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Fast and light: Army overhauls its gear strategy

Apr. 13, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Smaller sets of Army equipment, such as Bradley fighting vehicles, will be prepositioned around the world to speed time to deployment. (Spc. Bryan Willis / Army)
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WASHINGTON — The Army is putting the finishing touches on a bold new strategy for how it pre-positions stocks of critical equipment around the globe, how it uses those stocks to speed deployments — and who pays for it.

Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno ordered the revised strategy last year as part of his vision to make the service more capable of deploying quickly to meet threats, and assist in humanitarian and disaster relief missions.

And a key element of the plan is to pass off some of the cost of using and resetting the equipment to the combatant commanders.

“What we want is for [advanced positioned stocks] to be a part of the theater, a part of the plan, a part of the combatant commander’s thinking, a part of the allies’ thinking,” as opposed to being a static reserve, one senior officer said.

The idea is to break up the massive stocks of vehicles, weapons, and ammunition the Army has traditionally warehoused across the Middle East, Europe and aboard ships into smaller, theater-specific “activity sets” that troops can simply fall in on. This way, units can fly in with only their personal gear and make use of the heavy equipment already in place, then leave the equipment behind once the event is over.

“When we let someone use it, they pay for it,” an Army official said. “Instead of it being the Army, we let people use it and they pay for the use. The cost comes from the combatant commander.” Cost would involve restoring the gear to its original condition.

The new strategy is “fiscally sound, it keeps us from buying readiness that we don’t need because you’re not having to move stuff around, and you’ll have the capability and capacities that you’ll need for those exercises that you want to do more regularly,” the officer added.

Odierno’s review has already saved $30 million, since some of the stored equipment that combatant commanders had no need for has been retired or sent elsewhere.

One activity set is being used by rotational forces in Europe.

When the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team from Fort Hood, Texas, falls in on dozens of brand-new Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles this spring at multinational training centers in Europe, it will be the first unit to take advantage of the new plan.

The 30 M1A2 Abrams tanks and 70 upgraded M2A3 Bradleys, along with 40 tracked armored vehicles, 150 wheeled vehicles, about 10 pieces of engineer equipment and 10 Paladin M109A6 self-propelled howitzers, which make up the European Activity Set (EAS) can’t compare to the wall of armor deployed across Germany during the Cold War. But the idea is no longer to mass armor across the Fulda Gap.

Instead, positioning armor stocks at the Grafenwöhr joint training facility and the Joint Multinational Readiness Center at Hohenfels, Germany, will allow a succession of rotational brigades to use them for training activities with European allies.

Army officials estimate they’ll save about $10 million a year by having units use the EAS, as opposed to shipping a brigade’s worth of equipment to Europe and then back home.

Service officials say they’re working closely with the combatant commanders and the Army component commands to design activity sets that best fit the region’s needs.

“It’s being largely driven by the combatant commanders, and that’s sort of our strategy,” the officer said.

Bill Roche, a spokesman for US Army Europe (USAREUR), wrote in an email that USAREUR “receives a significant amount of funding to cover the maintenance and repair costs for the rotational units,” but that units are still required to bring equipment back to ready-for-issue standards prior to turn-in with USAREUR funds.

The Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team is tasked with being part of the NATO Response Force, and as such will conduct drills across the continent with NATO allies using the new equipment.

While European Command is the first to make use of an activity set, the Pacific theater and Africa are where the idea could really suit the Army’s shifting posture. Specifically, the service’s “Pacific Pathways” initiative — which would train and equip soldiers to deploy quickly across the region — is a key cog in the plan.

Part of the plan, still a work in progress, is to make more use of the Navy’s large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off (LMSR) ships that the Army leases to move equipment across the Pacific.

“The time is right to begin using the LMSRs in a more effective way,” the officer said, adding that the ships could be used to move troops around the region for training exercises to reduce the number and duration of boots on the ground. Reserve soldiers could also use the ships during training periods to reduce costs by allowing them to train while partnering with allies.

Using the ships this way would signal a commitment by the United States to the Pacific region, service officials contend, by allowing troops to move quickly from place to place while underscoring the American commitment to partnering and humanitarian missions.

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