By LOLITA C. BALDOR
More than two-thirds of the Army National Guard’s 34 brigades are not combat ready, mostly because of equipment shortages that will cost up to $21 billion to correct, the top National Guard general said Tuesday.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum spoke to a group defense reporters after Army officials, analysts and members of Congress disclosed that two-thirds of the active Army’s brigades are not ready for war.
The budget won’t allow the military to complete the personnel training and equipment repairs and replacement that must be done when units return home after deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan, they say.
"I am further behind or in an even more dire situation than the active Army, but we both have the same symptoms, I just have a higher fever," Blum said.
One Army official acknowledged Tuesday that while all active Army units serving in the war zone are "100 percent" ready, the situation is not the same for those at home.
"In the continental United States, there are plenty of units that are rated at significantly less than a C-1 rating," said Lt. Col. Carl S. Ey. "Backlogs at the depots, budget issues and the timeliness of receiving funds to conduct training are all critical to the Army’s ability keep their force trained, ready and at the highest readiness level possible."
Once a taboo subject for the military, often buried deep in classified documents, readiness levels _ generally ranked from C-1 (the best) to C-4 (the worst) are now being used as weapons themselves to force money out of Congress and the administration.
And while Army officials still won’t specify how many units are at which levels, they are being more open about the overall declining state of readiness.
A key element of the problem is that Army units returning from the war have either left tanks, trucks or other equipment behind or are bringing them home damaged. Once back, many soldiers either leave the Army or move to other posts, forcing leaders to train others to replace them. As a result, the unit’s ratings drop, said Ey, an Army spokesman.
Last week, several House Democrats said publicly that two-thirds of the Army brigades are rated not ready for combat, and Army officials have not disputed that figure. On Tuesday, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., also declined to be specific, but said the Army is "very much worse off" than it was in late 1999 when the military said two of the 10 Army divisions were ranked at the lowest readiness level, C-4. At the time, two divisions equaled six brigades.
The issue gained political momentum when then-candidate George Bush, during his nominating convention, said the Clinton administration let the U.S. military might erode. Now, as the 2006 elections approach, Democrats are saying the Bush administration is shortchanging the military.
The Senate late Tuesday agreed to an amendment, offered by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to add $7.8 billion for the Army and $5.3 billion for the Marine Corps to the defense spending bill for 2007. The added funding would bring the bill to a total of $467 billion, including $63.1 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stevens said the new $13.1 billion is for equipment repair and replacement, and to meet the requirements for continued combat operations, primarily in Iraq. The Senate planned to continue debate on the bill Wednesday.
Stevens said earlier that lawmakers were talking with the Pentagon "to see if they really need that money." Congress members, including Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., discussed the issue at a breakfast meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in the Pentagon late last week.
In addition to the National Guard’s needs, the Army has said it needs $17 billion this year to meet its equipment and combat needs. Dodd said Tuesday he wants to see the Army’s full request met, and he plans to offer an amendment to do that later this week.
The Army’s readiness score is based on four factors: whether a unit has all the equipment needed; whether the equipment is working; whether it has the number and types of personnel needed; and whether they are properly trained.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.