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Belt-tightening at bases in US starts to strain

While Fort Carson scrimps, Anniston Army Depot works through a backlog of repairs.

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An Army long strained by the manpower demands of Iraq and Afghanistan is increasingly facing a new obstacle at home: The service is fast running out of money.

It is a story with a Dickensian twist – a tale of two bases that show how a force that received more than $100 billion for the current fiscal year doesn't have enough cash to mow the lawns or pay utility bills at installations nationwide.

The money is going to the war effort – to places like Anniston Army Depot in Alabama, where tanks chewed up by enemy mortars and desert sand are stripped down to the bolts and rebuilt before being sent back to Iraq.

Like many bases, Fort Carson in Colorado has helped pay the cost, closing two mess halls and skimping on staffing – even at a time when the base is growing.

The cuts are typical wartime belt-tightening. Yet they presage more difficult choices ahead, as the cost of waging America's wars of today throws into doubt not only the Army's readiness at home but also its preparations for the wars of tomorrow. With the annual cost of the Iraq war doubling since 2003 to about $100 billion, by most estimates, and with the Army needing $17.1 billion for repair and "reset" alone next year, "something has to go," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

Squeezing installations can achieve only so much, and the Army brass worries that the service's cherished program to modernize the force could be next. Already, House appropriators have approved a plan to cut the Future Combat System (FCS) by $325 million next year – in part to pay for the soaring cost of reset, ammunition, and fuel in Iraq.

While experts disagree on whether the primary money problem is the Iraq war or the Army's overambitious goals, they agree that the war's bulging budgets have added pressure – and congressional scrutiny – that might not have existed otherwise.

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