MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Seven years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a huge toll on the Army. In our series this week on the state of the Army, we've heard how soldiers are adjusting to the new reality. The past seven years have also taken a toll on equipment. A lot of it is broken, and it costs a lot to fix. The U.S. Army puts that price tag at about $17 billion a year. NPR Pentagon correspondent JJ Sutherland traveled to Texarkana at the Texas-Arkansas border to find out how that money is being spent.
JJ SUTHERLAND: The Red River Army Depot is building after building of World War II-era structures, massive and hulking. This is where the Army fixes many of the vehicles - Humvees, trucks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles - that have been damaged in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're parked everywhere around the base, wherever there is space - in parking lots, along roads, in fields, even among the trees.
(Soundbite of repair shop)
SUTHERLAND: For Humvees, it starts here. They're stripped to bare steel. Everything is taken off. Fluids are pumped out. Parts that can be saved are, others are thrown away. Trucks and carts and Humvees in pieces move around in a carefully orchestrated ballet.
Mr. HAL ISENBY (Mechanic, Red River Army Depot): Normally we'll run on a 16-minute 'tac time. That means every 16 minutes you'll see a Humvee go out that door and another one come in this door to be rebuilt - every 16 minutes.
SUTHERLAND: Hal Isenby is the guy in charge of the Humvee line. At every workstation, there are digital countdown clocks set to 16 minutes. They tick away relentlessly. If anything slows down, lights start going off, alerting everyone to what's going wrong.
Mr. ISENBY: And all the supervisors come out and troubleshoot the problem and get the line moving again.
SUTHERLAND: Isenby has worked here for almost 25 years, ever since he got out of the Army. He's seen how the Army and Red River Depot have been forced to adapt because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. ISENBY: We went for years, when it was kind of a slow time, there wasn't a lot of change. But in the last five years, it's changed more than they had in the previous 20 years of my experience.
SUTHERLAND: It used to be the depot could fix up maybe two or three Humvees a 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. They found it at Toyota and the idea of lean manufacturing. Men load parts onto a cart at the side of the line. When they're needed, they're ready.
Mr. ISENBY: In order to produce one every 16 minutes, we couldn't have eight people working on the back of one Humvee. So we have these sub-assemblies that are brought on here. And again we have all the manipulators and stuff that actually tilts them. The old way, we had jack stands and elbow grease.
SUTHERLAND: At times, it looks like the massive pieces of the Humvee - engines, tires, armor - float through the air and marry up with each other to create the vehicle.
(Soundbite of electric drill)
SUTHERLAND: Last year, the Army repaired 128,000 pieces of equipment at its five repair depots - everything from Humvees and rifles to tanks and trucks. It's not only that the equipment is used hard, it's the conditions - sand and heat - that take their toll. But these repairs don't come cheap - about $17 billion a year. And the Army says they'll need that level of money for three to four years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over.
Lieutenant General STEPHEN SPEAKS (Deputy Army Chief of Staff): I'd argued that $17 billion a year, given the substantial amount of formations that are deployed, is really a very reasonable cost.
SUTHERLAND: Lt. Gen. Stephen Speaks is a deputy Army chief of staff. He's responsible for the funding of the repair program, what the Army calls reset. But the Army isn't just fixing gear. That would actually be a lot cheaper - three or four billion a year. The big cost is they make it better.
Lt. Gen. SPEAKS: So the great credit of the reset program is advances in things like body armor. The ability to see at night, the ability to apply battlefield surveillance and robotics have all been very, very well supported. And they have been a part of an ongoing program that is both reset to take existing equipment and continue to repair and improve it, and then also to bring modernization to the force. You see, I deliberately mixed reset with elements of modernization.
SUTHERLAND: And that's a problem, say critics of the Army.
Mr. STEVE KOZIAK (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment): It may be good stuff to do, but a lot of this stuff is being stuffed into war-related supplementals when it really has more to do with long-term modernization.
SUTHERLAND: That's Steve Koziak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He argues 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 - those supplementals - to upgrade its gear.
Hal Isenby of Red River doesn't care where the money comes from. He just knows he has got another Humvee to fix, and he just might know who is going to drive it.
Mr. ISENBY: 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 like a family type deal than it is just an employer.
SUTHERLAND: Isenby and his crew put a sticker on every vehicle they work on. It reads, "We build it like our lives depend on it because theirs do." The sticker also has an 800 number. A troop with a problem can call any time. JJ Sutherland, NPR News, Washington.
NORRIS: Tomorrow, our fourth and final report on the state of the Army. We'll meet the top Army officer, General George Casey, who previously commanded the coalition forces in Iraq. Now he has the difficult job of fixing the force.
General GEORGE CASEY (Chief of Staff, U.S. Army): We have to have an Army that the nation feels that it can afford. So that's why I say, how much are you willing to pay?
NORRIS: A profile of General Casey tomorrow on the program.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.