Pentagon doubts Obama account of equipment problem

WASHINGTON Fri Feb 22, 2008 1:27pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Friday cast doubt on an account of military equipment shortages mentioned by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama during a debate with rival Hillary Clinton.

During the face-to-face encounter on Thursday evening, Obama said he had heard from an Army captain whose unit had served in Afghanistan without enough ammunition or vehicles.

Obama said it was easier for the troops to capture weapons from Taliban militants than it was "to get properly equipped by our current commander in chief," President George W. Bush.

"I find that account pretty hard to imagine," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.

"Despite the stress that we readily acknowledge on the force, one of the things that we do is make sure that all of our units and service members that are going into harm's way are properly trained, equipped and with the leadership to be successful," he said.

Whitman's remarks were unusual as the Pentagon often declines to talk about comments from political campaigns.

Obama said the captain was the head of a rifle platoon, which should have had 39 members -- but 15 were sent to Iraq so the unit deployed to Afghanistan had 24 soldiers.

Several Army officers said a platoon is normally commanded by a 2nd lieutenant -- two ranks below a captain -- but the size of a platoon would indeed be around 40 soldiers.

Military equipment shortages have been a big U.S. political issue, particularly in the early years of the Iraq war.

A U.S. soldier confronted then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the topic in Kuwait in 2004, complaining that troops were forced to dig up scrap metal to protect their vehicles because the military did not have enough armor.

Rumsfeld famously replied that "you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time" -- a remark that drew widespread criticism.

(Reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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