WASHINGTON - Several thousand trucks that carry troops, equipment and supplies in Iraq are not equipped with protective steel plating, and Army officials say it will take until September to finish armoring the vehicles.
One day after an Army National Guard soldier complained to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that his unit lacked needed armor on its vehicles, Army statistics reveal that the problem is widespread in a dangerous country where convoys are threatened frequently by roadside bombs.
Just 524 of 2,805 medium-size trucks used to move troops and equipment had been equipped with protective steel plates as of last week, the Army says. The goal is to armor 375 trucks a month.
An additional 3,073 5-ton trucks - general-purpose vehicles used as cargo haulers or wreckers - are also expected to receive armor at a rate of 600 a month. But none has been armored yet, statistics show.
Of the 5-ton trucks, the Army says almost 1,000 do not leave base camps and 750 more have been equipped with "Level 3" armor - steel installed in a vehicle's side panels by soldiers in theater but lacking floorboard plates to protect against explosions under the truck.
Armor must also be added on 1,302 tractor-trailers, which carry bulk supplies and fuel, statistics show. Installation won't be finished until January 2006, although the Army says 975 vehicles have Level 3 armor and 110 do not leave base camps.
In all, 16,266 out of 32,288 Army trucks have been armored, with 2,795 kits being installed every month, statistics show. While the vast majority are in Iraq, the tally includes trucks in Kuwait and Afghanistan, the Army says.
Army Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, commander of the Third U.S. Army and Coalition Forces Land Component Command, told reporters yesterday in a video conference from Kuwait that of the more than 30,000 Army vehicles, fewer than 8,000 trucks and Humvees do not have some armor, including Level 3 "stop-gap" armor.
"Our real focus for the Level 3 armor is not the Humvees; it's really the series of trucks that the Army uses in combat operations," he said. "Larger trucks, while we've lost some, obviously to explosions from the bottom, we're also concerned with those drivers that they've got small arms protections on their sides. And that's what the Level 3 steel plating does."
No lack of material
Whitcomb said "we're not lacking" for either the armor kits or personnel to install the equipment. "Our soldiers and our soldiers in slacks, our civilian work force ... are working hard to do it," he said. "So we've got the well-planned and orchestrated schedule and a plan to do this. We're sticking to it."
The well-known and ever-present Humvee has received the highest percentage of armor plating because of its combat mission, Army officials said.
"The Humvee is priority one," said Michelle McCaskill, a spokeswoman for the Army Materiel Command at Fort Belvoir, Va., which is in charge of equipping the troops.
Army statistics show that by February, armor will be installed on the required 13,872 Humvees, of which 9,097 had been completed as of this week. About 800 kits are installed each week.
In addition, there is a requirement for 8,105 armored Humvees, which are produced by manufacturers in the United States. Such Humvees have all-over protection - including the top and bottom of the vehicle - unlike the add-on kits. As of this week, there are 5,964 armored Humvees in the Iraq theater, with the remainder expected by March.
While producing and installing armor for the Humvees is the priority, the Army is "beginning to ramp up production of kits for the other vehicles," McCaskill said. Still, an Army official said, one challenge is to find the proper steel, which is sent to Army depots and arsenals to fashion into armor.
"It's a very specific steel. Not everybody has this type of steel we're using," the official said. "The raw materials to provide it can be a challenge."
The lack of armor in the military's support trucks is spurring an increasing number of complaints among the troops. In October, about 18 soldiers from the 343rd Quartermaster Company, an Army Reserve unit from South Carolina, refused to go on a cross-country convoy in Iraq, complaining that their trucks were in poor mechanical condition and lacked armor.
The unit underwent a safety and maintenance "stand down" that produced a report, said Maj. Richard Spiegel, a spokesman for the 13th Corps Support Command, which included the 343rd soldiers. The report called for a "complete technical inspection of assigned vehicles and any necessary repairs based on that inspection. Additionally, armoring of all vehicles that are used off-base was complete," he said last month.
This week, 23 soldiers from the 343rd were told they face disciplinary action, ranging from reduced pay to loss of rank, for refusing to go on the mission.
Appearing before Congress last month, the Army's top officer acknowledged that officials were struggling to make sure soldiers have adequate armored protection when they roll out of Kuwait and into Iraq.
"We are challenged with armored vehicles and all the rest of that," Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee. "But again, nobody's going to cross the berm in an unarmored vehicle that goes north."
Yesterday, members of Congress were pressing for answers to the delays in providing armor plating to the vehicles. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat, renewed calls for hearings before the House Armed Services Committee on the delays in providing equipment and protective gear for troops in Iraq.
In October, shortly after the 343rd soldiers refused their mission, Tauscher and 12 other committee members urged the panel's Republican chairman, Duncan Hunter of California, to hold hearings but received no reply, her office said.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, blasted Rumsfeld for telling the guardsman who questioned him at a town hall meeting in Kuwait about vehicle armoring that "all the armor in the world" might not save a soldier from a roadside bomb.
"By that logic, we should send our troops into battle on bicycles," Biden said. "And why is it that, 20 months after Saddam [Hussein's] statue fell, our troops still don't have the protection they need?"