noted that the Army assigns a high priority to giving its troops time to rest and its divisions time to regain their fighting edge.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said there was no cause for alarm with the Army's decreased combat worthiness.

While the readiness ratings are "worth watching," they can be somewhat arbitrary and misleading. For example, a few dozen broken tanks might lower a division's rating. Those tanks could likely be fixed quickly in an emergency.

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