|Armor Scarce for Big Trucks
Transporting Cargo in Iraq
By THOM SHANKER and ERIC SCHMITT
Published: December 10, 2004
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/10/international/middleeast/10military.html?oref=login&th (must register to view original article)
WASHINGTON, Dec. 9 - Congress released statistics Thursday documenting stark shortages in armor for the military transport trucks that ferry food, fuel and ammunition along dangerous routes in Iraq, while President Bush and his defense secretary both spoke out to defuse public criticism.
Soldiers confronted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Wednesday with complaints that the Pentagon was sending them to war without enough armored equipment to protect them. One soldier who challenged Mr. Rumsfeld was apparently prompted by a reporter traveling with his unit. The commander of American ground forces in the Middle East responded Thursday to the complaints with a vow to provide armored transportation into Iraq for all troops headed there.
"The concerns expressed are being addressed, and that is, we expect our troops to have the best possible equipment," Mr. Bush said. "And I have told many families I met with, we're doing everything we possibly can to protect your loved ones in a mission which is vital and important."
The House Armed Services Committee released statistics on Thursday showing that while many Humvees are armored, most transport trucks that crisscross Iraq are not.
The committee said more than three-quarters of the 19,854 Humvees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait carry protective armor, which can vary in quality. The most secure are factory-armored Humvees, and the Pentagon has received only 5,910 of the 8,105 that commanders say they need. But only 10 percent of the 4,814 medium-weight transport trucks have armor, and only 15 percent of the 4,314 heavy transport vehicles.
The uproar has exposed some of the most crucial challenges facing the Pentagon: how to equip and train troops for a war whose very nature has changed.
A resourceful insurgency has seized on an American vulnerability - the shortage of armored vehicles - and attacked supply lines with roadside bombs. These trucks are driven primarily by reservists, while a much greater percentage of active-duty soldiers are deployed in direct combat, and disparities between these troops have already prompted the Defense Department to begin sweeping changes in the way soldiers are trained and equipped.
These issues gained new intensity and widespread attention because they were raised not in the safe confines of a Capitol Hill hearing or a Pentagon suite, but by a scout with the Tennessee National Guard who directly pressed the secretary of defense in the deserts of Kuwait just days before the soldier is to be sent into Iraq for a year.
At Camp Buehring, a staging base for American troops entering and leaving Iraq, the scout, Specialist Thomas Wilson, said his unit had been forced to dig through local landfills to find scrap metal to bolt onto their trucks for protection against roadside bombs. The incident was startling in part because of the soldier's willingness to challenge a cabinet official, but it emerged Thursday that a newspaper reporter embedded with the troops had helped orchestrate the questioning.
Mr. Rumsfeld, after leaving Kuwait for India, said it was valuable for senior officials to hear concerns directly from troops, but he offered no immediate changes in how the Army was reacting to the problems.
"I think that it's good for people to raise questions," he said. "It gives senior military leadership that has the responsibility for these matters a chance to hear them, talk to them."
Gone are the days when the American military could plan for fighting along dangerous front lines while relying on a relatively safe rear area for logistics.
"Last year, we began to see an increase in improvised explosive device attacks against our forces, primarily against convoys that were moving throughout Iraq," said Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, commander of coalition ground forces in the Middle East. "And they began having an impact on our soldiers, a deadly impact, as we all know."
In a hastily arranged video news conference from Kuwait, General Whitcomb said the Army had since rushed armored vehicles to take troops into Iraq, and had hastened to add armor to others.
"I've got enough metal, I've got enough folks, and I've got enough time to meet our schedule that ensures that no combat unit in a wheeled vehicle goes into Iraq now that is not in an armored vehicle," he added. "So we're continuing to work feverishly to ensure that they meet our requirement, and that's that nobody goes north without it."
Continuing shortages have prompted soldiers going to Iraq to scrounge for steel and ballistic glass, improvising shields that have come to be called hillbilly armor.
