The third of a four-part series
Humvees and other vehicles are strewn across the sprawling repair depot. More and more vehicles are coming to the depot for repair as the harsh conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan take a toll on equipment.
Humvees and other vehicles are strewn across the sprawling repair depot. More and more vehicles are coming to the depot for repair as the harsh conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan take a toll on equipment. JJ Sutherland/NPR
A fixed up Humvee rolls off the Red River repair line every 16 minutes. Today, 32 vehicles are "reset" each day, up from two or three per day just a few years ago.
A fixed up Humvee rolls off the Red River repair line every 16 minutes. Today, 32 vehicles are "reset" each day, up from two or three per day just a few years ago. JJ Sutherland/NPR
This sticker is affixed to each vehicle "reset" at Red River Army Depot. The vehicles are stripped down to their frames and rebuilt.
This sticker is affixed to each vehicle "reset" at Red River Army Depot. The vehicles are stripped down to their frames and rebuilt. JJ Sutherland/NPR
The U.S. Army maintains five operational depots across the country.
Workers rehabilitate vehicle frames on an assembly line at Red River. The depot looked to Toyota's "lean manufacturing" process to streamline and expedite repairs.
Workers rehabilitate vehicle frames on an assembly line at Red River. The depot looked to Toyota's "lean manufacturing" process to streamline and expedite repairs. JJ Sutherland/NPR
Red River Army Depot is building after building of massive, hulking World War II-era structures. It is where the Army fixes many of its vehicles — Humvees, trucks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles — that have been damaged in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are parked everywhere around the base, wherever there is space — in parking lots, along roads, in fields, even among trees.
For Humvees, it starts at the end of an assembly line, where they are stripped to bare steel. Everything is taken off; fluids are pumped out; parts that can be saved are, and those that can't be are thrown away. Trucks, carts and Humvees in pieces move around in a carefully orchestrated ballet.
"Normally we'll run on a 16-minute 'tac time.' That means that every 16 minutes, you'll see a Humvee going out that door, and another one come in this door — every 16 minutes," says Hal Isenby, the man in charge of the Humvee line.
At every workstation, digital countdown clocks set to 16 minutes tick away relentlessly. If anything slows down, lights start going off, alerting everyone to what's going wrong.
"All the supervisors come out and troubleshoot the problem and get the line moving again," says Isenby, who has worked here since he got out of the Army almost 25 years ago. He has seen how the Army — and Red River Depot — have been forced to adapt because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We went for years, when it was a slow time, not a lot of change," Isenby says. "But over the last five years, we've changed more than [in] the previous 20, in my experience."
The depot used to fix up two or three Humvees each week. Now, 32 roll off the line every day. The sheer number of damaged vehicles forced the Army to look for a better way of doing things, and it found one at Toyota, with the idea of "lean manufacturing."
Men load parts onto a cart at the side of the line, and by the time they're needed, they're ready.
"In order to complete one every 16 minutes, we couldn't have eight people working on the back of one Humvee," Isenby says. "So we have the subassemblies that are brought on here, and again we have all the manipulators and stuff that actually tilts them and brings them up here. The old way — we had jack stands and elbow grease."
At times it looks like the massive pieces of a Humvee — engines, tires, armor — float through the air and marry up with each other to create the vehicle.
Last year the Army repaired 128,000 pieces of equipment at its five repair depots, fixing up everything from Humvees and rifles to tanks and trucks. It's not only that the equipment is used hard; it's the conditions — the sand and heat — that take their toll.
These repairs don't come cheap. Costs run about $17 billion a year, and the Army says it will need that amount of money for three to four years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over.
"I'd argue that $17 billion a year, given the substantial amount of formations deployed, is really a very reasonable cost," says Lt. Gen. Stephen Speaks, a deputy Army chief of staff. He is responsible for the funding of the repair program — what the Army calls "reset."
But the Army isn't just fixing gear, which would actually be a lot cheaper, at $3 billion or $4 billion a year; it's making it better.
"So the great credit of the reset is advances in things like body armor," Speaks says. "The ability to see at night, battlefield surveillance and robotics have all been very well-supported. And they've been a part of an ongoing program that is both reset — take existing equipment and continue to repair and improve it — and then also to bring modernization to the force. I deliberately mixed modernization with reset."
And that's a problem, say critics of the Army.
"It may be good stuff to do, but a lot of this is being stuffed into war-related supplementals when it really has more to do with long-term modernization," says Steve Koziak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He argues that modernization should be funded by normal budget procedures where pros and cons are debated and trade-offs with other programs are balanced.
Instead, the Army is using emergency war funding — supplementals — to upgrade its gear.
Isenby, the Humvee repairman at Red River, doesn't care where the money comes from. He just knows he has another Humvee to fix, and he might just know who is going to drive it.
"Some of my employees have just returned from Iraq on active duty, with the guard and stuff. Most of us have family members that are maybe over there now, so this is more of family stuff than it is an employer," he says.
Isenby and his crew put a sticker on every vehicle they work on. It reads: "We build it like our lives depend on it. Theirs do!" The sticker also has a toll-free number. Any troop can call it, at any time.