WASHINGTON -- Marines in heavily armored Humvees are being killed by powerful roadside bombs at such a rate that the Marine Corps intends to replace all its Humvees in Iraq with specialized blast-resistant armored vehicles, according to senior Marine officers.
The Army will continue to rely primarily on its armored Humvees in Iraq, senior Army officers said yesterday.
The decision to scrap the Marines' Humvees in Iraq, after years of trying to protect their crews by adding armor plate, was made by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of Marine forces in the Middle East.
It will cost an added $2.8 billion for the V-hull armored vehicles called MRAPs, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, that are being delivered in small numbers to Iraq, and it will take years to complete the replacement.
The Marines and the Army are buying MRAP vehicles and had planned to gradually add them to the fleets of Humvees in use in Iraq.
More than 700 Marines have been killed in Iraq since the war began almost four years ago. Almost two-thirds have been killed in Humvees, Marine officers said. Experience with the 65 MRAP vehicles the Marines have in Iraq shows that their crews are four or five times more likely to survive a blast than those riding in armored Humvees.
Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, defended the service's decision not to replace its Humvees with MRAPs, though he acknowledged yesterday that the effort to protect soldiers by adding armor to Humvees seems to have reached an end.
"We have maximized what a Humvee can do," he told the House Armed Services Committee.
Schoomaker, who is retiring this spring after four years at the head of the Army, seemed to reflect the frustrations of trying to protect soldiers from bomb blasts, especially in a bitter and bloody war in which insurgents can invent different and more lethal bombs faster than the Pentagon and U.S. industry can devise protection.
"We are equipping with the best we have," he said. "We are losing not only Humvees, but we're losing tanks, Bradleys and Strykers" fighting vehicles.
Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat, accused the Army of "dragging its feet on getting more MRAP-type vehicles to Iraq." He said Congress is eager to fund more MRAP vehicles, even at a cost that can reach $700,000 each. "We would much rather spend the money on the MRAP ... than have one kid needlessly buried at Arlington or one kid needlessly without their arms or legs."
Schoomaker insisted that "we are aggressively pursuing the MRAP program." But he said it made more sense to wait for a new design to eventually replace all of the Army's Humvees.
Meanwhile, the Army is shipping 71,000 sets of fire-resistant uniforms to Iraq so that soldiers will have a better chance to survive the fires that often consume Humvees hit by roadside bombs.
But senior Marines said yesterday that they cannot wait for a new design to replace the Humvee. Insurgents increasingly are planting powerful new types of bombs directly in the roads and detonating them beneath Humvees, causing such losses that a new approach is needed, they said.
Even the most heavily armored Humvees are vulnerable to such blasts because their flat-bottom chassis break apart or transmit the deadly force of the blast upward to passengers. Particularly vulnerable are turret gunners who are often thrown from the vehicle by the explosion.
In the past two weeks, at least five soldiers were killed when roadside bombs detonated near vehicles, Pentagon records show.
In contrast, V-hull vehicles, many of them originally designed in South Africa decades ago, deflect such explosive forces upward and outward. They have heavy-duty shock absorbers, and some models have seats suspended from the ceiling to further protect crews from blasts.
Together, the Army and Marines have about 465 MRAP vehicles deployed in Iraq, mostly used by bomb-disposal squads. But last fall, commanders in Iraq reported a growing need for MRAP vehicles for patrolling and convoys.
A spokesman said Mattis was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
But Marine Brig. Gen. Michael M. Brogan said in an interview yesterday that "the threat has changed, and we have to change with it."
Brogan, the Marines' chief purchasing officer, said the up-armored Humvees that Marines are using in Iraq "are the third generation" the Marines have produced to respond to the increasing threat of roadside bombs. "But they don't protect us from under-body explosions, and now that the threat has shifted we are shifting to this new class of vehicle," he said.
Some of the newer bombs found by Marines along their convoy and patrol routes consist of several heavy artillery shells wired together with an "accelerant" and buried in the roadbed.
"The enemy has adapted and begun to use more powerful IEDs," Marine Lt. Gen. Emerson Gardner said yesterday, referring to improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs.
Last month, The Sun reported that despite the increasing number of soldiers and Marines being killed in Humvees, the 21,500 additional troops ordered to Iraq by President Bush would not have access to MRAP vehicles because they are in such short supply.
Noting that article, Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut wrote to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Jan. 15 expressing their concern that the shortfall of MRAP vehicles in Iraq "is endangering many of our troops and appears to be yet another in a litany of failures to provide adequate armor to the troops."
"I'm encouraged to hear that the Marines will be ordering better protected vehicles, but I continue to be outraged that the Pentagon has been so slow to respond to this obvious urgent need," Kennedy said in a statement yesterday. "It makes no sense whatever to keep ordering our troops into combat without the armor they ought to have to protect themselves."
Designed in the late 1970s, the Humvee has been known to be vulnerable to roadside bombs since at least 1993, when four American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, when their Humvee ran over a land mine. But U.S. troops deployed to Iraq initially were given unarmored Humvees with canvas side doors.
These quickly proved inadequate against improvised bombs largely built from explosives stolen from Iraqi arsenals left unguarded after U.S. forces invaded in March 2003, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The decision to replace Humvees means the Marine Corps will increase its purchase of MRAP vehicles to 3,700 from the 1,022 it had said only last month that it needed. The Army, which has almost 110,000 troops in Iraq, still plans to buy 2,500 MRAP vehicles.
Brogan said the first of those MRAP vehicles are being delivered now and will be shipped to Iraq by April. Production will be increased to 100 per month or more under a Marine Corps initiative to authorize up to nine companies to begin manufacturing versions of MRAP vehicles. As many as 15 versions could be operating in Iraq next year.
"I am moving fast on this, and I am taking some risks" in complicating the supply lines for different versions of the vehicles, Brogan said. "But I can sleep at night knowing I have gotten the equipment to the troops in the fight."