As the Army and Marine Corps reduce their presence in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of items of war-worn equipment are gradually making their way back to the U.S. But the two military services say sequestration has taken a major toll on their ability to get that gear battle-ready once again and back into the hands of warfighters.
The budget cuts in 2013 seriously hampered the military’s ability to conduct “reset” on equipment coming back from the battlefield. Their assessments were based largely on 2013 furloughs, and do not include work stoppages that result from the current government shutdown. But officials are warning Congress that things will only get worse if sequestration continues throughout 2014 and beyond.
“We had planned to execute about $4 billion worth of reset in 2013, and we lost about $1.3 [billion] because of sequestration,” said Lt. Gen Raymond Mason, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for logistics. “That equates to about 800 vehicles, 2,000 weapons, about 10,000 pieces of communications gear, 32 helicopters. All that had to get pushed into 2014, and now we’re not able to do it this year either because of where we’re at.”
It’s a similar story in the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. William Faulkner, that service’s deputy commandant for installations and logistics, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
Man hours reduced
He said since the Marine Corps began to withdraw its surge forces from Afghanistan in 2011, it already has removed 67 percent of the equipment it had in the country. Initially, the Marine Corps was fully-funded to carry out its reset plans for that returning equipment during 2013. But then came sequestration.
The biggest impact, Faulkner said, was from the reduced number of man hours available at government-operated repair depots. Under sequestration, overtime was prohibited, hiring was frozen and employees were furloughed.
“We had six days of furlough, which may seem relatively modest to the uninformed, but just as a result of that we had 1,200 pieces of equipment we couldn’t induct into our maintenance system,” he said. “That’s stuff that’s just deferred into future years, and it’s like a tsumami over time, it’s just going to gain. We published an Afghanistan equipment resource strategy, and it’s a playbook. Every one of these piece of equipment coming back has a home in that plan. It’s part of our future, and if they don’t come home on time, our forward-deployed crisis response forces are going to go without.”
Mason said the Army has seen similar damage to the workforce capacity at its facilities. At one location, the Center for Industrial and Technical Excellence for helicopters in Corpus Christi, Texas, civilian workforce resignations shot up 40 percent in 2013 from their historical norms.
Eating our seed corn
“We’re taking an incredible amount of risk there,” he said. “We can attribute about 2,000 employees that were lost to sequestration during 2013, and another 2,000 came down because of workload reduction. Inside of that are very technical skills. For example, we lost 36 master engineers at Corpus Christi that went off to find jobs somewhere else, in the oil industry or wherever. They saw this furlough in 2013 and they looked out into the next couple years, and perhaps they saw exactly where we are today. So I’m very concerned about our organic industrial base.”
Mason said it’s also fairly clear that the chaotic federal budget environment has had a significant impact on the ability of Army depots and arsenals to hire new people to replace those who are leaving.
“We are eating our seed corn,” he said. “Those people who would normally want to join us and say they want to serve with us look at our situation and they see that it’s very unpredictable. We need predictability and we need balance. It’s dramatically impacting our ability to get this equipment back into the hands of our soldiers for whatever the next mission is going to be for this nation.”
The Army and Marine Corps both say that regardless of whether sequestration is undone, both will need Congress to continue to appropriate funds into wartime accounts — the overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget — long after the final troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014. They say they’ll need another three years of OCO funding just to restore equipment coming back to the U.S.
And getting that equipment back is a tricky process too. The Army estimates it still has $17 billion worth of government property in Afghanistan. The Marine Corps has another $1.6 billion.
But Mason said the cost to remove it from the landlocked country is subject to numerous variables, including the global price of petroleum and the political relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan — the main ground route in and out of Afghanistan runs through that territory.
“Our estimate is that transportation costs will be $2-3 billion,” he said. “The reason I have such a wide range in there is that fuel is one of those variables. If fuel prices increase, we could be in the $3 billion range. If the Pakistan ground lines were to close again, we could in fact be above $3 billion because we’d have to fly more out. We’re also driven by the political environment, the training of Afghans, withdrawal of our forces and the closure of bases. Retrograde follows all of that.”