Debate Continues Over Fate of U.S. Military Gear in Afghanistan

By Sandra I. Erwin

Defense Department officials estimate there are at least 100,000 shipping containers in Afghanistan that are packed with U.S. military weapons, equipment and supplies.

Approximately 25 percent of those boxes contain expensive hardware that the U.S. military wants to bring back after the troop drawdown is completed in 2014. The contents of the remainder 75,000 containers mostly are commercial items that the Pentagon doesn’t want to send back because the shipping costs outweigh the value of the equipment.

The cargo is still being sorted through, said Alan Estevez, assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness. Military officials in Afghanistan have been directed to identify what equipment is essential inventory for units back home, and what is expendable.

“We do not need everything we bought for the war,” Estevez said June 13 at the National Defense Industrial Association’s logistics symposium in Arlington, Va.

“I’m not going to bring back paper plates, and I’m not going to bring back bandages,” he said.

Army officials, meanwhile, worry that the Pentagon will want to give away or leave behind equipment the service needs to replenish stocks back home. “There is still a debate in the Pentagon” about how to handle U.S. equipment in Afghanistan, said Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason, Army deputy chief of staff for logistics.

In the logistics business, he said, “We are very good at getting in, but no so good at getting out.”

The Army has about $25 billion worth of equipment in Afghanistan, and $19 billion of that should be sent back to fill shortages in stateside units, Mason said at the NDIA conference. Some gear already has made its way to the United States, he noted. A year ago, the Army’s inventory in Afghanistan was worth $28 billion.

The Army wants most of this equipment returned, Mason said. “It’s our latest and greatest stuff that we have over there,” including armored Humvee trucks, communications systems, computers and weapons.  

Defense officials are doing a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether it is worth spending up to $14 billion to send back the Army’s gear. That includes $3 billion to $5 billion in shipping expenses and $9 billion that it would cost to repair damaged equipment.

“It makes sense to bring it back,” Mason said. “I don't think we are going to have the money to buy new,” or the time to wait for new equipment to get through the Pentagon’s protracted procurement process. “For an investment of $12 to $14 billion, we get $25 billion worth of stuff,” Mason said.
Over the past 10 years, he noted, the Army spent $80 billion repairing war-torn equipment.

Estevez said exiting Afghanistan will be a tough challenge even for seasoned logisticians. Leaving Iraq was easier, he said, because the U.S. military had transportation infrastructure in Kuwait that does not exist in Afghanistan. The bulk of U.S. military gear will be ready to be returned by 2014 or 2015, following the scheduled troop drawdown, he said.

He insisted that military leaders will have to prove that equipment is essential before they receive approval and funding to ship it back. “If we don’t need it for the future force, we are not going to pay the cost of bringing it back for resetting and parking it for some future unidentified need,” he said. “Those costs are prohibitive.”

Anything that is not returned will be either given away to Afghan forces, to other allied countries, or will be destroyed. Congressional auditors in 2012 identified more than 750,000 major pieces of combat equipment in Afghanistan, such as weapons and vehicles, that could be returned to the U.S. military, transferred to another U.S. government agency or another country, or destroyed. This equipment was estimated to be worth more than $36 billion, and it could cost $5.7 billion to return or transfer equipment from Afghanistan, said Cary Russell, GAO’s acting director of defense capabilities and management. He cautioned that the military services have not consistently produced data to support their decisions concerning the return of war-zone items from Afghanistan, said Russell. “There is a risk that the costs of returning excess items may outweigh the benefits.”

Topics: Defense Department, War Planning, Logistics

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