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Excess Equipment: An Embarrassment of Riches

My battalion commander once asked me about several pieces of equipment that he had noticed were down for faults and were on our not-mission-capable reports, indicating a lack of proper maintenance and care by operators. Questions like these are not uncommon for maintenance control officers, but this one highlighted a specific issue that is all too common across Iraq. What my battalion commander did not realize was that the equipment in question was excess theater-provided equipment and that we lacked dedicated operators for it.

Although my battalion, along with almost all others, could certainly improve its –10-level maintenance, this situation was a perfect example of how excess equipment inhibits a unit’s ability to conduct proper maintenance. Before any issues about lack of proper care can be addressed in a unit, the issue of property excess must be addressed.

The amount of excess equipment in my battalion bordered on fraud, waste, and abuse, especially considering the difficulty units in the continental United States have in finding the right equipment to conduct realistic training. This excess is strategically irresponsible in view of the overbearing burden it places on units and company commanders and the inevitable problem of withdrawing from the current mission.

Acquiring Excess Equipment

The equipment that the battalion commander asked about was several theater-provided AN/PAS–13B thermal weapon sights (the older, larger version of the AN/PAS–13D night-vision devices that my unit received before it deployed). The newer, lighter devices meant we had no need for the older ones. Such pieces of excess equipment often lack the right carrying cases, and they are rarely maintained. For example, in one instance, my unit had several hundred pairs of night-vision goggles (PVS–7Bs, PVS–7Ds, and even PVS–7As) that were packed tightly into storage boxes only to be counted during inventories.

Unneeded theater-provided items that my unit acquired when it arrived included sewing trailers and Viper generators that it did not need or even have anyone to operate them. The unit also received older-model close-combat optics, of which the unit already had enough for each Soldier to have two. None of this equipment had the right basic issue items or technical manuals, and the
unit had no operators with the time or reason to fix these discrepancies. The companies simply had more equipment than they could properly maintain.

Hand Receipt Issues

Across the Army, this problem is exacerbated by the use of arms-room hand receipts as catchalls for excess that could not reasonably be issued to platoons or subsections on their hand receipts. In theory, if a unit had the right amount of equipment for its users and accounted for property appropriately, all equipment would be signed down to platoons or users in a way that promotes ownership and custodial responsibility, which would enhance the unit maintenance program. But this is not feasible because of the amount of excess equipment that units have.

So, instead of platoons owning all equipment and maintaining it with a proper maintenance schedule, young E–3 armorers (who are often also the commanders’ drivers or have some other job) are stuck with shipping containers full of extra equipment that is not stored properly, does not have the right basic issue items, and is never checked. These Soldiers often lack the technical manuals, training, time, and tools to maintain their equipment properly. At best, they hope not to lose anything and to make it accessible. I have also seen the practice of having separate supply; nuclear, biological, and chemical; communications; and arms-room hand receipts. (Only the arms-room hand receipt makes any sense in rear areas.)

Systemic Problems

I believe that these are problems of a system that uses a semi-modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE)-oriented equipment fielding process, in which new equipment is being upgraded, purchased, and fielded far faster than it has been for the last 40 years.

Commanders are constrained by MTOEs that no longer apply, especially in theater. The MTOE system implies that only small amounts of excess exist because equipment must be authorized for issue against a table of equipment. If only a small amount of excess exists as the MTOE system expects, the process in place to turn in excess is acceptably slow and reaches all the way to the corps level. High standards of justification are required because, under the MTOE authorization system, commanders should only have the property that the Army had already deemed necessary. However, the amounts of excess are not small, and the system in place for turning in excess property is too slow and has equipment turn-in standards that are too high.

While commanders remain in an MTOE system, the Department of the Army (DA) is not so constrained. DA has learned to respond quickly to political, strategic, and technological needs, and it has no constraints on issuing equipment. It took the Army almost 20 years to acquire the “big 5” weapon systems of the 1980s (the AH–64 Apache attack helicopter, M1 Abrams main battle tank, M2/3 Bradley infantry/cavalry fighting vehicle, Patriot air defense missile, and multiple launch rocket system).

