U.S. scrambles for armored cars as troops make do with sandbags

Soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq need twice as many such vehicles, officials say

March 27, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT POLK, La. - When soldiers of the Army's 1st Infantry Division rolled into Iraq several weeks ago, they lacked enough armored Humvees for everyone. So, like the soldiers in other units, some of them had to stack sandbags behind the Humvees' front seats - an all-but-useless way to fend off the bullets and roadside bombs that have killed scores of U.S. troops.

One year after U.S. troops invaded Iraq, soldiers are coursing through dusty country roads and teeming city streets without adequate armor protection. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are equipped with roughly 2,300 armored Humvees - only about half as many as commanders say are needed to guard against the roadside bombs that have become the insurgents' deadly weapon of choice.

Some U.S. lawmakers have complained angrily that soldiers are being killed and wounded in Humvees sheathed only in canvas or light sheet metal. Production of armored Humvees and add-on armor kits has been sharply increased. But Army officials concede that they won't be able to fill the need until midsummer at the earliest.

The 12,000 soldiers from the 1st Infantry have 500 armored Humvees, said Maj. Neal O'Brien, a division spokesman.

"Most people are required to have 50 sandbags," Spc. Joe Alger, a 21-year-old soldier from Crystal Lake, Ill., said in a phone interview from the Sunni Triangle, the dangerous area north of Baghdad, where the 1st Infantry Division has taken over the task of trying to stabilize that region. Alger's headquarters' company has only "a few" armored Humvees.

Is a sandbag inside a Humvee adequate to protect an American soldier in Iraq?

"It's not," Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, acknowledged during a recent visit to Fort Polk, La., a training base in the woods of central Louisiana. "Our requirement is just around 4,400 [armored] Humvees. Now we're on a glide path to 5,000. It's a huge effort."

Before the Iraq war, Schoomaker explained, the Army had no intention of producing thousands of Humvees, which are designed for use by Army scouts and military police who are less likely to engage in combat.

`Should have known'

For soldiers in open combat, the heavily armored M-1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles are the vehicle of choice.

But the stubborn insurgency that lurks in the narrow confines of Iraq's cities and towns requires a different kind of vehicle - an armored one - and more of them than the military had anticipated.

One Army officer said the Army should have learned its lesson 10 years ago in Bosnia. In that peacekeeping operation, soldiers also used sandbags to try to protect their Humvees - until the Army could find enough of the existing armored version and ship them to the peacekeeping mission.

"This was a lesson learned," said the officer, who requested anonymity, noting that the Army failed to boost production of armored Humvees and used its money for other priorities. "We should have known this."

`Interim step'

Schoomaker said the Army is sending thousands of add-on armor plating kits to shield the unprotected Humvees. The Humvees are also being used, on a smaller scale, by Marines and Air Force personnel.

About 1,500 of the kits have been applied to Army vehicles, and 6,900 more kits are expected between May and midsummer. The Marines are sending their kits from their maintenance center in Albany, Ga.

Even though the add-on armor is an improvement, it has gaps and lacks the full protection of the armored Humvees, officials said. They described using the kits as an "interim step."

The 1st Infantry Division has about 275 armored kits applied to its Humvees, with 600 more expected, said O'Brien, the division's spokesman.

Still others are turning to sandbags and spreading Kevlar blankets across the floors of their unprotected Humvees. But such measures have limited effectiveness.

"They can be [effective] for small arms," said Schoomaker. Another Army official said those emergency efforts could offer limited shielding from fragments of roadside bombs, as long as it's not a direct hit.

Lost lives

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, complained on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday that several soldiers from Massachusetts have been attacked and killed in Iraq while riding in Humvees that lacked full armor protection.

"We've lost 17 boys in Massachusetts," Kennedy said. "Seven of them had been killed from Humvees that didn't have [armor]."

Among them was Pfc. John D. Hart, who had complained to his parents before his death in October about how unsafe he felt driving around northern Iraq in a Humvee that lacked bulletproof shielding or metal doors.

Several days later, the 20-year-old Hart was in a convoy that was ambushed by Saddam Hussein loyalists near Kirkuk. He and another soldier fell dead in a hail of bullets.

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