War: Batteries not included

SUN JOURNAL

Charge: On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Army brass discovered a severe shortage of a disposable brick-size battery that runs nearly everything.

March 04, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - It was December 2002, and the Pentagon was planning to invade Iraq.

Top Army commanders were preparing for a computerized war game in Germany. Huge cargo ships were rented to carry troops and tanks to Kuwait. Thousands of National Guard and Reserve soldiers were about to be called to active duty.

And in the midst of all this careful planning, a crisis emerged with the potential to ruin everything: a battery shortage. Not just any battery - but the vaunted BA-5590, the military's most widely used portable power source.

If an army marches on its stomach, as Napoleon famously declared, today's needs batteries as well.

The 5590, a 30-hour disposable battery costing $57 and about the size of a brick, provides the juice for about 50 Army systems, mostly communications equipment.

It powers everything from hand-held radios and chemical weapons alarms to the thermal sight for the shoulder-fired Javelin missile.

The Army had fewer than 100,000 of the 5590s on hand, although officials estimated that in a war about 100,000 per month would be needed. Eventually, the Army - and the Marines - would consume about 300,000 in the first month of the drive into Baghdad.

A `showstopper'

In December a shudder went through the top Army ranks when talk turned to the battery. Forget the delicate negotiations with Turkey about moving U.S. troops across its territory or the urgent call that went out to other countries for men and materiel to support the war effort. The low supply of this battery "was a potential showstopper," says a Pentagon official, who requested anonymity.

Briefing documents about the crucial part were even prepared for the White House, the official says, terming the battery "the only part that got briefed to the president."

"The battery shortage came as a surprise because we were working hard to anticipate all requirements and needs," says retired Army Gen. John Keane, then the Army's No. 2 officer.

Keane and Gen. Paul J. Kern, head of the Army Materiel Command, which oversees supplies, came to the rescue. Officials say they quickly found the money and means to speed up battery production before U.S. troops went "over the berm" in Kuwait and streamed toward the Iraqi capital.

Keane "knew we needed the battery and knew we needed the funds," recalls Gary J. Motsek, a retired Army colonel who is now civilian chief of support operations at the Army Materiel Command at Fort Belvoir, Va.

The Army shifted money from one account to another. The $20 million annual budget for batteries - mostly the 5590 - skyrocketed. About $56 million was set aside that December alone for new contracts, the majority of it for the 5590, officials say.

"Finding the money was not a tough decision," Keane says. "Certainly we would do whatever it took to get the troops the batteries ASAP."

But first the industry had to find ways to produce far more than the usual 25,000 monthly allotment of 5590s.

"You don't just produce these things overnight," says Tom Nycz, an official with the U.S. Army Communications Electronic Command (CECOM) at Fort Monmouth, N.J., which is charged with keeping the service battery-driven.

For years, officials at Fort Monmouth had been trying to increase their battery inventory to at least 170,000 but they were repeatedly rebuffed and told the normal monthly production would suffice, officials say.

"It was always difficult because of the money situation," says Nycz. "It all comes down to money."

When the magnitude of the shortage was understood, Nycz and others were telling producers to make the batteries as quickly as possible. The number of contracts increased; factories in British Columbia, upstate New York and North Carolina churned out the chunky black batteries day and night.

The biggest supplier, Saft America Inc., went from one shift to three shifts at its Valdese, N.C., battery plant by March of last year, when U.S. troops launched the invasion, says Nycz.

The company was producing 90,000 of the 5590s per month by May, and output recently rose to 120,000 each month using facilities in North Carolina and Great Britain.

Eventually, the military would spend $300 million on batteries and other power sources during 2003, with the majority of it for the 5590.

All available 5590s were sent directly to Kuwait through an Air Force base in South Carolina. Any soldiers outside the region were issued different rechargeable batteries instead of the 5590, which is prized by combat soldiers because it is disposable and operates best in extreme heat and low temperatures.

Officials soon realized that U.S. troops were going through their stocks of 5590s faster than expected, far outpacing the estimated monthly wartime need of 100,000. The usage was more than double that amount.

Nycz says the 2-year-old estimates of wartime battery needs "weren't very good or accurate" and failed to take into account the sharp increase over the past decade in systems that use the 5590.

Better safe than sorry

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