Directing a War is Hard Work

The failure to supply armored vehicles to protect American troops in Iraq is a festering sore, but the new details provided by The New York Times in a front page story by Michael Moss on Sunday could transform the issue from a military supply problem into a damaging political scandal for the Bush administration.

Despite misleading statements to the media and Congress, the Pentagon fully understands that its standard Humvee provides little protection from roadside bombs, the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that are a leading cause of death for U.S. troops in Iraq. They are the most effective weapon used by insurgents and have killed and maimed more Americans than have bullets or grenades. As a result, moving from one post to another is “one of the deadliest tasks for soldiers” reported The Times.

Yet the Bush administration has not made a top priority of replacing the Humvee with a modern armored vehicle.

When Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Iraq last year, he traveled in an armored Rhino Runner, borrowed from the Halliburton Corporation, made by an American manufacturer in Israel. This “rolling fortress of steel,” Moss wrote, costs $250,000, while an armored averages $140,000.

Members of Congress who have visited Iraq prefer the M1117 made in Louisiana by Texatron that costs $700,000.

State department officials travel in the Cougar, a $630,000 vehicle made by a small company called Force Protection.

For soldiers in the field, the lack of safe transportation is infuriating. A Rhino recently survived a bomb blast that left a six-foot deep on the Baghdad airport road and its passengers walked away unscathed. However, the full requisition of Rhinos ordered by the Marines to help them clear roads has still not arrived in Iraq, mostly because of bureaucratic delays. It’s as if the NYPD bomb squad returned to the days of not using robots to investigate suspicious packages.

In April 2004, the Marines were granted a contract for 15 of the 27 Cougars they requested.

By then, a company in the First Marine Division had already suffered the highest casualty rate of any unit the war. More then half of the company’s 21 marines killed in action were riding in Humvees with improvised armor. Today only one in six of the Marines’ Humvees have the fullest armor protection.

Like most scandals, this is a case of “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

The Humvees’ inadequacy in combat became clear in 1993 when Somali militants surrounded and killed 18 American soldiers in an unarmored Humvee. An investigation concluded that no Humvee could withstand an explosion that hurls chunks of steel into a vehicle. This type of bomb, a variation on a U.S. fragmentation mine, is the very weapon of choice among Iraqi insurgents today.

Military planners wanted a vehicle that could absorb an attack from armor-piercing weapons. The new vehicle would use state-of-the-art material, which, “while costing more, weighs less and provides greater levels of protection,” Pentagon planners concluded in 1996. Just as former Pres. Bill Clinton’s second term was winding down in 1999, the Army began to buy a limited number of the M1117, only to have the contract cancelled while Pres. George W. Bush was deciding to invade Iraq. Manufacturers of the modern armored vehicles still complain about the start-and-stop decisions from the military.

The soldiers in Iraq are clearly fed up. Their discontent surfaced last December in Kuwait during an open-air meeting in front of the media where an enlisted man complained to Rumsfeld that his unit was fitting a Humvee with “hillbilly armor”—sheets of metal attached to an unarmored vehicle.

Rumsfeld coldly responded, “As you know, you go to war with the army you have.”

A few weeks later, The Times ran a story about incremental changes that would be made to Humvees when the present contract expires in 2007.

But five months later, upgrades to a vehicle that was never designed to be an armored vehicle seems foolhardy. Conditions in Iraq and to a certain extent in Afghanistan make clear that soldiers need the protection of vehicles designed from scratch to withstand armor-piercing weaponry, the same as those provided visiting dignitaries.

Providing armored protection to soldiers is an urgent matter that requires flexible thinking and planning. Until the Pentagon resolves how to replace the Humvee, the more than 20,000 of them in Iraq need to be fitted with armor to provide at least a modicum of safety for American troops. The Ohio company that holds the patent to up-armor Humvees opposes new production systems that will allow corporate rivals to do this work more efficiently. Will Congress condone such profiteering or urge the administration to expedite the military’s requisition process?

Since 1996, military planners have recognized that poorly designed troop carriers contribute to U.S. war deaths. Under Clinton, the first steps were made to introduce state-of-the art vehicles. These plans were cancelled under Bush, amazingly just a few months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Why isn’t the president held to account for failing to protect U.S. troops he sent into comba

Rumsfeld has been the lightning rod for criticism on the issue of the armored vehicles. But the Times article suggests that the true culprit is the lack of presidential leadership. The next step is insisting that the president fix this problem.