Tanks for the memories

Oliver North

7/11/2003 12:00:00 AM - Oliver North

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Liberals are, by nature, opportunists. While I was in Iraq, covering the U.S. Marine and Army units in Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was fascinating to catch American television broadcasts on my man-pack satellite video equipment.

If we were in a semi-secure situation, the troops would gather 'round the tiny screen and watch -- some for the first time in months. It was great entertainment -- observing the troops' reactions as liberal pundits like Barry Lynn, Peter Fenn and Alan Colmes explained that military victories in Iraq proved that critics were wrong about William Jefferson Blythe Clinton's tenure as commander in chief.

The troops would hoot and holler as Clinton defenders claimed their boy Bill hadn't harmed the military. "See," they argued, "our troops are just fine. Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were right to gut the military and slash defense spending. If Clinton was so bad for the military, why are we having such an easy time in Iraq?" they asked rhetorically. The rant usually concluded with, "The troops have all the equipment they need."

The troops do have equipment -- no question. But much of it is aging, outdated and difficult to maintain. The Marines with whom I was embedded in Iraq -- Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 -- were flying some of the same CH-46 helos that carried me and my mates into combat in Vietnam more than 34 years ago. With the exception of a few sergeants major, the squadron commander and I were the only people in those birds who were older than the helicopters.

The Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAVs) that carried most of the Marine combat units hundreds of miles into battle were nearly all older than the troops inside them. The Marine C-130s that landed on highways in the middle of the night to deliver supplies and evacuate wounded were equally ancient. And while the Army and Marines had magnificent M-1 Abrams tanks, the M-88 Tank Retrievers, essential to recovering damaged armor, date back to the Vietnam era.

It's not just the Army and Marines. The USS Tarawa, LHA-1, was commissioned in 1976. The Navy's P-3 aircraft are the geriatrics of intelligence collection. And the word "venerable" inadequately describes the B-52s that fly the unfriendly skies over Afghanistan and Iraq.

The "wrench turners" who tirelessly and creatively keep these weapons, ships, planes and equipment working acknowledge -- off the record -- that they often have to use unorthodox methods.

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.