Gates told reporters during the overnight flight here he wants to hear first-hand what troops think of President Barack Obama’s decisions regarding Afghanistan, and what impact the additional forces will have on them – logistically as well as operationally. He also wants to get troops’ input about how the beefed-up U.S. and NATO force can accelerate Afghan national security force training, he said.
The secretary signed deployment orders Dec. 4 for about 16,000 servicemembers who will be the initial elements of the new troop commitment. “The first units are coming in pretty quick,” Gates said, noting that the first Marines will begin arriving in Afghanistan next week, and continue flowing “at a fairly steady pace” through the early winter.
Gates said he would not have agreed to a shorter-than-expected timeline for deploying the additional forces if the logisticians and commanders on the ground had not assured him it will be possible. But he said he intends to check in on the ground to ensure the logistics train is ready to accept the incoming troops and their equipment.
“It is going to be a heavy lift, there is no question about it,” he said. “It is going to require a lot of effort on a lot of different people’s part. … But our folks are confident they can get it done.”
In assessing equipment needs in Afghanistan, Gates said, transferring equipment from Iraq isn’t necessarily the best answer in every case. The Army leadership is evaluating the best way to deal with 3 billion pieces of equipment in Iraq. New congressional authorization allows the U.S. military to give more of it to the Iraqi army, and in some cases, Gates said, that’s the best option.
“Frankly, we just have to figure out, in terms of cost and in terms of logistics, what makes sense in terms of moving it from Iraq to Afghanistan,” he said. “In some cases, it is just easier and cheaper to buy it new than to take used equipment, pack it up and ship it from Iraq to Afghanistan.”
“The Army has been working on this in great detail for months now, and I think they have a pretty good plan,” Gates said.
Meanwhile, Gates said, he wants to make sure deployed forces have the equipment and support they need, and to reassure them that if they’re lacking something, he’ll do everything he can to get it to them.
Gates said he’ll try to get initial reactions from the troops to the new all-terrain mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that have begun flowing into Afghanistan to protect troops from improvised explosive devices. He’ll also get their assessment of the increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to support their operations.
“And I will be asking about equipment in general,” he said. “I will be asking the soldiers what kind of equipment issues they have that we can do something about back in Washington.” For example, Gates said, a Congress member passed along to him during last week’s hearings on Afghanistan a complaint about the straps to military backpacks. The straps are too thin, Gates was told, putting too much pressure on the shoulders, and in some cases, making the hands go numb.
As he takes stock of any deficiencies, Gates said, he’ll also tell the troops directly about the new task force he stood up last month to better address the threat from improvised explosive devices.
He said he’ll reemphasize his commitment to providing medical evacuation and on-the-ground medical capabilities to provide battle-wounded forces advanced-level medical care within 60 minutes – the so-called “golden hour.” The secretary said he’s generally satisfied that additional medical assets he ordered to Afghanistan now provide the same level of response available for troops deployed to Iraq.
“The overwhelming percentage of those who are wounded [in Afghanistan] … get to a regular medical facility in less than an hour,” he said. “There clearly are always going to be exceptions,” he conceded, such as a long firefight that prevents a medevac helicopter from landing to extract a wounded servicemember.
“But from what I have been told, the preponderance of those who are wounded can expect to be medevaced out in less than an hour,” he said. “I feel pretty strongly about that.”
Gates said he’ll thank the troops serving in Afghanistan, recognizing the sacrifices they’re making and will continue to make as the additional forces arrive.
He said he’s been assured by both Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr., and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway that the troop increase won’t create any major disruptions in their efforts to increase time at home between deployments.
The Marines currently spend about a year and a half of “dwell time” at their home stations between one-year deployments, Gates said, and Conway told him the Marine Corps remains on track toward the goal of increasing dwell time to two years.
The Army faces more of a challenge, with its current 1-to-1 ratio. “I think General Casey’s hope had been to get to 1-to-2 by sometime in 2011,” Gates said. “It might take a little longer now. … It will be a harder push for the Army, but they will still head in the right direction.”
The one exception, he said, are the so-called “enablers.” These specialists, including helicopter crews, intelligence specialists, IED route-clearance engineers and other specialties, have been tapped for repeated deployments and “pushed pretty hard,” Gates conceded.
It’s “the one area we worry about,” he said.
Gates said he plans during his visit here to acknowledge their sacrifices and the heavy losses that some units, particularly the Army’s Stryker brigades, have taken during their deployments here.
“I want to thank them for their service and their sacrifice – and tell them we are in this thing to win,” he said.