The guns of Fort Hood are pointing westward, like a mighty army parked on the central Texas prairie. One turns reflexively toward the horizon to see what all the tanks are aimed at. An attacking force from Abilene? Invasion by New Mexico? Nothing in sight. The land dies away in scrubby emptiness, miles of dimpled, treeless prairie save for occasional clusters of stubborn live oaks. Texas is at peace, like the rest of America, but still ready to fight.
The main post at Fort Hood looks bland and spartan, like any other Army base, but it is distinguished for its firepower. Forty percent of the U.S. Army's combat power is located here--two heavy divisions of tanks and mechanized infantry, the III Corps command, plus numerous supporting units. Some forty-three thousand people are stationed at Fort Hood, making it the largest installation in the armed services.
North of the main post, just beyond a low ridge, are the open ranges--nearly two hundred thousand acres of unpopulated prairie available for live-fire training, tank maneuvers, aerial attacks, and practice battles with ground-launched missiles, mortars, machine guns, and grenade launchers. One of the ranges is a small European village with narrow streets, close-together stores and houses. This place where tank commanders learn to maneuver in an urban environment is like a movie set with false facades.
Between payroll and contracts, the base generates about $2 billion a year in local economic activity; Lieutenant Colonel Randy Schoel, chief of information, observes that "Fort Hood is, in effect, the largest corporation in the state of Texas."
Killeen, the small town next door, appears to be prospering and to have acquired every fast-food franchise known to man. Most of the soldiers, men and women, are married and live off-base with families in working-class subdivisions. Their neighborhoods look different from the rest of America only in that the people are thoroughly integrated by race, like the military itself. The kids walking home from school in late afternoon are a multicultural stream of white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and some attractive combinations. Some of them get picked up by moms or dads in fatigues.
Fort Hood may consume a lot of public money, but nobody gets rich serving in the armed forces. Like other military towns, Killeen has its seedy highway strip of tattoo parlors and Saturday night bust-out bars, interspersed with numerous pawn shops. Personal debt is a big problem for many soldiers. The post provides regular counseling on managing money.
"There are soldiers here on Fort Hood who are on food stamps," Colonel Schoel informs me. "I had a soldier here in this office, married with three kids, who figured out that if he rejected his military subsistence allowance, he qualified for food stamps and he came out dollars ahead. He decided not to do it. Too proud."
Peace puts its own strange pressures on people in uniform, both from downsizing adjustments and the repetition of minor missions abroad. "I'll tell you: the Army is a stressful place these days," the colonel remarks. "This corps has about six thousand people deployed away from home--thirty-two hundred Fort Hood soldiers in Kuwait, sixteen hundred soldiers in Bosnia, then lots of smaller units around the world. And a lot of these soldiers have been over there multiple times. They're excited and positive about doing their job, but remember, this is a married Army, and that spouse back home is not keen on this. The spouse says: `Honey, this is no way to live.'"
Another, perhaps more significant source of stress at Fort Hood involves machines, not people. The wondrous machinery of modern land warfare is assembled here in such gross abundance that it rises to the level of spectacle, an American marvel. The kind of attraction tourists might bring the kids to see. The Grand Canyon of armor power.
The Fort Hood motor pool begins at the intersection of Clear Creek Road and North Avenue and runs along the northern edge of the main post that faces the ranges. Bradley fighting vehicles from the First Cavalry Division are parked in rows behind a chain-link fence at the corner. With its swivel turret and cannon, machine guns and Dragon missiles, the Bradley resembles one of those boxy, high-riding tanks from previous eras of warfare, but its main purpose is carrying troops forward in attack. An infantry squad of ten enters through the rear hatch and rides inside while the Bradley focuses its "hunter/killer capacity" on opposing armor.
Six rows of the Bradleys are lined up precisely across the asphalt parking lot. Each tank is painted pale brown, the washed-out color of desert sand, standard decor now for Army combat vehicles.
Heading east, North Avenue dips slightly, and the first lot of Bradleys ends at a drainage ditch. Then there's a new fence, and another motor pool begins. This one is filled with the M-1 Abrams main battle tank, at least two score of them. These particular tanks are designated M-1A2, which indicates that they have been fully upgraded with the latest, most versatile electronics-heat-sensing, eyes-in-the-dark technology, plus a video-display terrain map inside the turret that lets the commander identify every moving object on the battlefield, friend and foe alike.
The M-1 Abrams, named for a revered commander in Vietnam, is without peer in the world--fast and lean despite its tremendous weight, its firepower enhanced by brilliant technological precision. The tank has a low-slung carriage and slender turret, with three machine guns mounted here and there around the 120mm cannon. The low silhouette looks both menacing and sleek, if one can picture seventy tons of sleekness barreling across field and fence rows at thirty-five or forty miles an hour.
