Soldiers inspect the scene of a suicide attack outside a base in Zhari district, Afghanistan, last month. Army officials are weighing post-war needs amid funding limits. (AFP/Getty Images)
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HUNTSVILLE, ALA. — If one were to lay all of the 43,000 shipping containers the US Army sent home from Afghanistan last year end to end, they would stretch from Washington, D.C., all the way down to Fort Bragg, N.C.
The Army has also closed 72 forward operating bases since June as it makes its way to the exits by the end of this year — a process that will see about 34,000 soldiers in country by this spring, down to a few thousand at the end of the year, regardless of whether a long-term security agreement can be reached with the Afghan government.
But while about $21 billion worth of equipment comes home, the routes into Afghanistan run in both directions. Army Material Command chief Gen. Dennis Via told attendees at an Association of the U.S. Army symposium on Wednesday that his outfit also sent 5,300 tons of ammunition to Afghanistan last year.
But the story is all about what’s being shipped out, and how the Army is looking for ways to pay to modernize its ground and air fleets while positioning heavier equipment overseas, allowing its ground forces to use them for future expeditionary operations.
Part of the challenge: The service is being allocated less money than planned. Heidi Shyu, the Army’s top acquisitions executive, said that in fiscal 2012, long-term plans called for the service to receive $152 billion in 2014. But after sequestration and budget flattening, it’s actually receiving $122 billion, with $10 billion of that coming out of the service science and development accounts.
Shyu said that since aviation, mission command, and ground systems make up half of the services budget, they’ll be hit the hardest.
“We have already reduced procurement quantities to meet reduced force structure size,” she said, adding that “we need to accelerate the divestment of aging systems we no longer need.”
The Army scrapped 30,000 trucks last year, and while leaders say the service has historically not been good about forcing units to give up their outdated trucks, the Army has put more emphasis on clearing out motor pools in recent years.
“We’ve been studying the tactical wheeled vehicle requirement … by unit, by organization, what is the role and mission of trucks,” said Kevin Fahey, the Army’s chief of combat service support.
And while doing that, the service is beginning to plan its next generation of wheeled cargo vehicles. “We’re already starting [to plan] what’s the next joint medium and heavy truck. We won’t buy it for 15 years but we need to start studying it today.”
Shyu struck a measured tone overall, saying that the Army has already provided funding to help the industrial base, in particular offering help to second tier suppliers make up for funding breaks. Leadership has also undertaken a new Joint Acquisition and Sustainment Review “to highlight the problems faced by [program executive officers] and depots … and to truly understand the challenges they are facing.”
As Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, and Army capabilities head Gen. Keith Walker have pointed out in recent months, the ground force that rolled over Iraqi forces in 1991 and 2003 was actually designed and built in the similarly cash-strapped 1970s and 1980s.
The Army “planted the seeds” for the current Army in those years, Shyu said, and now must do the hard work of designing new infantry carriers, helicopters and weapons at a time of reduced funding, and as personnel costs eat up about half of its yearly budget.
“Our predecessors faced similar challenges,” Shyu said. “It is now our time.”