Stop Undermining Partners with ‘Gifts’
Giving partner forces weapons isn’t always good for them. The Taliban’s bounty of American equipment illustrates that the Afghan army didn’t fall for lack of equipment. However, the provision of material aid to partner forces has largely escaped scrutiny in the Afghanistan post-mortem. It might seem that any material assistance is useful assistance. But free equipment is often counterproductive, and the logistics-heavy weapons America gives its partners can prove worse than scrap metal.
My own experience with the Peshmerga in Iraq reveals three principal ways that gifts such as mine-resistant, ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles and high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) can create difficulties for U.S. partners. First, there are the maintenance costs. Then there is the continuous need for consumables. And finally, there is the human and organizational capital needed to provide each of these. The U.S. military has an ample budget for maintenance and consumables in combat zones. Furthermore, the United States has well-trained maintenance and logistics personnel — not to mention legions of contractors — who can move the parts and consumables to where they are needed and make sure that the system runs (relatively) smoothly. However, partners often lack this capital and specialized infrastructure. The United States can pay for the partner’s spare parts and depot-level maintenance, but it will do little good if they lack the human capital and organization to maintain and “feed” weapon systems that are gifted to them.
We may imagine that partners can at least benefit from logistics-heavy weapon systems until they break down. However, this is not how it plays out. Partner forces who train for combat using systems that fail in their hour of need will face a much harder fight than the one they prepared for. As a result, they will be worse off with free equipment than they would have been without it. To prevent this, the United States should refrain from giving logistics-heavy weapons and vehicles to partners who cannot appropriately use them. Meanwhile, where partners have already received this kind of equipment, the United States needs to get culturally-sensitive advisors — in uniform or out — off of main bases and into partner units to evaluate readiness and troubleshoot problems.
Free Stuff Costs a Lot
The war in Afghanistan highlighted the counterproductive nature of logistics-heavy systems at several points. Most famous was the example of the Afghan Air Force, which was plagued by maintenance issues and made negligible contributions to the war, despite lavish U.S. funding. However, logistics-heavy systems are not synonymous with airplanes. After 20 years of effort, the Afghan National Army was only able to complete 20 percent of its maintenance work orders in its last year of existence. The American model of a low “tooth to tail” force did not replicate well. Despite a stream of official press releases about progress, there were just as many indications of persistent problems.
Beyond weapons, logistics-heavy vehicles can also create problems. For example, mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles were successful in protecting servicemembers from improved explosive devices, but their rapid development led to problems with sustainability. After the drawdown of troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States struggled with the question of what to do with these massive vehicles. Many were shipped out of country to be saved for later while others were sold or scrapped. However, many were given to partner forces without a proper appreciation of the difficulties in sustainment.
Keeping mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles running is expensive. The initial procurement of MRAPs included a maintenance package that amounted to $1.1 million per vehicle. In 2009, the military budgeted $2.6 billion in sustainment funding for roughly 16,000 mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles in the field, suggesting an annual maintenance cost of about $164,000 per year. Beyond the costs of parts and depot-level maintenance is the cost of fuel, which is bound to be high for vehicles that get between four and six miles per gallon. Indeed, this is why multiple U.S. police departments have returned their “free” mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles after discovering the costs of operations and maintenance.
Even the relatively simple high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle creates difficulties for partners. With annual costs of around $4,940, the maintenance for an up-armored wheeled vehicle is about one-tenth that of an mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles, but is still 10 times as much as for the average civilian sport utility vehicle or pickup truck. The fuel economy of 10 miles per gallon also makes the costs of consumables very high. Nor are these vehicles long-lived. They have a 45,000-mile designed life, which is probably shortened by added armor. This means that for partners receiving them second-hand, high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles will not last for long.
However, the high costs and short lives of these systems are not the only problems facing partners. Even if the United States pays the costs of maintenance and consumables, these systems require human capital and organization to run. Often these systems are given alongside a maintenance contract and a fuel ration, which supposedly takes care of the problems of maintenance logistics. However, fulfilling these contracts is difficult in practice. The whole point of these vehicles is to be used in combat environments, away from a secure rear area. Contractors are limited to performing work in secure rear areas. The free vehicles must therefore be returned to one of the few secure American bases where contractors live in order for maintenance to be performed. Without partners who are capable of towing damaged vehicles, or U.S. troops who can support forward repair areas, this model does not work. Similarly, if the United States provides fuel to its partners, those partners must still accurately project their fuel requirements and transport the fuel to the front lines.