"It's like a big old Cadillac with guns," one young tanker told me. A yard filled with them conveys brute authority. There's a small rush in gazing at so much tangible force, assembled in neat, close rows.
Where one parking lot filled with tanks ends, another parking lot filled with tanks begins. Another chain-link fence and another unit's motor pool, more tanks. Then another, then another. More tanks, more tanks. As we drive along North Avenue, reviewing the massed armaments, I ask my escort, Sergeant Troy Rolan, to slow down a bit. I can't take it all in. Sergeant Rolan is amused that I am overwhelmed. The tour is just beginning.
Down the road, another vast parking lot holds a huge fleet of "Humvees" (HMMWV, for High-Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle). These are the squat, wide-body field cars that look as though the designers crossbred an old Jeep with the British Land Rover.
Then come scores of HEMTTs (Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks) and HETS (Heavy Equipment Transporter System), the heavy-duty service trucks that support tanks on the battlefield, hauling fuel, ammunition, and even the tanks themselves. "Hemets" are monster freight haulers built for rough terrain. The HETS is a very long, heavy-duty flatbed trailer so strong that it can carry one seventy-ton M-1 tank or two Bradleys.
"It's ridiculously expensive to move these things, so they put them on a HETS and drive them out to the ranges," Sergeant Rolan explains. The rule at Fort Hood is, if a tank has to travel three miles to reach the exercise range, it must be carried piggyback on a HETS.
Though it sounds a bit silly, this saves real money. A modern battle tank, for all its speed and sophisticated power, is oddly delicate and vulnerable to soaring expenses. An M-1 burns nearly two gallons of fuel per mile. Its tracks and complex operating parts are subject to perpetual wear and breakdown, even from routine travel. Operating a tank in the field, the Army calculates, costs $147 per mile in fuel and repair bills.
Sergeant Rolan drives on, patiently, alongside the massive ribbon of weaponry--more tanks, trucks, cars, Bradleys, armored personnel carriers, Humvees equipped with Avenger missiles, rows of motorized howitzers, fuel tankers, more tanks, more trucks. The sergeant has led this tour before and probably anticipates that there will come a moment when I have had it, when I am so glazed by the experience of seeing all this hardware that I can no longer comprehend one more parking lot of pale-brown combat vehicles.
The moment arrives. It is stirring to look head-on at the mechanical virility of one M-1 battle tank. Seeing several dozen of them, lined up in neat rows, conveys a satisfying sense of power. Trying to look at four or five hundred tanks, immobile across dozens of parking lots, becomes stupefying.
The Fort Hood motor pool finally ends, after forty-eight separate equipment yards, at the entrance to the Hood Army Airfield, where more than two hundred Apache and Kiowa helicopters are stationed. From one end to the other, I have seen something like 2,400 tanks, Bradleys, and other kinds of tracked vehicles--plus more than 11,500 trucks, tankers, Humvees, and other, heavier vehicles on wheels. Exhausting to behold, but there's nothing like it anywhere else in the world. The Fort Hood motor pool stretches along North Avenue for six and a half miles.
The parking lots of armor reflect, crudely, the great national dilemma we are evading. America is experiencing a deep confusion of purpose at this moment of history, holding on to a past that is defunct, but unable to imagine a different future. The Cold War is over, but not really, not yet.
Too many tanks with nowhere to send them. Too many bombers and fighter planes, too many ships and rockets. Too many men and women in uniform. Our troops are the best in the world, splendidly trained and capable, brilliantly equipped with dazzling weaponry. But what exactly are they to do, now that a general peace is upon us? We don't know the answer. We don't even want to talk about it.
The defense budget has been reduced since the Berlin Wall came down eight years ago, but $250 billion is still much larger (even after allowing for inflation) than in 1980, the height of Cold War tensions. Overall troop strength has been downsized by roughly one-third, but the nation continues to maintain the heavied-up military force designed and equipped to go head to head against the Soviets. That force structure anticipated a full-scale war waged across the plains of Central Europe--across many of the nations of Central Europe now poised to join NATO.
Fortress America remains mobilized to fight the big one but justifies itself now with vague threat scenarios that envision fighting two wars at once, twin regional conflicts that will be smaller in scale but simultaneous. Instead of a robust debate over new priorities or skeptical questioning of these fanciful premises, the political elites in both parties have settled into denial and drift--a status quo that argues only over smaller matters, like which new weapon systems to fund and where they will be built. Defense spending, as one strategic analyst put it, has become "the new third rail of American politics." Most politicians are afraid to touch it.
