How Safe Are Our Troops?


    TARGETS: Insurgents have attacked Humvees with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. At least 120 armored Humvees have been destroyed in combat in Iraq

    (2 of 3)

    The chaos of postwar Iraq forced U.S. troops to wage alleyway fights with insurgents while trying to rebuild a war-torn nation — neither of which can be accomplished in 70-ton M1 tanks. Instead, commanders turned to the successor to the jeep, the 20-year-old High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), as the humvee is officially known. With canvas doors and a skimpy skin of sheet metal, most humvees are designed to move small numbers of troops quickly. After a 1993 mine blast killed four U.S. soldiers in Somalia in their thin-skinned humvee, the Army began buying armored versions for deployment to hot spots like the Balkans. But neither the U.S. Army nor the Bush Administration fully embraced the vehicle until the Iraqi insurgency exploded. The Army originally thought it needed 235 armored humvees to help bring peace to Iraq. But shortly after Bush declared major combat over in May 2003, the need for armored humvees took off like a rocket. Five months later, commanders in Iraq wanted 3,100. By early this year, the requirement was 4,000. Last month the total quietly doubled to 8,105. The Army, in other words, needs 35 times as many of these vital vehicles as its war plan predicted.

    As the insurgency intensified, soldiers in Iraq began replacing the humvees' canvas doors with metal plates, draping Kevlar fabric over the seats and lining the floors with sandbags. Slowly but surely, the Pentagon began outfitting soft-skinned humvees with 1,000-lb. Armor Survivability Kits — which protect passengers from ground-level attacks but don't harden the humvee's floor, a major vulnerability when dealing with roadside bombs. The Pentagon has also scoured the globe for heavily armored humvees, sending to Iraq hundreds that had been based in the Balkans, Germany and South Korea. Even a few earmarked to protect the Pentagon have been sent "downrange," as soldiers say. At $180,000 each, they cost more than twice as much as standard humvees.

    The Bush Administration says it has ramped up the production cycle, spending $1.2 billion in the past year on improving armor for both vehicles and soldiers. The company beefing up the humvees, Armor Holdings Co., has boosted production at its Cincinnati, Ohio, plant from 30 a month when the Iraq war began to 450. "When I first started here, it took an entire year for us to build 59 humvees," says Michael Heaberlin, 52, a 10-year veteran of the line. "Now we do that many in 21/2 days." Stung by soldiers' complaints about the armor shortage, the Army late last week announced it would crank up production of armored humvees from the current 450 a month to 550. Pentagon officials expect all humvees in Iraq to be armored in some form by April.

    Even that may not be enough if attacks persist at their current level. The demand for armored vehicles will keep rising. "Every time we get close to the duck as he's flying and we're catching up and we're trying to get a lead on him, the thing's upped," General Peter Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff, told Congress last month. Troops in the field say they don't have enough vehicles, period. If one goes down, they can't just drive over to a parking lot and pick up a new one. In insurgent hot spots like Ramadi, Marines say they sometimes don't go out in full force because there aren't enough vehicles that still work.

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3