On a recent Freedom Alliance-sponsored visit to the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, a high school student asked a staff sergeant what was best about being a Marine. "The attitude and ingenuity of other Marines," he replied, "They're like MacGyver -- a good Marine can disarm a nuclear warhead with a paper clip, a Band-Aid and bubble gum if necessary," he explained only half jokingly.
Unfortunately, he's right -- and I witnessed it numerous times in Iraq. While dodging enemy fire, and fighting sandstorms and blackouts, aging equipment was patched together by soldiers and Marines using ordinary household items. Once, a field expedient repair was made using tape and chewing gum. And outside Baghdad, after a bullet had cut a helicopter fuel line, I watched a Marine gunnery sergeant use his "Leatherman Tool" to snip a tube from the heater and use it to repair the damage.
All of us "on the ground" in Iraq and Afghanistan understand stories like these -- because we saw them. What's more alarming are the efforts to repair aging equipment that we can't report because they are unseen. Earlier this week, my seat-mate on a flight back to Washington was a USAF Reserve pilot who volunteered that he was quitting the service because he doesn't want to fly a "death trap" any more.
"What do you fly?" I asked. "Tankers," he replied. "Check it out," he challenged. "We've got a big problem that's getting worse."
I did, and he's right. The USAF refueling capability -- essential to fighting forces outside the United States -- is limited to 60 converted civilian airliners -- designated KC-10s -- and 545 aging KC 135s, first purchased during the Eisenhower administration. The KC-135s -- now averaging 43 years old -- have been used in every conflict from the Vietnam War to Iraq -- and every gunfight in between. If we send more troops to Liberia -- KC-135s will support the deployment. According to congressional testimony, they are falling apart.
Seems like replacing these essential aircraft would be high on everyone's list. But not in Washington.
The Air Force says buying new tankers will take 20 years, and it needs them now. The USAF brass wants to replace the 100 oldest KC-135s with leased Boeing 767s converted from commercial use. According to congressional testimony, the new KC-767s would carry 20 percent more fuel and would service Navy, Air Force and Marine aircraft on the same mission. The proposed lease deal needs congressional approval, but Congress is now playing Bill Clinton's role: "Let them buy new ones in the 'out years.'"
It shouldn't take a KC-135 becoming a smoking hole in the ground before Congress cuts through the red tape. It's time to get creative and ensure our men and women in uniform have modern equipment to fight modern war. If we don't, their ingenuity and hard work will eventually succumb not to our enemies, but to weapons and equipment that are too old to maintain.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.