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.
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.
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.
Some troops said the older Humvees that have been clad in add-on armor are unwieldy and top-heavy. But even the newer versions, soldiers said, allow only the turret gunner to fire back at assailants, leaving the four troopers inside unable to return fire without opening a door or window and becoming vulnerable to snipers or secondary explosions.
The larger problem is the Humvee's vulnerability to roadside bombs, said Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, a member of the Armed Services committee. In an interview, Taylor said the Humvee's basic design makes it particularly vulnerable, because a channel in its floor that accommodates the drive shaft "actually has the unfortunate effect of shaping the charge so that much of the blast ends up inside of the Humvee."
The effects are often tragic.
In Iraq's violence-racked Anbar province, 63 percent of Marine casualties are suffered in Humvees, officers there said in recent interviews.
It is not a new problem. Fourteen years ago, four U.S. soldiers riding in a Humvee in Mogadishu, Somalia, were killed when the vehicle ran over a land mine. Later that year, two soldiers from the Army's Transportation Corps arrived to begin bolting armor on Humvees, according to a Transportation Corps history. That same day, 18 American soldiers died during a lengthy firefight, during which several rescue attempts failed for lack of heavy armored vehicles.
The Army and the Marines have recognized the limitations of trying to protect the Humvee by adding armor. Instead, they have launched a major effort to increase the modest fleet of MPVs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the Marines, who are managing the contracts for all the services, they have asked for competitive bids from a number of companies and expect to authorize production to begin this year, with delivery to the Defense Department by December 31. It will take an additional 60 days to equip the vehicles with radios, jammers and other gear; then they will be shipped to Iraq.
On a faster track, the Marines are buying 144 armored V-hull vehicles for delivery late this spring. The Army is buying V-hull M1117 armored security vehicles at a rate of about 48 per month, primarily for military police in Iraq. But there are already questions about the production schedule for the larger purchase of MPVs.
"We are beginning to see some [production] capacity issues," Speakes warned. "But until the competitive contracts are awarded, we will not know the full impact."
The need for the vehicles is growing "almost daily," said Brogan. The roadside-bomb threat is becoming so acute, he said, that the current requirement of 1,022 MPVs might triple within a few weeks.
Another potential problem is that not enough money was set aside by the Marine Corps and the Army for 2007 to cover the cost of the vehicles, suggesting that the problem was not considered when their budgets were drawn up a year ago and defended on Capitol Hill in hearings last spring and summer.
According to Brogan, the full cost of the vehicles the Marines want is $1.1 billion. He said he has the money only for 805 of the 1,022 vehicles the Marines need. "I have not yet received any money from the Army," he said last week. "We do not have the funds available at this time," confirmed Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson, the Army's senior acquisition officer.
Both officers said they would seek to shift money from other programs to cover part of the MPV costs, actions which require negotiations between the Pentagon and Congress.
Rising frustration on Capitol Hill is fueled by the sense that these heavy armored vehicles could have been ordered years ago and already sent to Iraq.
"Our biggest blunder has been not incorporating the V-shaped undercarriage for our armored vehicles," said Taylor, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's seapower and expeditionary forces subcommittee.
"The technology existed before the conflict in Iraq began," he said. "It's been used by the Russians and South Africans and others for decades. We have fallen behind."
Humvees in Iraq: Approximately 20,000
Armored Humvees in Iraq: Approximately 15,600
Mine-Protected Vehicles (MPV) in Iraq: Approximately 300*
Armored Security Vehicles in Iraq: Approximately 600*MPVs have V-shaped hulls and are heavily armored. [Sources: U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, defense contractors.]