Scarcity Of Armor Leaves Troops Open To Attack

Sun Follow-up

January 21, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- After nearly four years of war in Iraq, the Pentagon's effort to protect its troops against roadside bombs is in disarray, with soldiers and Marines having to swap access to scarce armored vehicles and the military unsure whether it has the money or industrial capacity to produce the safe vehicles it says the troops need.

On Jan. 10, The Sun reported that most of the 21,500 troops President Bush has ordered to Iraq as reinforcements will not have access to specialized blast-resistant armored vehicles because they are in such short supply.

But the problem runs deeper than that. In congressional testimony and interviews last week, senior Army and Marine Corps officers acknowledged that they are struggling just to meet the needs of service members already in Iraq. Even if the Pentagon can find millions of dollars not currently budgeted, and even if it can find factories to produce the armored vehicles, most U.S. troops in Iraq will not have access to the best equipment available, as President Bush has often promised.

The Army acknowledged last week, for example, that it is still 22 percent short of the armored Humvees it needs in Iraq despite heated criticism in 2004 and 2005 over the lack of armored vehicles. Army officials said it will be another eight months before that gap can be filled.

`Inexcusable'

But with roadside bombs and other explosive devices accounting for 70 percent of American casualties in Iraq, senior officers acknowledged that even heavily armored Humvees don't provide enough protection.

Accordingly, the Army is shipping 71,000 sets of fire-resistant uniforms to Iraq so that soldiers will have a better chance of surviving the fires that often consume Humvees that hit roadside bombs.

"This is inexcusable," said Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a longtime critic of the military's armor program.

To augment its fleet of armored Humvees, the military is intent on buying thousands of new armored vehicles whose V-shaped hulls deflect blasts from beneath upwards and outwards, unlike the flat-bottomed Humvees that absorb the blasts. These Mine-Protected Vehicles, or MPVs, designed and manufactured for years by South Africa and other countries, have a proven record of surviving powerful blasts.

Based on requests from commanders in Iraq, the U.S. military needs 6,465 MPVs, according to Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, the Army's top supply officer. Under the current program, the first portion of those vehicles wouldn't be delivered to Iraq until March 2008 or later, even if the services can find the funding.

"These vehicles will not arrive before the troops" are sent to Iraq as reinforcements, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael M. Brogan, who manages the program for the Marines, Army and Navy, told a House Armed Services subcommittee last week.

Those troops, and the 134,000 Americans serving in Iraq, will have to "cross-level," or share scarce armored vehicles among their units, the generals said.

In an interview, Kennedy said he feared that the problems that have hampered the armored Humvee program - continual underestimates of the need by the Pentagon, production delays and bureaucratic barriers - might also be slowing battlefield deliveries of the MPVs.

"This seems just like a repeat of the Humvee problem," said Kennedy, who championed the effort to add armor to Humvees after a Massachusetts soldier was killed by an insurgent strike on an unprotected Humvee in Iraq.

Pledging support

The military insisted that it is doing everything possible.

"The Army's No. 1 priority is the protection of the soldier," Speakes told lawmakers. "We are able to provide the right equipment to our soldiers in the combat zone, and soldiers will not suffer for lack of support," said Speakes, whose two sons have served with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

But Speakes and other officers also mentioned the difficulty of fighting an elusive enemy with access to a seemingly endless supply of bombs, artillery shells and other explosives that were looted from Iraqi government depots left unguarded after the U.S. invasion in March 2003. "We are fighting a thinking enemy who is trying very hard to kill us," Marine Brig. Gen. Randolph D. Alles, who heads the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, told another congressional panel last week.

Along the convoy routes and patrol lanes in Iraq, he said, Marines are finding "larger and more powerful types of IEDs. The challenges we face are enormous."

While the military has struggled to upgrade its 20,000 Humvees in Iraq by adding armor and replacing unprotected Humvees with sturdier armored versions, the shortcomings of the Humvees in this kind of conflict have been clear for some time, critics say.

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