It seems improbable that Americans will wish to spend more on a peacetime mobilization, not when federal spending is being cut for nearly everything else. Indeed, the public is inclined right now to stand clear of foreign engagements, especially ones that might involve American casualties. Despite the official projections, most analysts expect defense spending to remain flat or even decline further.
But unwilling or unable to adapt to the new circumstances, the armed forces and their allied manufacturers are proceeding with ambitious plans based on the assumption that the reduction in defense spending is only temporary and that Pentagon budgets will soon begin rising robustly again. (The Clinton administration assumes the same: its five-year projections call for another $30 billion and a 40 percent increase in the procurement budget, while Republicans seek even more.)
Until more money arrives, the defense apparatus is literally feeding on its own parts, pinching this and that, scrimping here and there, in order to keep the same Cold War force structure in place and the same lineup of new weapons moving through the pipeline of development. During the Cold War era, the military institution acquired a reflexive appetite for growth that it's now unwilling to give up. Instead, it lumbers toward a self-induced crisis of malnourishment, as when an addict's starving body eats its own liver.
Some smart people, in and out of the Pentagon, see what's coming and have proposed various blueprints for fundamental restructuring and drastic reduction. Radical alternatives are shrugged off by political and military leaders, however, not to mention the defense industry. It is not necessary to study the mind-numbing budget projections to see the problem. The outlines are visible in the routine facts of military life, the daily burden of maintaining the best and biggest army, navy, and air force in the world.
The Pentagon has been dumping old tanks like an army-navy surplus store conducting frantic "going out of business" sales. Giving them away to friendly nations. Selling them at deep discounts. Offering them free to local museums. It dumped one hundred old Sherman M-60s into Mobile Bay off the Alabama coast to form artificial reefs for fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Several hundred more are being sunk along other coastlines for the same purpose. One year it gave forty-five tanks free to Bosnia and another fifty to Jordan. It shipped ninety-one tanks to Brazil under a no-cost, five-year lease, and thirty to Bahrain on the same terms. Another 160 tanks were sold to Taiwan for $130,000 each, priced at ten cents on the dollar. Egypt got seven hundred free by picking up transportation costs.
One way or another, the Army has disposed of nearly six thousand older tanks during the last six years. Giving them away "is often cheaper than destroying or storing them," Lora Lumpe and Paul F. Pineo explained in a 1997 study by the Federation of American Scientists. In the 1980s, they observed dryly, the United States spent many billions on modernizing the Army's entire inventory of armor, helicopters, artillery, and other gear. In the 1990s, it unloaded "a literal army" composed of the same stuff, albeit usually older models. Plus there are the hundreds of "excess" aircraft and ships from the Air Force and Navy inventories.
"The services appear to be giving away still useful equipment in order to justify procurement of new weaponry," Lumpe and Pineo asserted. "Much of the equipment now declared `excess' is quite serviceable. In fact, a lot of it was purchased or reconditioned in the Reagan arms build-up of the 1980s." These bargain sales have not provoked much controversy, except for occasional complaints from defense firms trying to sell new armaments to the same countries.
Redundancy was always a working principle of Cold War weapons procurement--national security based on having more than enough, much more--and that doctrine survives. The Army now holds eleven thousand tanks in its inventory, and nearly all of them are the M-1 Abrams. It's not buying any new ones but is still contracting for technological upgrades on older M-1s. This tank force is at least five or six times larger than those of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, the "rogue states" most often mentioned in two-war scenarios.
But the U.S. advantage is actually much larger than that because superior technologies multiply the killing strength of our tanks against inferior opponents. Another working principle of Cold War procurement was endless perfectibility--making the standard weapons smarter and smarter. Thanks to its advanced technologies, America designed tanks, planes, ships, and missiles that were far more versatile and precise (also more expensive) than the clunkier mass-produced weapons fielded by the Soviets in larger numbers.
Technology can trump quantity on the modern battlefield. At Fort Hood, Sergeant Major Ronald Coplan, a sixteen-year tank veteran, explains the rough ratios: "The M-1 tank can take out four of any enemy force. An M-1A2 can take out six-to-one." Coplan speaks from practical experience, having driven into Iraq on the leading edge of Desert Storm's devastating tank attack.
