WASHINGTON -- The thousands of troops that President Bush is expected to order to Iraq will join the fight largely without the protection of the latest armored vehicles that withstand bomb blasts far better than the Humvees in wide use, military officers said.
Vehicles such as the Cougar and the M1117 Armored Security Vehicle have proven ability to save lives, but production started late and relatively small numbers are in use in Iraq, mostly because of money shortages, industry officials said.
More than 1,000 American troops have been killed by roadside bombs since the war began in March 2003. At present there are fewer than 1,000 of the new armored trucks in Iraq. At $500,000 to $700,000 each, they cost more than twice as much as a standard Humvee, but already they are proving their worth.
"They are expensive, but they are going to save lives," said Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, during a recent trip to Iraq, where he reviewed the service's effort to get more of the vehicles.
Most American troops patrol in the 20,000 Humvees the Pentagon has sent to Iraq. Most of those vehicles have been layered with added armor plating as the Pentagon has struggled over the past three years to counter the increasingly powerful and sophisticated roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, planted by insurgents.
Two recent incidents illustrate the problem with the M1114 Humvee: The weight of added armor can make it unwieldy. And even with the extra armor, its flat bottom absorbs the full impact from bombs buried in the road, often buckling or breaking the chassis in half.
On Dec. 30, Army Sgt. John Michael Sullivan, 22, of Hixon, Tenn., was killed when his Humvee was struck by an IED in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. Four days earlier, Army Spc. Joseph A. Strong, 21, of Lebanon, Ind., and Spc. Douglas L. Tinsley, 21, of Chester, S.C., died when their Humvee rolled into a canal during a patrol in Baghdad.
"The problem with the M1114s is, they are overloaded and flat-bottomed," said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, the senior Marine commander in Iraq.
Today, the Marines are moving quickly to buy and deploy combat vehicles with a key design improvement over the Humvee: They are built with a V-shaped hull that deflects a blast up and outward, leaving passengers shaken, but alive.
Under a $125 million contract, the Marines are buying 100 Cougar and 44 Buffalo armored trucks, known collectively as MRAP, for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, made by Force Protection Inc., a small company in Ladson, S.C. The firm is producing 40 vehicles a month, said its vice president, Mike Aldrich, a retired Army officer educated at West Point.
Aldrich said the design grew out of a joint Army and Marine Corps request "designed to literally stop the bleeding from up-armored Humvees in some of the most dangerous areas in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The military services said last month that they need 4,060 of the MRAP vehicles, with 2,500 for the Army, 538 for the Navy and 1,022 for the Marines. The delivery schedule is uncertain. Meanwhile, a permanent replacement for the Humvee, incorporating the latest design and armor improvements, is years away, Pentagon officials said, and mired in technical and cost disputes.
Separately, the Army is buying the 15-ton M1117 armored vehicle for its military police. The V-hull vehicles were in production in the late 1990s but were canceled by the Army as unnecessary. In June 2004, the service decided that it needed them after all. The Army has said it needs 2,600.
Today, Textron Inc. is producing 48 per month at its New Orleans plant under a contract for 1,250 vehicles.
"That's all they had the money for," said Clay Moise, vice president for business development for Textron's Marine and Land division.
But a lack of money only partly explains why, four years into the war, there is a shortage of vehicles that can effectively survive an IED.
"The key reason it is taking so long is pretty simple: At each step along the way for the past four years, the key policymakers have assumed we were just months away from beginning to withdraw" from Iraq, said Loren B. Thompson, a national security analyst at the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Arlington, Va. "As a result, they never made long-term plans for occupying the country effectively."
Aldrich said the explanation is more complex.
"This is a radically different vehicle, and it took time, even under the pressure of war, for this country to tool up and meet the demand," he said. "Our contribution to the delay was not being able to press a button and instantly start producing 20 a week. And the warfighter had to adjust and realize this wasn't a temporary problem - that we are more likely to face this type of attack than any other for decades to come."
The Humvee, of course, has its admirers. In its newer versions, such as the M1114, added armor is matched with a more powerful, turbocharged diesel engine and other improvements.
"I love it. It's not at all hard to drive," said Army Spec. Jessica Dersch, 22, of Erie, Pa. "I've been through three explosions in 10 months," she said in a recent interview outside Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi.
But the IED threat to Humvees is reflected in the Marines' hard-won experience in Anbar province.
"If you are hit by an IED, your chance of survival is four or five times greater in an MRAP than in a M1114," said a Marine commander, referring to the standard Humvee.
About half of the Marines' combat vehicles in Anbar are Humvees, and these are associated with 60 percent of the combat deaths and 65 percent of the wounded Marines, officers said. By comparison, attacks on V-hull armored vehicles have resulted in 2.1 percent of Marine combat deaths and 3.5 percent of the service's wounded.
A report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the IED problem came about in large measure because there were not enough U.S. troops in Iraq after the 2003 invasion to secure Saddam Hussein's ammunition caches.
In the weeks after the invasion, vast amounts of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, artillery shells and other explosives were stolen from unguarded Iraqi arsenals.
"IEDs made from looted explosives have caused about half of all U.S. combat fatalities and casualties in Iraq and have killed hundreds of Iraqis," the GAO said.