However, the Army purchased the Stryker in less than 4 years and is now fielding multiple types of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles faster than the Defense Logistics Agency can find parts suppliers. New radios, binoculars, sights, and night-vision devices are available almost every year, but units cannot figure out how to retrograde the equipment being replaced as quickly as they receive the replacements.

Similar to the Army during World War II, Soldiers are receiving equipment after they have already reached the front, with the only concern being time—not training, support, or even the technical manuals that are necessary for a sergeant to maintain his Soldiers’ equipment properly. I have learned that any Soldier should be able to maintain any piece of equipment if provided a technical manual and proper supervision by a noncommissioned officer. The prerequisite is that each piece of equipment be owned and used by a person, which is not true in cases of extreme excess.

Commanders on the ground are faced with the hard decision of either focusing on the mission and using only the equipment they need or thinking about the big picture and maintaining or turning in their excess. If they want to do anything besides let their excess go to waste, commanders must make excess and secondary systems maintenance a priority. This takes almost the complete attention of the executive officer in most companies, especially the bigger forward support companies and headquarters and headquarters companies.

How Do We Fix It

One executive officer wrote to me on the subject of excess. He said that the excess problem was so large in his unit that all of his attempts to get rid of the items did not amount to much. He felt that the solution to the problem had to come from DA in the form of the mobile redistribution team (MRT). The MRT should go to units to determine what they need and then recommend cuts to the brigade commander. Units should have to justify maintaining items recommended for disposal.

I feel his recommendation is valid. The energy and expertise to manage, move, and fix all of this equipment is beyond the capacity of junior officers learning to manage a company’s worth of equipment. The control of the moving parts during a turn-in is spread out among far too many players who have other tasks to fill their days. However, specialized teams that are properly trained and staffed to conduct all of the steps required for a turn-in (evaluation, accountability, movement, storage, and redistribution) could focus on the turn-in task and free the line units from the crushing weight of excess equipment.

If MRT visits were done every rotation, perhaps at the first quarter mark, different units with different compositions and tactical requirements could better tailor their equipment to how they are fighting the fight. Companies with better deployment MTOEs (basically crafted by each unit each time) would be more agile, responsive, and better custodians of their equipment.

Another option would be to create a class VII (major end items) warehouse at each major installation. Units could both turn in and draw (or request) the equipment they need for their missions at specified coordinated intervals (not every day). These warehouses would maintain some inventory, and crosstalk with similar warehouses in theater would help in the reallocation process across the theater. If a piece of equipment sits for a specified time (for example, 6 months) without being used, it should then be processed for return to pre-positioned stock or turn-in. This time period could be adjusted based on the movement of troops or the amount of time left until the end of the mission.

Certain pieces of equipment, like PVS–7As, which should be out of the Army inventory altogether, could be identified quickly and immediately retrograded. However the process is run, all of this excess would be stored by those who know best how to account, maintain, supply, and move this equipment.

We are already using a warehouse system, but instead of depots in which equipment is accessible,
we use unit motor pools and containers, which provide almost no accessibility, visibility, or maintenance of excess equipment.

In the end, the question is one of both mission readiness and custodial responsibility. The result of fast fieldings and flexible MTOEs is that our Soldiers are armed with the best equipment at the earliest possible date—something we should not take away. This fast fielding also results in large amounts of excess. With every new item the Army fields, units need to find ways to remove the old equipment. The Army should keep improving how fast it can adapt and field necessary equipment, but it must also improve accountability procedures and retrograde systems.

Companies cannot effectively maintain all of their excess equipment, and units are devoting large amounts of time to property accountability and maintenance. All of this will be much easier if units can get rid of their excess. The results of the practices inherent in a tired Army at war, where operational need superseded logistics support, must be addressed. If not, I do not envy the logisticians who will tackle this problem in the near future as we take on the monstrous task of withdrawing our used-up, outdated, pre-positioned stock and supplies from the theater.

Captain David N. Danford is assigned to the staff of the 2d Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, at Fort Carson, Colorado. He holds a B.S. degree in mathematical science from the United States Military Academy and is a graduate of the Armor Officer Basic Course and the Maneuver Captains Career Course.

 
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