WASHINGTON - The Army moved yesterday to boost production of armored Humvees for American troops in Iraq by 100 a month, abandoning recent assertions by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that soldiers could not be supplied with safer vehicles because Pentagon officials could not procure them any faster.
Steps to increase production came two days after Rumsfeld bluntly told troops being sent to combat that assembly lines installing armor on the vehicles were operating at capacity.
The developments could further embarrass the Bush administration, which has struggled for more than a year to provide equipment to protect U.S. troops from a deadly Iraqi insurgency that war planners failed to anticipate.
Pentagon officials confirmed that the Army had entered negotiations to secure more armored Humvees, but they did not explain why officials didn't realize before yesterday that production could be increased.
Meeting with troops in Kuwait on Wednesday, Rumsfeld was asked by a Tennessee National Guardsman why troops were forced to rummage through scrap yards to find metal to protect their vehicles. Rumsfeld told the soldier, Spc. Thomas Wilson, that "a matter of physics" prevented U.S. plants from stepping up production of armored Humvees.
Last night, Armor Holdings Inc., a Jacksonville, Fla.-based company that produces and installs armor for Humvees, said it had been contacted by the Army and would boost production to about 550 armored Humvees per month, up from the 450 now being produced. The company's statement came at the end of negotiations that began when Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey telephoned Armor Holdings President Robert R. Schiller yesterday morning.
The company expects to reach the new production level by February or March. The cost to the Pentagon for the armor plating is $58,000 per vehicle, said company spokesman Michael Fox.
The military has about 5,900 armored Humvees in Iraq, but U.S. commanders have told Pentagon officials that they need 2,000 more.
AM General, an Indiana-based company, manufactures the Humvees, which are shipped to Armor Holdings' plant in Ohio to have the armor plating installed. A spokesman for AM General said the company may be able to produce 550 vehicles per month in about six weeks.
AM General may hire more employees to meet the demands, or it could reduce its commitment to the other military branches to meet the Army's demands, said Lee Woodward, the spokesman.
"I'm not sure yet how it will get done," Woodward said. "They're kind of scrambling around today."
News about the increased production yesterday contradicted what Rumsfeld and top military commanders told the troops Wednesday and then re-emphasized at a news briefing Thursday.
"It isn't a matter of money," Rumsfeld told the troops. "It isn't a matter on the part of the Army of desire. It's a matter of production and capability of doing it."
The next day, the top U.S. commander in Kuwait echoed Rumsfeld's remarks about production constraints.
"You're producing vehicles, and a certain amount of law of physics is involved here," said Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb. "It's not necessarily just money; it's a production capacity to be able to build more."
Even with the boost in production of armored Humvees, the Pentagon faces critical shortages of armor for its medium and heavyweight trucks that ferry food, fuel and supplies to troops throughout Iraq.
According to the House Armed Services Committee, 10 percent of the 4,814 medium-weight transport trucks and 15 percent of 4,314 heavy trucks are outfitted with bullet-resistant armor.
In lieu of Pentagon-supplied armor, some troops in Iraq have jury-rigged their trucks with sandbags and even plywood to protect themselves from insurgent gunfire and explosions.
In Iraq, the lack of armor on the heavy trucks has caused friction between troops and commanders. In October, a logistics company of Army reservists refused an order to carry out a resupply mission to a base in northern Iraq, saying that driving large unarmored vehicles on Iraq's deadly highways amounted to a "suicide mission."
After an investigation, 23 members of the unit were given nonjudicial punishments, which could entail a reduction in rank and loss of pay.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.