WASHINGTON—Two top Marine Corps officers acknowledged Tuesday that they waited two months to issue a contract for armor kits to protect the undersides of Humvees after promising to do so earlier this year.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. William L. Nyland, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, and Brig. Gen. William D. Catto, the chief of Marine Corps Systems Command, attributed the delay to a "lack of leadership." They assured the committee that all Humvees and military trucks that the Marines used in Iraq would be adequately protected by December.
Improvised explosive devices, as the military calls homemade bombs, have become the biggest killer of U.S. troops in Iraq this year.
Lawmakers expressed frustration Tuesday that troops don't have enough protective armor and other equipment to protect them from the explosives, which typically are jury-rigged from cast-off artillery shells and other munitions.
"This is a sad day for us," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the committee's chairman and the father of a Marine who's served in Iraq. "It's a sad day because you've got Marines out there in the theater who are fighting with a great sense of urgency for our country ... but the bureaucracy you gentlemen have back here ... is resistant to moving this thing with a sense of urgency."
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., noted that "for nearly two years we've watched the services struggle to provide enough protective armor" without success. He suggested that more congressional oversight was in order.
"Needless to say, I'm sorely disappointed," he said.
Catto, who has oversight of all Marine Corps equipment issues, took the blame for the delay. "This is a lack of leadership on my part for not paying more attention to that specific contract," he said.
Nyland also accepted fault, but said increased production of armor kits in the United States had made up for the shortfall.
"I acknowledge that we took our eye off the ball on that contract," he said. "But we had a parallel course at the same time ... and we have in fact now almost 400 underbodies on the ground for the purposes of installation at the unit level."
At least 34 Marines have died from improvised bombs in Iraq this year, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that tracks and classifies casualties based on Defense Department news releases. Overall, 155 American military deaths have been attributed to such bombs so far this year, more than half of U.S. combat fatalities.
Hunter said conversations about providing more armor for Marine Humvees began earlier this year, after a Marine sergeant came up with a way of using scrap steel to fashion plates to protect the undersides of Humvees. After initial discussions with Defense Department officials in February went nowhere, Hunter met in April with Nyland, who agreed that steel in Kuwait could be used to produce 650 protective kits, Hunter said. A contract to produce those kits wasn't signed until Monday, however.
Nyland and Catto said technical issues involving the quality of the steel in Kuwait had initially delayed the project and that production of armor kits was stepped up in the United States.
Nyland said efforts were under way to ensure that almost 2,000 Humvees and trucks had the necessary protective armor kits by December. By then, every Humvee in Iraq either will have bolt-on "Marine Armor Kits" or will be outfitted with the much more heavily armored production model known as the M1114.
Nyland also said the Marine Corps was studying battlefield conditions in Iraq, especially the threat of improvised explosives, in an effort to determine what types of vehicles, weapons and other equipment the Marines would need for future conflicts.
He suggested that the Marines were looking at another line of vehicles to replace the Humvee because of its vulnerability to blasts, but noted that it could take as long as five years to develop.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.