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Newsday (New York) December 14, 2003

Unfit for Combat

Humvees need armor to give them a fighting chance

By Craig Gordon

Washington - American troops are dying in Iraq and suffering amputations and other massive injuries while they confront the Iraqi insurgency in Humvees not designed to withstand frontline combat.

These lighter Humvees and other military vehicles have become the target of choice for anti-U.S. guerrillas. Shrapnel from a roadside bomb, or even a simple AK-47 rifle round, can slice through the unarmored vehicles - some of which have little more than vinyl fabric for their roofs and doors, troops who know them say.

"We're kind of sitting ducks in the vehicles we have," said Lt. Col. Vincent Montera, commander of the Long Island-based 310th Military Police Battalion, which has crisscrossed the Iraqi countryside for months in those "soft-top" models.

But the Army does not expect the full complement of a more heavily armored version, designed to withstand armor-piercing bullets and land mines, to arrive in Iraq until the summer of 2005. The Pentagon failed to move them into Iraq in significant numbers because war planners had seriously underestimated how violent the newly liberated nation would be.

Just one in eight of all Humvees in Iraq are of this more heavily armored variety.

Many in Congress say that 18 months is too long to wait and question why assembly lines at the sole production plant for the heavier models aren't yet running around the clock.

In the eyes of Alma Hart of Massachusetts, her son, John, might have come home after an Oct. 18 ambush if his unit had been driving the armored models that day. "My son could be alive if he'd had this equipment," she said. "The recruiter didn't tell us this stuff when we let our son sign up."

To 26-year-old 1st Lt. Jonathan Pruden of Georgia, not having an armored Humvee meant an attack July 1 cost him five inches of bone in his right leg and a left leg at risk of amputation, he believes. "It would have made a huge difference, probably saved my legs," Pruden said.

Montera doesn't expect to get any of the armored models for his unit before his troops come home in the spring, so he's doing what he can to make his soft-sided ones safer. The 310th has been stuffing sandbags onto the floors and hanging flak vests on the doors to add something, anything, for added protection.

"It isn't much," Montera said, "but every little precaution just might save one of my soldiers' lives."

The shortage of armored Humvees - and the risks for units like Montera's without them - are just the latest example of what critics say was war planning through rose-colored glasses, based on overly optimistic predictions of how U.S. forces would be greeted after the invasion.

Some U.S. military officials have told Congress they simply did not foresee that there would be such a long and bloody period of insurgency that would require U.S. troops to be patrolling Iraq from behind armor plating.

"It's true. We do not have as many up-armored Humvees as we would like to have in Iraq," the Army vice chief of staff at the time, Gen. John Keane, told a congressional committee in September. "To be honest with you, we just did not expect this level of violence ... that we are currently dealing with. That's the straight answer."

At the war's end May 1, the Army saw the need for just 235 of the armored Humvees for all of Iraq.

Today, the Army's need has grown more than tenfold. The Army is trying to rush 3,200 of the armored models into the country and already has met about half that goal.

Added a second Army official last week: "The main phase of battle, to get rid of the Iraqi army, you're talking tanks, Bradleys, the fighting vehicles. The phase we're in now, the stability and support operations, we have an enemy that's adapted and that is targeting our lighter vehicles. No reason to expect we'd need 3,000-plus armored Humvees. How could we have known?"

Some congressional critics scoff at that assessment and say the Pentagon should have done a better job preparing for this contingency.

"Our troops are dying because their vehicles are obviously vulnerable," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). "It's shameful that [Defense] Department officials didn't accelerate production of armored Humvees long before now."

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said, "The initial perception - once the shooting stops, everyone will embrace us as liberators and it's going to be great - I think that colored all the planning for what units you need and how long to keep them there."

U.S. Central Command doesn't keep a breakdown of Humvee casualties, but at least 70 troops have been killed in vehicle attacks since major combat ended May 1.

Standard, non-armored Humvees never were meant to see frontline combat. They were introduced in the mid-1980s as an updated version of the Jeep, but with bodies of thin aluminum and fiberglass. Some older models like Montera's have soft-sided roofs and doors, and others, like the popular "turtleback" model, have a hard roof and machine-gun turret.

"The standard Humvees don't really have any protection at all. They're not designed with protection in mind. They're designed to move forces on the battlefield," said Maj. Tim Baxter of the Army's up-armored Humvee program.

The deadly 1993 raid in Somalia led to a Humvee with better armor protection. But with a price tag of about $150,000, they never were designed for wide use throughout the military. Iraq has turned that requirement on its head as vehicles never intended to see frontline combat can find themselves under attack on almost any road or street.

In addition, armored Humvees were parceled out mainly to active-duty units before the war - yet National Guard and reserve troops are being thrust into a more active role in patrolling the countryside. The Army Reserve - of which the 310th MP battalion is a part - said it has no armored Humvees in its normal peacetime stocks.

Even Montera's 300-strong battalion, which includes about 100 Long Islanders, didn't expect to spend this much time traversing Iraq's dangerous roads.

