Armored Humvees are in short supply

U.S. military wants more in Iraq

Staff WriterOctober 27, 2003 

Military leaders in Iraq want more of the ubiquitous Humvee's scarce armored version.

There are more than 20 guerrilla attacks a day as a coalition force dominated by 130,000 U.S. troops patrols a restive country bigger than California. Only a few hundred of the force's more than 10,000 Humvees are armored. These vehicles use steel and composite armor and 2-inch-thick plastic windows to protect occupants.

Coalition commanders didn't order more armored Humvees until August and September, too late for the dozens of troops killed or maimed in Humvees since the occupation began in early May. The increasing number of attacks with improvised mines prompted the requests, a coalition spokesman wrote in an e-mail interview with The News & Observer.

"The [armored] vehicles .... were being stretched thin throughout the growing number of troops that needed the additional protection, which is just about every soldier out here," Sgt. Danny Martin wrote from Baghdad.

The unprotected troops include most of the 9,000 Fort Bragg-based paratroopers now in Iraq, who have a handful of armored Humvees.

And it is unclear how many of the so-called "up-armored" Humvees will be given to the N.C. National Guard brigade of about 4,800 soldiers expected to deploy to Iraq in February.

That brigade is built around heavy armor, including M1 tanks and massive Paladin self-propelled howitzers. It will leave much of that behind because it will be doing light patrols, presumably mostly in Humvees.

It has no armored Humvees of its own, said Capt. Matt Handley, a brigade spokesman.

The High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle was designed to replace the Jeep. It can roll through neck-deep water and scale harrowing grade, according to AM General of South Bend, Ind., which makes it. But its body panels are thin sheets of fiberglass and aluminum. They offer little protection from the jury-rigged mines, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles typically used against occupation forces.

Of the 109 U.S. soldiers killed in action since May 1, about 30 died in incidents involving improvised mines -- most in Humvees -- and several others in the vehicles have been killed by small-arms fire.

Lacking the factory-armored Humvees, troops have been rigging their own versions with sandbags and boxes made of plywood or cardboard and filled with sand.

In May, there were 235 up-armored Humvees in Iraq, said Maj. Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. In August and September, military leaders placed successively larger requests for more. In August, they boosted the target to 1,233, then quickly decided that wasn't enough and requested 174 more. Last month, they raised the target again, to 3,000.

In late September, Gen. John Keane, the Army's vice chief of staff, told Congress there were about 800 in Iraq at that point. "We do not have as many armored Humvees as we would like," he said.

Production scramble

It will take weeks, if not months, to get the full 3,000, because some must be built. The U.S. military has in all only 3,100 of the armored machines, which cost $180,000 each [nearly triple the cost of a standard Humvee], and at least some are needed for duty elsewhere, notably Afghanistan.

The $87 billion that President Bush is seeking from Congress for Iraq and Afghanistan includes $177 million for armored Humvees and spare parts and the Pentagon has allocated an additional $59 million for more, Tallman said.

One Pennsylvania Army National Guard officer in relatively calm Bosnia saw about 600 armored Humvees being used for patrols this spring and about 200 more just sitting around. He was so upset that he wrote the Army Times last month and complained that failing to move them to Iraq "bordered on negligence."

"The majority of soldiers being injured and killed in Iraq were riding in standard Humvees," wrote Maj. Denis Sullivan. "Why don't they have armored Humvees?

"The up-armored Humvee would go a long way toward saving the lives of soldiers serving in Iraq. I suggest the Army perform some big-picture risk management and reallocate the up-armored fleet to where it is needed most."

The Pentagon has some en route from Europe and the United States, Tallman said.

The move should have come more quickly, Sullivan said in a telephone interview last week. "It wasn't like the war happened overnight," he said.

In war, most Humvees are supposed to stay well behind the front lines, but the armored ones are used at the front for duty such as reconnaissance and psychological operations.

Making do for now

In occupied Iraq, though, the front is everywhere, and most soldiers are facing it from the vantage point of the basic Humvee, which wasn't designed for the dangers of patrols there.

Mike Geylin, a spokesman for O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, the Ohio company that armors the trucks, said the idea isn't for the Humvee to drive away from a mine blast, but for the occupants to be able to walk away.

There's no guarantee that even the up-armored Humvee will completely protect its occupants: Improvised mines have killed troops in tanklike Bradley fighting vehicles.

But in at least a half-dozen cases, Geylin said, an armored Humvee has protected its occupants from a mine blast. There have been even more incidents in which they've stopped bullets, though it would be impossible to say how many times this has happened because the soldiers often just go on about their business and the Humvee stays in service.

A typical patrol near Fallujah, in the hostile Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad, consists of three or more unarmored Humvees.

This may have cost Spc. Trevor Blumberg, 22, his life. He and six other Fort Bragg soldiers were riding in a Humvee on the edge of Fallujah on Sept. 14. They rolled over an artillery shell rigged to explode like a mine.

Blumberg was killed, and three others were badly wounded. Witnesses said the Humvee disappeared in a cloud of dust, except for the rear end, which rose several feet in the air. The wreckage, almost unrecognizable as a Humvee, burned and smoldered.

The next day, soldiers in his camp went to work building improvised armor for their Humvees.

Blumberg's mother, Janet M. Blumberg of Canton, Mich., said last week that she hadn't heard of the shortage of armored Humvees and that she had nothing but kind words for the military, which has treated the family well since the attack.

"I can't second-guess their motives or what they could do better," she said. "I guess every situation should be evaluated afterward, though.

"If we've learned a lesson, though, I hope that it's well, well learned."

Staff writer Jay Price can be reached at 829-4526 or jprice@newsobserver.com.

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