At the transit camps in Kuwait, Army and Marine Corps drivers weld antishrapnel collars onto the hoods of their trucks, to deflect exploding debris while maintaining visibility. Sandbags are laid on the floors of Humvees, trimming the skimpy legroom from economy class to steerage. On the battlefield, there is an air of resigned acquiescence about the lack of armor, rather than bitter complaints. Among units that lack armored Humvees, the mood 20 months into the war tends more to black jokes than to recrimination.
"If they i.e.d. you in this thing, there won't be enough of you left to package up and send home," a Marine sergeant said earlier this week, as he showed embedded reporters to one of three open-backed Humvees assigned to a raid on a suspected rebel stronghold raid south of Baghdad. Among troops in Iraq, i.e.d., for improvised explosive device, is shorthand for the roadside bombs that have killed about two-thirds of Americans who have died in combat.
At briefings, commanders resort often to an old Marine adage, "Improvise, adjust, overcome," and are dismissive of complaints.
Yet others remain angry. "This is a big problem that demands immediate attention, and what you saw yesterday from Rumsfeld shows that he fails to understand what goes on the ground," said Paul Rieckhoff, a former infantry platoon leader with the Florida National Guard in Iraq who now runs an organization called Operation Truth , an advocacy group for soldiers and veterans. "This is a life or death situation for guys over there. Complacency, incompetency, or negligence, I don't know what other excuse there could be. But when these guys screw up, we bleed."
The kits to add extra protection to vehicles already in Iraq are being produced by the United States Army Matériel Command, where officials said they were scrambling to speed up the work and complete the most recent order from Iraq before the previous goal of March 2005. "We're trying to ramp up and accelerate the process, and there is a possibility we might meet the requirement prior to that time," said Tesia Williams, an Army spokeswoman.
At the same time, she defended the Army's efforts to date in armoring the Humvees used in Iraq. According to figures supplied by Ms. Williams, the Matériel Command first received orders for 1,000 kits in November 2003, followed by orders for 2,870 in December; 800 in January 2004; 2,090 in February; and 1,516 in April 2004. More orders received last summer brought the total order to 13,872, of which about 75 percent has been filled, she said.
Only some of the work has been contracted out, mainly to a plant in Ohio run by O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, a unit of Armor Holdings. The rest of the kits are being produced by civilian employees of the Army working at depots in New York and six other states, where they are using laser-cutting machines to cut steel purchased directly from two mills.
Armor Holdings also produces armor for new Humvees, and the company said it told the Army last month that it had the capacity to increase its production to 550 vehicles a month, compared with the 450 vehicles is handling now.
Military officers at the Pentagon expressed no surprise that it was a member of the National Guard who raised the issue with Mr. Rumsfeld. Already, the length and number of Guard tours and the number of their members killed and wounded have imposed unexpected stresses on the Guard and Reserves, whose members have not always been as well trained and equipped as active-duty members.
The system for training, equipping, mobilizing and deploying reservists was not ready for the historic increase in call-ups since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials acknowledged. The Guard and Reserves clocked nearly 63 million duty days last year, more than five times the totals recorded annually in the late 1990's. As of Wednesday, the total National Guard and Reserve personnel on duty around the world and in the United States stood at 185,019.
Democrats in Congress rushed into the debate on Thursday, saying one of Mr. Rumsfeld's chief duties was making sure that the troops would be safe.
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the harshest critics of the administration's Iraq policies, said troops lack some protective equipment, in part, because of the urgency with which the United States went to war.
"This was a war of choice, not necessity, to be waged on our timetable, not Saddam's," Mr. Biden said in a statement. "And why is it that, 20 months after Saddam's statue fell, our troops still don't have the protection they need? Congress has given this administration virtually every dollar it has asked for in Iraq."
Thom Shanker reported from Washington for this article and Eric Schmitt from New Delhi. Reporting was contributed by John F. Burns in Baghdad, Iraq; John Files in Washington; and Michael Moss and Leslie Wayne in New York.