Commentary: Armor upgrade efforts on track
February 15, 2005
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait (Army News Service, Feb. 15, 2005) -- It's been more than two months since the controversy started. At a town-hall style meeting in December, Spc. Charles Wilson asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld why Soldiers from his unit had to scrounge for spare parts to armor vehicles before making the trip into Iraq.
The question sparked a media storm in which pundits and journalists scrambled to find out whether the military was doing enough to ensure the safety of its service members in Iraq.
What Wilson and the media personalities who followed in his wake didn't know was that the Army, along with scores of defense contractors, started developing various armor technologies in August 2003, when insurgents ramped up improvised explosive device attacks in post-invasion Iraq.
"From the moment [the attacks started], the Army started energizing," said Lt. Col. Lisa Kirkpatrick, a project manager for the Army's Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support.
The Army is almost two years into a comprehensive campaign designed to harden vehicles traveling into harm's way. Level-1 Humvees, which have armor integrated into nearly every aspect of their construction, are being produced at a rate of almost 500 a month - up from 15 a month in August 2003.
Installation of Level-2 kits, which include ballistic steel plates and bulletproof windows, is going strong as well, according to Chuck Wentworth, a product manager with the executive office who oversees the delivery and installation of all Level 2 armor kits in theater.
More than 10,000 Humvees have been equipped with Level-2 armor to date, Wentworth said. In addition, more than 2,000 medium and heavy trucks have received Level-2 upgrades. Vehicles equipped with Level-3 armor, ad hoc kits designed, fabricated and installed in theater, are receiving Level-2 upgrades on a daily basis in Iraq.
All of this progress has taken place in less than two years, a fact made even more impressive by the reality that research, development and fielding processes for defense projects typically take about five years, Wentworth said.
"I don't know how the Army can do any more," he said.
The hardest part of the Level-2 mission is matching up assets with facilities and workers, Wentworth said. Almost 1,000 contractors are at work hardening vehicles in southwest Asia. For them, however, it's not a matter of simply putting in a day's work. The workers are spread across 11 sites, three in Kuwait and eight in Iraq, which are sometimes subject to security threats, inclement weather and limited resources.
"I can't think of a more stressful environment in which to work," Wentworth said.
But workers in the facilities don't seem to mind the conditions. At a Level-2 facility near Camp Victory, Kuwait, that specializes in medium and heavy trucks, mechanics race around Heavy Equipment Transporters, Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks and other vehicles, augmenting them with tan-colored ballistic-steel plates, bulletproof glass and air-conditioning units.
Almost 300 people from countries such as the United States, India, Germany and England work at the location, rotating in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, said Noah Byers, international after-market sales manager for Oshkosh Truck Corporation, which runs the site.
"It's pretty much a coalition support effort," he said.
Zijad Memisevic is one of several Bosnians who work at the facility. He and his fellow countrymen got their start working on U.S. military vehicles at Camp Eagle, Bosnia, and jumped at the chance to come to Kuwait to help with the up-armor mission.
As Memisevic puts it, the job brings people of different nationalities "together in one cause to help the U.S. Army as they head up north."
South of the Oshkosh facility at Camp Doha, Kuwait, a different kind of Level-2 armor operation is just getting started. Workers at the Tanker Ballistic Protection System Project shop coat the exterior of Army tanker trailers with a special polyurethane glaze.
Dubbed "Rhino liner," the substance has been used for years to keep pickup truck beds free of scratches and other damage. Now it will help American Soldiers safely transport cargo on the convoy routes of Iraq.
The coating can deflect enemy rounds at certain angles, and if an object does happen to penetrate the tanker's skin, the coating seals the damage from the outside and inside, thereby preventing leaks, said Frank G. Wickersham III, international program manager for VSE Corporation, which runs the site.
VSE also equips the tankers with ballistic steel plates that protect their sides. Workers at the site have completed about 26 tankers so far and are scheduled to finish their 500th trailer by the end of May, Wickersham said.
At Camp Arifjan's Forward Repair Activity Shop, up to 26 hardened Level-2 Humvees are rolling off the assembly line each day, said Michael D. Cannon, Forward Repair Activity division chief. Workers replace canvas doors with ballistic-steel behemoths weighing in at more than 200 pounds and conventional windows and windshields with hardened glass that's nearly four inches thick. Each truck also receives an air conditioner.
Off to the side of the assembly line, pock-marked windows that protected soldiers during IED and small-arms attacks are on display. A worker explained the story behind one of the windows. An insurgent shot the side of a Level-2 Humvee several times with an AK-47. Some of the rounds ricocheted off the door and window and ended up killing the insurgent, he said.
Wentworth said the Army's Level-2 operations will continue for at least the next five years. As the current fleet of hardened vehicles wears out, it will be replaced by one consisting primarily of Level-1 vehicles.
In the meantime, the Army's efforts have done a lot to help the Soldiers in Iraq.
"You can see a difference in their expressions, demeanor and their confidence. They're ready to go to war," Wentworth said.
(Editor's note: Spc. Curt Cashour serves with the Coalition Forces Land Component Command Public Affairs Office in Kuwait.)