WASHINGTON - The war in Iraq is providing Pentagon officials with a biting reminder that the nation's most powerful tank divisions can't run to a fight - they have to sail to it, at speeds no faster than about 22 knots.
At a time when Army leaders near Baghdad say they want more tanks and artillery to protect their vulnerable supply lines, the nearest heavy armored division is still at least a week away, its soldiers flying in from Texas but its equipment still sailing around the Arabian Peninsula headed for Kuwait.
A second heavy division assigned to the war hasn't even moved its equipment out of Texas and is awaiting the assignment of its own fleet of ships to begin the monthlong process of steaming across the ocean into battle.
The delay in getting more heavy armor into Iraq has been caused largely by the failed negotiations to base the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division in Turkey. The three dozen ships now headed for Kuwait, loaded with the 4th Division's equipment, spent most of March bobbing in the Mediterranean Sea while talks with the Turkish government dragged on. Those ships were supposed to deposit their cargo in the Middle East a month ago and return to the United States for another load.
But some officials at the Pentagon, particularly in the Army, say the problem also stems from the top-level strategy of sending mostly light infantry divisions and Marine forces to the war first, followed later by the Army's heavy armor.
To accelerate that schedule now, as some Army officials desire, would stretch the Pentagon's cargo ship capabilities beyond any of its expectations - requiring it to float two heavy divisions at sea simultaneously, while continuing shipments to support and replenish the troops already in the fight.
"You can't send everything the Army owns all at one time; you have to roll it in over a period of months," said retired Brig. Gen. Boyd E. King, a former director of transportation for the Army. "And those heavy divisions are the toughest to move. They can spread your sealift resources pretty thin."
Logistics and supply operations, typically just a background concern handled by back-office warriors, have become vital, life-and-death elements in the war with Iraq. Surprised by the frequency of guerrilla attacks on their long supply lines, some Army officials at the Pentagon say they are inclined to wait for the 4th Infantry Division to arrive in Iraq before attempting any aggressive movement against the enemy's more organized forces.
Dug in to wait
That tactic could leave tens of thousands of American and British soldiers dug in across central Iraq for a week or more, waiting as reinforcements slowly churn toward Kuwait. Soldiers from the 4th Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, are already landing in Kuwait to meet up with the supplies arriving in the next few days, but then they must assemble the troops and march toward Baghdad.
The Army is redoubling efforts to move its 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a smaller, specialized force in Fort Polk La., designed to provide security and protect installations and supply lines. Its equipment consists mostly of armed Humvees and light vehicles that can be rushed to Iraq on cargo planes.
But most other Army units can't move their equipment on airplanes. Virtually all of the tanks and heavy equipment needed to fight a ground war have to travel by ship because they are too heavy and abundant to fly. Most food and supplies also move by sea because of the vast quantities necessary to support a 250,000-troop force.
The nation's fleet of military cargo ships is much improved from the first Persian Gulf war, mostly due to the addition of 19 large tank-carrying vessels built over the past five years. Older ships in the fleet also are in better condition. Most are maintained by part-time crews that were hired after 1991, when the otherwise dormant vessels reported widespread problems trying to power up for war.
Today the United States owns 99 cargo ships for moving military supplies overseas - fewer than 12 years ago, but a fleet that is generally in better shape and can haul more supplies.
'From fort to foxhole'
Still, it is not enough. The Pentagon has already chartered 35 foreign ships to haul military supplies for the war in Iraq and nearly as many tankers for delivering fuel. Even with those additions, the wartime supplies have not moved at the Pentagon's ideal pace - 5 1/3 divisions "from fort to foxhole" in 75 days. The first cargo ships were called up more than 100 days ago, and so far the rough equivalent to four divisions is in place - two Army divisions and one Marine Corps Expeditionary Force.
The negotiations with Turkey slowed the pace. The heavy armored division slated to go into Turkey filled up half of the ships in the Navy's Ready Reserve Force, a 76-vessel fleet of mothballed cargo ships maintained for wartime use. Since the build-up began, those ships have done virtually nothing but wait. The Pentagon ordered those ships to sail for Kuwait this week, having abandoned its monthlong gamble with diplomacy.
Once they reach Kuwait and unload the equipment for the 4th Infantry Division, the Ready Reserve Force vessels have been ordered to race back to the continental United States for another load, according to sailors working onboard. They have not been told where to go or what they will transport.
Pentagon officials won't say when the 1st Cavalry Division, also based at Fort Hood, will leave Texas to join the war. Officials with the Navy's Military Sealift Command, which is responsible for moving all of the military's equipment and supplies by sea, say the division will not have to wait for the Ready Reserve Force vessels to sail back from Kuwait.
The 27 military cargo ships that delivered the forces now in Iraq are still in use, picking up other units or shuttling replenishment supplies to support the war. Those vessels, and the foreign ships, could be diverted and ordered to Texas whenever the Pentagon chooses, officials with the Sealift command said. That order has not been made.
"I have the ships," said Vice Adm. David L. Brewer, commander of the Military Sealift Command. "There's no question the Turkey situation had an effect on the timeline, but if you discount that delay, we could have massed a Desert Storm-sized force in two-thirds the time it took us 12 years ago."
The greatest perceived weakness in the military's sealift strategy - a shortage of the civilian mariners who operate the Ready Reserve Force ships - has so far not affected military operations, Brewer said. Pentagon and Coast Guard officials began preparing for the wartime buildup nearly a year ago, organizing training classes and recruitment campaigns and helping maritime unions to step up training and locate qualified retirees.
Ships have reported sporadic manpower shortages for specific job requirements, but not widespread problems that have detained vessels or stalled the delivery of supplies. The Pentagon has not called up the 32 oldest ships in the Ready Reserve Force, which require the largest crews, and will not say whether it plans to.