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Military struggles to keep supplies in Iraq
American soldiers are firing so much ammunition that the military's largest supplier of bullets can't keep up. Tanks that log 800 miles a year in peacetime are grinding through that many miles in a month, wearing out their treads.
Fighting in Iraq and increased training back home are straining the military's supplies -- and giving manufacturers in the United States a surge in business.
Dan Murphy, chief executive at bullet supplier Alliant Techsystems Inc., said the company's Army ammunition plant in Missouri has gone through its fastest increase in production since the Vietnam war. It has hired 1,000 workers in the past three years, and some production lines are running around the clock.
Alliant said small-caliber ammunition was a major part of the company's 37 percent increase in orders during the first quarter.
"There's no question that on many of the items that are being consumed rapidly in Iraq, like tank treads, like body armor, like small-caliber ammunition, the Army is beginning to run out, and the Army is becoming worried about its stockpile," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.
Gen. Paul Kern, the Army's chief logistician, is in charge of the worrying. He said tread usage is 5 to 10 times as high as in peacetime. Small-caliber bullet usage has more than doubled since 2001. Finding enough batteries for things like night-vision gear and radios has been tough.
"It's been manageable, but it gets exciting," Kern said of keeping the Army supplied. "Virtually all equipment in the U.S. Army is in that dynamic right now of either being used in combat or returning from combat."
He said combat units are in no danger of running out of ammunition, and that they've been able to shift combat-ready equipment from units outside of Iraq to supply units close to the fighting. Still, many U.S. manufacturers are working to capacity.
Saft America Inc., which makes 90 percent of the most common type of military batteries, has been running its plant in Valdese, N.C. around-the-clock for more than a year, spokeswoman Heather Moldenhauer said.
Alliant Techsystems is churning out 1.2 billion bullets a year at the Army-owned plant it runs in Independence, Mo. -- but it's already working 24 hours a day. So the Army has given contracts for 70 million rounds each to Israel Military Industries Ltd. and the Winchester unit of Olin Corp., said Lt. Col. Matthew Butler, who buys bullets for all branches of the armed forces through the Army. He said the first deliveries on the new contracts are expected next month.
Butler said he's trying to line up other bulletmakers for a total of 2 billion rounds a year of capacity, in case demand surges even more.
For much of the 1990s, the military was able to rely on stockpiles built up during the Cold War, Butler said. As recently as 2000, the Army bought around 300 million to 400 million small-caliber bullets, he said.
Analyst Thompson said politicians thought they could spend less on military supplies once the Cold War ended.
"Policymakers convinced themselves that there would be few big fights in the near future, and many of those could be waged from the air. Well, Iraq has proved otherwise, and as a result the Army finds itself strapped for some of the most common combat items like ammunition and armor," he said. "The Army has been under-investing in equipment for a generation."
Alliant spokesman Bryce Hallowell said increasing production is tricky because of the tight specifications for military ammunition. Still, he said, Alliant is looking into adding military production to a plant in Minnesota that currently makes hunting ammunition.
"Lives depend on that ammunition, and you need that ammunition performing exactly the same at every turn," Hallowell said.
The armed forces also use bullets in training -- actually, more than is used in combat, Kern said. One reason is because supply and transportation units are getting more live-fire training now that they've become targets in Iraq.
The attack last year on the Army's 507th Maintenance Company, which killed nine soldiers and led to the Iraqi capture of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was one of the reasons for extra training for support units, Kern said. "That wasn't the only unit assigned to combat support to find themselves in a firefight and have to fight their way out of it," he said.
Meanwhile, the Army is relying on suppliers to help it rebuild tank treads that are wearing out in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rebuilding and manufacturing facilty at the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Texas is running seven days a week, three shifts a day.
To rebuild the treads, the rubber has to be stripped off the metal track, and new rubber put on. "It's hard, dirty, hot work," Kern said.
The Red River depot has hired 25 to 40 employees to make and refurbish tank tracks, and 40 to 50 to do engine overhauls for Bradley Fighting Vehicles and two other vehicles, said Felix H. McLellan, deputy to the commander of the Army-run plant.
"We're doing quite well, but the demand is so heavy it's stressing not only our capability but it's stresssing our suppliers," Kern said.