Opinion

Armored Humvees in high demand in Iraq

WASHINGTON—The Army had only a few armored Humvees in Iraq when the war against Saddam Hussein turned into a battle against Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists. Within a year, it needed nearly 20,000 of them.

The Army official who helps run the program that provides armor for Humvees told Knight Ridder on Friday that every Humvee requiring armor in the combat zone will have it within 90 days. The only unarmored Humvees will be in protected bases.

The story behind the fresh controversy over whether American combat troops are getting the best protection possible is one of failure and success. The military and its civilian leaders failed to plan for a violent insurgency in the wake of the three-week takedown of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. The success was the Army's production of thousands of armored Humvees within a year in response to a sudden, urgent need.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputies relied on intelligence from Iraqi exiles, who predicted that the Americans would be greeted as liberators. They planned accordingly, shaving more than 100,000 troops off the force planned for the invasion and estimating that the American force could be reduced to fewer than 50,000 by early summer of 2003.

Instead, the guerrilla war escalated. U.S. forces in Iraq quickly discovered that the Humvee—a light transport vehicle designed over 15 years ago to replace the old World War II jeep—worked better than anything else they had on hand.

Unfortunately, it had zero protection built in for the soldiers riding in it. The requests for Humvees built with armor at the factory, and for add-on armor kits, grew from a few for Special Operations forces at the end of summer 2003 to 400 in November 2003 and more in months following. The total request, scheduled to be met in March, is for about 22,000.

Retired Col. Gary Motsek, a senior civilian official for the Army Materiel Command, said that given early shortages of a critical high-tensile steel and continuing shortages of the ballistic glass for windshields and door windows, it's little short of a miracle that the escalating demand has been met within about a year.

"The frustration I have is people asking: `Why wasn't this on the shelf?' This involves a change of tactics, a change of the fight," Motsek said. "When the mission changed and the war changed, the armoring of the Humvee became priority number one."

Motsek said that the design for an armor add-on kit was sketched out over a weekend, and the metal was cut and attached to a Humvee within 10 days. That Humvee was tested immediately for protection not only against small-arms fire but also other heavier weapons. It took only four months from the first request in August 2003 to the beginning of production of the armor kits—a process Motsek said normally takes years.

A year ago, the special high-tensile steel needed for the armor kits wasn't manufactured anywhere in the United States, and the output of the single plant making bulletproof glass was 15 windshields a month.

Today there are several American sources for the special steel, and the plant making ballistic glass has ramped up production from 15 to 500 windshields a month. It will be joined in February by a second plant also capable of making 500 windshields a month.

The Armor Holdings plant that turns out new Humvees with full armor protection has, in that same year, boosted production from 50 a month to 450 a month.

Army Materiel Command officials said there were discussions about Armor Holdings' offer Thursday to increase production of the up-armored Humvee from 450 to 550 per month. They expressed surprise that such an increase might be possible.

In a letter to the White House on Friday, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and a persistent but low-key critic of the war, urged President Bush to order the Defense Department to increase production of the vehicle to maximum capacity.

"During the Second World War, nothing was held back. The industrial base was fully engaged. Today, we are fighting an insurgency in Iraq, as well as worldwide terrorism. We can't fight these conflicts at three-quarter speed," Skelton said in an interview.

Army Materiel Command officials, however, said they pushed the system hard to get as many armored Humvees produced as possible. The production of Humvee armor kits involved six Army depots and arsenals, and four private firms involved in delivering steel and ballistic glass. In all, 105 companies and a score of Department of Defense installations in 25 states and three countries participated in the Humvee armor program.

The Army ordered all units worldwide to ship every armor-protected Humvee to Iraq. It has ordered all units departing Iraq to leave their vehicles behind for those units replacing them. It has distributed armored Humvees to units that need them most and sent all new armored Humvees directly to Iraq.

"I have never seen a military acquisition program go so fast as this one," Motsek said.

A fully armored Humvee is designed to withstand 8 pounds of explosive under the engine or 4 pounds of explosive under the crew cab.

But soldiers know that's no guarantee of safety. If a 155 mm artillery shell is converted into a roadside bomb, even an armored Bradley or an M1 Abrams tank—both stronger than an armored Humvee—might not be enough protection.

The Army now is working to provide armor for the heavy fuel and equipment transporters and the 5-ton trucks that send supplies and fuel to American forces in the combat zone.

None of the heavy vehicles used for convoy duty had any armor before.

Motsek said about one-third of convoy vehicles have been armored. He said the armoring of convoy trucks was scheduled for completion by September 2005, but could be done as early as June.

"That is a lot more complicated than the Humvee because you are armoring and installing ballistic glass on five or six totally different heavy trucks," Motsek said. "You have center of gravity issues with cabs that sit so high off the ground. Each requires a totally unique package to encapsulate the cab. You have five or six different windshields. With Humvees there are two models—two-door or four-door—and you can apply a modular solution."

In addition to Humvees and convoy trucks, the Army's new light Stryker armored vehicle, which deployed to Iraq in October 2003, wasn't armored heavily enough to withstand insurgents' rocket-propelled grenades. Army designers came up with "slat armor"—a type of steel cage—which was welded around the Stryker to deflect RPGs from the surface of the vehicle.

Motsek said he understood the urgency of vehicle protection on a personal level. His son, an Army captain, spent the past year on duty in Iraq and his Humvee had no armor.

The military doesn't break down casualties by type of vehicle. A total of 248 American troops have been killed in Iraq by deadly improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs, and 57 have been killed by rocket-propelled grenades.

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