Barack Obama made the war in Iraq a centerpiece of his 2008 campaign, promising to end the war— and to better equip troops.
The Bush administration had faced years of criticism for failing to quickly respond to insurgent roadside bombs with armored vehicles that would protect soldiers and Marines.
Priorities must change, Obama said.
The United States must "fully equip our troops for the missions they face,” his campaign literature promised. "We must listen to our ground commanders when they tell us what kinds of technology and skills they need to fight most effectively. We cannot repeat the failure to swiftly deploy up-armored vehicles in response to insurgent tactics. We must prioritize getting vitally needed equipment to our Soldiers and Marines before lives are lost."
He got a head start keeping that promise. Obama benefits from a yearslong effort begun under Bush, plus the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Priorities had already begun to change — in 2004. Iraq-bound troops had confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in what the New York Times called an "extraordinary exchange.” A member of the Tennessee National Guard told him soldiers had to dig through Kuwaiti landfills to find scraps to armor their trucks. "Why don't we have those resources readily available to us?" he asked, to cheers from troops.
Military scholars Christopher Lamb and Matthew Schmidt documented what happened next: an "uproar” that "put President George W. Bush on the defensive,” and inspired a new focus on rushing up-armored vehicles and add-on armor kits to the front.
It also triggered a series of changes in how the Pentagon handles urgent requests from the field — to better, as Obama put it, "listen to our ground commanders.”
In 2005, the Pentagon launched a "joint rapid acquisition cell,” to respond to urgent needs requests. It created a task force to focus on roadside bomb deaths, the Joint IED Defeat Organization. Robert Gates, who took over the Defense Department at the end of 2006, added a task force to focus on equipment for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Still, public attention exposed continued challenges. The Washington Post reported in 2007 that thousands of Army humvees still lacked armor upgrades, while roadside explosives inflicted 7 in 10 American casualties.
Meanwhile, mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, known as MRAPs, which would better protect troops, didn't get deployed "en masse” to Iraq for nearly five years into the conflict, according to a paper by Lamb and Schmidt.
Still, there was more left to do when Obama took office in January 2009. He kept on Gates as defense secretary, who continued to push for a speedier Pentagon response to insurgent tactics.
"We must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide, both short and long term, all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as those we face today,” Gates wrote in January 2009.
Congress had pumped tens of billions of dollars into rapid-reaction programs, but its investigative arm found in April 2010 that the Defense Department still failed to be fully "responsive” to warfighters. The Pentagon's efforts were fragmented, guidance was outdated, and new equipment still faced significant delays. In March 2011, the Government Accountability Office published a followup review, finding that the department still didn't have a comprehensive policy.
In June 2011, Gates consolidated the Pentagon's urgent needs response, creating the warfighter Senior Integration Group.
By then, of course, the war in Iraq was winding down. Fighters in Afghanistan faced not an equipment problem so much as a trust problem, with insurgents infiltrating friendly forces to murder troops, said Schmidt, the military scholar, who now teaches at the U.S. Army's School of Advanced Military Studies.
"It's not an equipment problem anymore,” he said.
The latest report from GAO shows breakthrough progress.
In April 2012, it reported that a sampling of Pentagon projects from April 2008 to December 2010 mostly made it into action within two years. Meanwhile, earlier stages of projects got shorter and shorter between 2008 and 2010 "suggesting overall improvements.”
While the rapid acquisition process has improved, experts say it's impossible to say by how much until it's again tested by the full weight of war. But military leaders achieved greater responsiveness under Obama, experts told us.
"I think the answer is a resounding yes, that they listened to ground commanders and gave them what they asked for in terms of equipment,” Schmidt said. "I think there's no question that they were responding to equipment requests."
He said that attention from the press and Congress allowed Gates to pressure the bureaucracy to "move forward.”
David Berteau, who analyzes defense contracting for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says anecdotes support the idea the Pentagon under Obama is more focused on meeting urgent needs.
"I think the effort, and from all indications, the results, indicate he has kept this promise,” Berteau said.
Phillip Lohaus, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues Obama's budget priorities mean it may not stay that way.
"By insisting on defense cuts and by drawing down our presence in Afghanistan ahead of the previously-announced deadline, Obama is reducing the amount of the missions that the military faces, and thus might get away with ‘fully equipping them" simply by reducing the frequency and scope of their missions,” he said. "... But there is no indication that the policies he is now pursuing will leave our soldiers ‘well equipped' when next they face a conflict.”
We'll watch for backpedaling of the Pentagon's progress on its rapid acquisition process. But an effort that started before Obama's election and continued on his watch has improved the Pentagon's response to troops' urgent equipment needs. For a variety of reasons, troops in Afghanistan have not faced the same shortages that became a public rallying cry in Iraq. We rate this Promise Kept.
Editor's note: The headline on this promise was changed from "Fully and properly equip troops" to "Equip troops to respond to new tactics" to more accurately reflect the promise.