Congressional inspectors found rusting equipment, dead batteries and deteriorating engine parts on Army ships loaded with weapons and supplies that would be the first sent into a sudden war.
A quarter of the equipment considered the highest priority was rated below the Army’s readiness goal, according to a report made public Friday by the General Accounting Office. As of this spring, 13 of 51 sets of equipment fell below the Army’s readiness standard.
“Five of those unit sets did not have on hand authorized primary weapon systems or equipment considered critical for accomplishing and sustaining the unit’s mission,” the GAO reported. “As a result, these five unit sets had a fully mission-capable rating of zero.”
The Pentagon concurred with the study but said the Army is taking steps to correct the problem, including shifting the equipment from seven older ships to eight new “roll-on, roll-off” ships that can better control humidity and heat below decks.
The equipment examined includes tanks and infantry fighting vehicles for 4,500 soldiers as well as combat and support equipment for an additional 5,300 soldiers, such as self-propelled howitzers, multiple-launch rocket systems, cargo trucks, tractors, communications equipment and chemical weapons detection and decontamination equipment.
Under Army doctrine refined with the experience of the Persian Gulf War, the “brigade set” of equipment can be “prepositioned” in distant oceans - the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is one frequent stopping point - where it can reach battle zones such as the Persian Gulf or the Horn of Africa in much less time than equipment shipped from the United States.
Conditions aboard the ships can grow stagnant, hot and humid and the space is too tight to allow much more than the checking of tire pressure, occasional starting of motors and other cursory maintenance.
Problems ranged from cracked windshields and missing fire extinguishers to rust, dead batteries and deteriorating rubber engine gaskets. One unit set of equipment for a transport company had none of its authorized trucks or trailers.
Army equipment data in April showed some faults that rendered specific pieces of equipment unfit for battle “had remained uncorrected since September 1995.”
The GAO said the circumstances in April were much improved from the previous fall, when only eight out of 51 equipment sets were found ready for battle. The report indicated the improvement had to do with a shuffle in which sets of equipment were judged for readiness as well as with better maintenance.
In June, after the period covered by the GAO report, the Army loaded a newly converted large medium-speed roll-on, roll-off ship with a full complement of equipment, all of which was rated fully mission capable, according to the Pentagon response. The Army is instituting new procedures for repairing subpar equipment on board ship or moving to repair facilities ashore either in the United States or a deployment zone.
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