The 310th's specialty is guarding enemy prisoners of war, a task that generally keeps it in one location, but that job changed even before Montera's troops reached Iraq. Instead, they are helping re-establish Iraq's civilian prison system, which took Montera's troops to six cities from their home base in Diwaniya.

In logging all those miles, the 310th and its roughly 80 Humvees have taken their share of fire. Sgt. George Avalos was returning from Baghdad Sept. 9 when a pair of roadside bombs went off next to his convoy. One soldier, traveling in a non-armored vehicle with no door, received minor injuries. Avalos believes a bigger, closer bomb would have done much greater damage.

"The incident was a reality check on our vulnerability driving along these roads," Avalos, a Hicksville resident who works in the unit's motor pool, wrote in an e-mail. "Non-armored vehicles are useless in this or any hostile environment."

That's how Alma and Brian Hart of Bedford, Mass., feel about the attack that killed their son, Pfc. John Hart, 20, a paratrooper with the 173rd Infantry Brigade, who died outside Kirkuk. John Hart and another soldier were shot in a non-armored Humvee that came under rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire while searching for the culprits behind a rocket attack at a nearby base.

John Hart was shot in the neck while returning fire, and his mother believes, based on conversations with fellow soldiers, a metal gun plate found on armored models - but not on the standard ones - might have made a difference that day. John Hart himself expressed worries about the lack of armored Humvees in his unit in a call home a week before he died.

"They were really concerned that things had heated up quite a bit. They were being trained for a particular mission, and they didn't have the right equipment. 'For one thing, we don't have any armor on our Humvees. I'm standing out there exposed,'" Brian Hart recalled his son saying.

Now Brian Hart has taken up the case, trying to figure out ways to press Congress and the Pentagon to get armored Humvees into Iraq as fast as possible.

"I know it would not bring John back ... but he's got friends over there that are riding in the same gun slot in the same patrols, and I owe it to them to address the issue," said Brian Hart.

Right now, the only source of new armored Humvees will be the production line, because the Army already has diverted existing stocks that it can afford to send, including about 350 on the way, Army officials said.

The Army's sole contractor for putting the armor plating on the standard Humvee chassis, Armor Holdings Inc., is hiring 150 workers at its Ohio plant but won't go to round-the-clock shifts until February.

Peak production won't come until April, when the company hopes to make 220 armored Humvees a month. Officials from Armor Holdings and the Army defend the pace of production, already on the rise from a rate of 60 armored Humvees a month last summer.

"Between now and April, it's a mistake to ask us to move faster than we are because I don't think we can maintain the quality," said Bob Mecredy, president of the company's aerospace and defense group. "You don't want a round going through because you built a poor-quality vehicle."

That answer has not satisfied critics on both the Republican and Democratic sides in Congress, who have told the Army to find ways to speed up that mid-2005 deadline. "Unacceptable," said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Army is exploring using armor kits that can be bolted onto existing vehicles and hopes to produce 13,000 kits for Humvees, troop and tank transports in all.

In Iraq, Montera is already a step ahead of them. His unit's job is changing again, back to a focus on enemy prisoners of war in southern Iraq that he hopes will keep his troops off the roads and closer to base.

Still, he has explored getting large sheets of heavy metal to bolt onto his existing trucks, anything to give his troops a better chance of surviving an attack if one should come.

"My concern is my soldiers, and at almost every staff meeting, I bring it up and try to think of ways to keep my soldiers safe, by reinforcing the door and reinforcing the floor," Montera said. "If I had those up-armored, I'd feel a hell of a lot better."

The Army's Workhorse

The Humvee is the U.S. military's standard light truck whose uses include troop and armament transport and ambulance service. A variant, known as the M1114, is fitted for combat, but the Pentagon dos not expect a full fleet of these to arrive in Iraq anytime soon.

M988 (Standard Humvee)

CREW: 8, including driver
LENGTH: 15 feet, 10 inches
WIDTH: 7 feet, 1 inch
HEIGHT: 6 feet
WEIGHT: 6,100 pounds
ENGINE: 6.5-liter V8, 160 hp
RANGE: 300 miles, highway
TOP SPEED: 65 mph

M1114 (Up-armored Humvee)

CREW: 4, including one driver
LENGTH: 16 feet, 4 inches
WIDTH: 7 feet, 6 inches
HEIGHT: 6 feet, 3 inches
WEIGHT: 12,100 pounds
ENGINE: 6.5 liter V8, 190 hp
RANGE: 275 miles
TOP SPEED: More than 50 mph
WEAPONRY: 1) 1 40 mm grenade launcher
2) 1 50-cal. Or 7.62-mm machine gun
FROM SMALL ARMS ONLY: 3) Roof has 155-mm overhead burst protection
4) Doors can withstand 7.62-mm fire at 328 ft.
5) Windshield made of "white glass" armor.
6) Crew compartment protected form anti-tank mine.
REPLACEMENT COST: $150,000-plus

SOURCES: www.globalsecurity.org; www.periscope.com (U.S. Naval Intelligence)

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.