Thus, despite the gross reductions, the Army still has too many tanks--at least more than it really needs or can usefully employ. Two MIT political scientists, Harvey M. Sapolsky and Eugene Gholz, have calculated that only about twenty-one hundred tanks--one-fifth of the Army's inventory--are actually deployed and operating with combat divisions. The rest are assigned to reserve units or forward pre-positioning overseas, or they are in storage. The professors found similar redundancy in the Air Force: of seventy-five hundred first-line fighters, only about two thousand were fielded with active units.
The commanders at Fort Hood face a more prosaic problem with the tanks: they can't afford to run them. It costs $2,000 an hour to operate a single M-12A tank in the field. Multiply that by a company with fourteen tanks ($28,000 an hour), a battalion with three or four companies ($84,000 an hour or more), a brigade with three battalions ($252,000 an hour or more), and their problem becomes clear. How can you afford the training hours that soldiers need to operate these brilliant fighting machines?
"This corps, just Fort Hood, will have to operate next year on $80 million less than it did in '96," Colonel Schoel explains. "What can you economize on? Our biggest spending is on training and maintenance. Well, we shift more to simulators and less to actual field training."
To that end, Fort Hood's new Close Combat Tactical Training Center has just been completed. It is a buff-brick warehouse building filled with simulators designed to serve as "virtual tanks" and "virtual Bradley fighting vehicles," even "virtual Humvees." The simulators are thirty-eight windowless metal boxes, each perhaps fifteen feet square, lined up densely inside the vast hall.
A four-man tank crew climbs inside one of these boxes and experiences the authentic interior of an M-1 tank. They "drive" the tank into hostile encounters, "fire" at opposing armor, and get "killed" or "lost" when things go wrong. Afterwards, trainers replay a videotape recording of the action and critique errors.
As in the real thing, the commander sits alongside the breech of the 120mm cannon and faces the usual dials and operating gear, including the electronic terrain map that shows him the battlefield with tiny icons identifying other tanks and units. For visuals, a TV display screen plays a prepared videotape of terrain drawings meant to replicate the fog of battle--generic trees and hills, exploding tanks and helicopter attacks, foot soldiers scurrying for cover, thunder and lightning. The pictures are about as lifelike as an arcade video game.
"If we put one of these machines out there for people to play, we're going to need a boatload of quarters," boasts Lendel W. "Bud" Gotcher, civilian director of Battle Simulations and Systems Integration for the Army. The simulators were built by Lockheed Martin for $670,000 apiece, not counting design and development costs. That's $25 million worth of video games sitting in this arcade.
Bert H. Chole, the site manager for a subcontractor called Pulua Electronics and a retired Army tank commander himself, explains the economics as he shows me in and out of the various simulators.
"These tanks cost a couple of million apiece, and if the Army can save a soldier from tearing them up in training, it makes 'em happy," Chole says. "The bottom line on all this is, it's going to save a lot of damn money. Moving a unit out to the field burns up gasoline and adds to the maintenance. It's simulator miles versus actual field miles. That's the trade-off, and, of course, that's driven by the budget."
In the design room, the two of us look over the shoulder of Sam Kelley, a computer technician who is programming in code changes for a battle scenario the simulator will stage between the "Blue" forces and the "Red" forces. Blue forces are always the good guys in U.S. military training.
"We have an opposing force, and when the friendly forces see it, at that point the interaction will occur," Kelley says. "You'll see fire on the screen, and when it hits, that fire changes the color of the vehicle. Our tanks can shoot farther than their tanks, which are old Warsaw Pact T-64s and T-72s. We could change that. We can give them an enemy fully capable of the same things we call do."
"But we don't have another country like that now," Chole adds. "Believe it or not, the Red forces are programmed according to Soviet threat doctrine. They deploy into the proper defensive formation according to Soviet doctrine. As the Blue forces approach them, certain things happen according to Soviet doctrine. Artillery will come in on 'em, they encounter one or two of our scouts. Then you pick up a Soviet infantry company, then their main line of resistance. That's when the party is really going to fall on you."
Why, I ask, aren't they reprogramming the computers, since the Soviet Union no longer exists? Couldn't the simulators evoke a "virtual enemy" of the future? That would be too expensive, Bert Chole admits.
"We've been working on it for nine years," he explains. "To reprogram it now would be a big trade-off in dollars. How many millions of codes went into this shit? Think of the money it would take to change all of them.
"A reasoning person says, why spend a bunch more money to redesign when, hell, we don't even know who this enemy is? This program will train a force. Let's go with what we got."
Who is chasing us? Or whom do we expect to chase? If their leaders cannot answer that question, it leaves the troops no choice but to prepare to fight an imaginary last war. The dilemma is central. It squeezes all of the military branches into making odd trade-offs between men and machines, between pursuing a real preparedness or a pretend version.