Finally, many advanced systems require unit-level maintenance to be performed every day. To continue with the example of the lowly high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle, in American units (that are well-supplied in tools, spare parts, and oil) each one requires around 168 direct labor man-hours annually for maintenance. Thus, we could expect a properly supplied maintainer to keep nine wheeled vehicles operational, which would be about the right number in a platoon. While it might seem that the United States could simply train a handful of maintainers, this is easier said than done — the maintainers will get sick or wounded, the requisite tools will be stolen, the spare parts won’t arrive on time, etc.
Problems for the Peshmerga
These problems are not limited to Afghanistan. While Afghanistan’s low literacy rate makes it an extreme case, these shortcomings were also demonstrated with the Peshmerga in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
When the United States began its withdrawal of forces from Iraq last summer, there were tens of thousands of excess MRAPs and high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles s in country. As it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to ship these vehicles back the United States and refurbish them, it didn’t make sense to bring them all home. Giving these excess vehicles to the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces undoubtedly seemed like an easy way to kill two birds with one stone: avoid shipping costs while also building partner capacity.
In recent months, the U.S. military proudly posted pictures on Twitter of high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and MRAPs being divested to the Peshmerga. We can see rows and rows of up-armored wheeled vehicles as they are handed over, along with mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles and dollar counts of the (nominal) value of the material aid. But what happened after the photoshoot? Has America really helped its partners in their continuing fight against ISIL?
I visited a Peshmerga brigade near Kirkuk on an independent research trip in 2021 and saw how ineffective our current material aid model is. In one battalion, four of nine high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles were dead-lined awaiting maintenance. While all of the MRAPs started, one was missing a wheel and was on blocks, raising doubts about the status of the others. The battalion’s fuel reserve was empty, and most vehicles only had a quarter tank of fuel in them. All of the odometers read 15,000 kilometers, yet the Peshmerga reported they have not had basic maintenance such as oil changes.
The upkeep problems I observed persist despite a maintenance contract with DynCorp and U.S. provision of fuel to the Peshmerga. These measures have not mitigated the organizational challenges involved in moving vehicles from the frontlines to the rear for maintenance and for delivering consumables. Transportation is particularly more difficult to contract out, as it requires movement from secure rear areas to more dangerous frontlines. It is also politically difficult for the Peshmerga, as moving valuable military equipment towards the capital raises the possibility of coup or theft in a region riven by mutual distrust. Augmenting this problem are the force-protection restrictions that prevent U.S. advisors from visiting partner units at the point of friction. In the case of the Peshmerga, U.S. and coalition officers can’t leave their base without a large convoy and can’t visit the units who are actually using the equipment that the United States has given them. It shouldn’t be surprising that they are therefore unable to figure out what the maintenance status of systems are and how to improve them.
A final issue was the lack of qualified maintenance personnel in Peshmerga units. Even in the U.S. military 43 percent of maintenance personnel said that their training for high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle maintenance was inadequate. On receiving this equipment, partners lack senior enlisted personnel who have spent years maintaining high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and know many tips and tricks for keeping them running.
Fixing Material Aid
Where Washington has already given away equipment, it should work to keep it functional. One first step is to get advisors off base and into partner units. If that is politically infeasible, contractors under less-restrictive force protection measures could evaluate equipment readiness. Additionally, there should be more effort to “train the trainer” and deploy officers with country expertise to oversee equipment programs. Such officers would be better equipped to understand the culture and politics of the partner force. Another solution might be to bring some partners to the United States for training, to embed with American maintainers, and finally to return them as a cadre to their home force. Finally, if U.S. partners are still unable to maintain the equipment that they have, Washington should accept fate and change their model of utilization — for example, envisioning armored vehicles as pillboxes, or planning for cannibalization that at least keeps a core group of partner soldiers equipped with functional equipment.
But to make sure partners don’t find themselves facing these challenges in the future, Washington should shift material aid away from logistics-heavy systems. The procurement costs of any weapon system are generally a third of the lifetime costs. As the case of the Peshmerga and Afghan National Army showed, even paying for consumables and maintenance does not fix a partner’s shortcomings in human and organizational capital. Only partners with strong bureaucracies and sufficient technical training across their forces will benefit in the long term from logistics-heavy equipment. For the others, instead of reflexively imposing its doctrine and detritus on them, the U.S. military should give them what they need.
Matthew Cancian is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His thesis is based on a survey of 2,301 Peshmerga during their war against ISIL. Prior to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he earned a masters from the Fletcher School at Tufts and deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan as a Marine officer during Operation Enduring Freedom.