The U.S. Army is running out of heavy trucks and rail cars that can carry tanks and other armored vehicles long distances. Armored vehicles that run on tracks wear out quickly if they travel long distances. The tracks and the “running gear” (wheels and related mechanical components) are not durable because of the heavy weight of these vehicles and the vulnerability of these “track laying systems” that are used because they are the only effective way to enable heavy vehicles to move cross country. After moving about a thousand kilometers under its own power the heavier (over 20 tons) tracked vehicles have to stop and replace worn out components. Because of this, armies use special flatbed railroad cars and tractor trailer trucks to move armored vehicles long distances. Both the rail cars and special trucks owned by the U.S. are wearing out and budget cuts are making it difficult to buy replacements.
A decade ago the army had about 2,000 Heavy Equipment Transporters. Each consisted of a heavy duty tractor that could haul 80 ton tanks on a flatbed trailer. These M1000 HETs (Heavy Equipment Trailers) cost about $400,000 each. The trailers weigh 25 tons and are 16.1 meters (52 feet) long and also carry a lot of cargo, which they often do when not hauling M-1 tanks or other armored vehicles. The 20 ton M1070 tractor that usually pulls this trailer has a six man cab, so the tank crew can be carried as well. A decade of heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan has reduced the number of working trainers to about 1,500, and some of these are in need of refurbishment.
The situation is worse with the special rail cars. The army bought 6,000 of these in the late 1960s but they only have a useful life of fifty years. The 1,300 owned by the Department of Defense have seen little use but are dying of old age. New ones cost about $150,000 each. Another 4,500 are actually owned by railroads but the Department of Defense paid to equip them with the special features that enable them to carry tanks. These were more heavily used (to carry other cargo) and are all going to be gone because of old age.
The army can improvise, if need be, using stock flatbed rail cars to carry tanks. It takes time to install additional features needed for this. Meanwhile, the army still has some tank transport capability with the special tractor trailers, at least the ones that are not in the shop because of heavy use in the last decade.
The rail car deal in the 1960s, was in preparation for a major conventional war with the Soviet Union. That threat is gone but there is still the possibility of tanks being needed in a hurry for some future war. Being ready for such a movement (of tanks from army bases to ports) is costly and may be too expensive in the face of budget cuts and the need for so many other items of equipment. Then again, the United States has deactivated most of the armored units it maintained during the Cold War. Thus there are not nearly as many armored battalions to move to ports. The thousands of rail cars built to move tanks were built for a mobilization that is no longer possible.