WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- In the last 15 years, due to mission requirements, Soldiers have lost their ability to excel at combined arms maneuver and have relied too much on contract support, thereby losing the readiness edge against a near-peer threat, said Gen. Robert B. Abrams.

Abrams, commander, U.S. Army Forces Command, was the keynote speaker at the Association of the United States Army-sponsored Army Force Projection & Sustainment "hot topics" forum, June 2.

THE PROBLEM

In Iraq and Afghanistan, Soldiers have relied on contract support for maintenance and repair, he said. They still do.

Units didn't bring their own equipment overseas, he added. It was given to them when they arrived, just like checking out a rental car. The equipment got abused too since they didn't own it.

Now, mechanics don't have the diagnostic skills set they once had, he said, citing a number of specific recent cases but leaving out the names of units.

One unit, for example, needed to borrow equipment from another for training. The lending unit indicated its vehicles were 100 percent fully mission capable. Once they arrived at the borrowing unit, 50 percent had to be deadlined, Abrams pointed out.

Soldiers have got to relearn the lost skills associated with preventative maintenance checks and services, he emphasized.

It's not just maintainers, he said.

When Abrams was a tank company commander in the 1980s, he said a staff sergeant being sent to the Master Gunner Course would have 15 gunneries under his belt. Today, that figure is about three.

"That's not insignificant," he pointed out. "It's the same story across every specialty: sappers, logistics, artillery, signal. We've become rusty on the fundamentals and that impacts readiness. It will take time to get that back."

FIXING THE PROBLEM

Today, the Army is transitioning to a new readiness model that should address some of those deficiencies, Abrams said.

The Army Forces Generation Model, or ARFORGEN, is being jettisoned and replaced by the Sustainment Readiness Model, or SRM, he said.

With ARFORGEN, there was a reset phase, where units rested and recovered before going back to operational readiness. With SRM, units and Soldiers will be expected to be ready for combat 100 percent of the time, he said.

That means units will own their own equipment and be responsible for it being in a high readiness state, even when they've just returned from a deployment, he said.

That new readiness model applies not only to the active, but to the Guard and Reserve components as well, he said. Because of the drawdown, "it will take all 980,000 to get it done. One component can't do it by themselves. The force is smaller but demand from the [combatant commanders] has dramatically increased."

TAKING A TOLL

Abrams admitted that he and the Army chief of staff are closely monitoring the effect this increased operations tempo is having on Soldiers, particularly mid-level officers and noncommissioned officers.

The mid-levels expected that once the majority of forces were pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, there'd be more dwell time to be with family and rest, he said. The opposite has happened and it's taking a toll on a lot of them, causing stress on themselves and their families.

With the junior Soldiers it's different, he said. They expected to deploy when they joined and they're eager for action.

Even so, Abrams said the Army is doing what it can to alleviate that stress, including involving the Reserve components more in deployments. Two Guard brigade combat teams, for example, will deploy to U.S. Central Command, and a third might join them if the budget allows.

Soldiers manning Patriot missile batteries have some of the highest operation tempos, he noted. "We're having full-throated discussions with the COCOMs about what is required vice what is nice to have. We have to have resource-informed force-employment principles or risk running the train off the tracks."

BEST SOLDIERS YET

Despite readiness shortcomings, Abrams said that he believes Soldiers today are the best there ever were during his career. They're more agile, adaptive and can operate on their own with minimal guidance and resources. That's something the Army needs to hold on to.