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Troops seen vulnerable in Humvees

Lighter vehicles lack protection against militants

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 front-line combat.

 

These lighter Humvees and other military vehicles have become the target of choice for anti-US 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 Lieutenant Colonel Vincent Montera, commander of the Long Island, N.Y.-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 1 in 8 Humvees in Iraq are of this more heavily armored variety.

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

In the eyes of Alma Hart of Bedford, Mass., her son, John, might have come home after an Oct. 18 ambush if his unit had been driving the armored models. "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 First Lieutenant Jonathan Pruden of Georgia, not having an armored Humvee meant an attack July 1 cost him 5 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.

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 US forces would be greeted after the invasion.

Some US 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 US 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, General 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 end of major combat on 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 has met about half that goal.

Some congressional critics say the Pentagon should have done a better job preparing for this contingency.

"Our troops are dying because their vehicles are obviously vulnerable," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. "It's shameful that [Defense] Department officials didn't accelerate production of armored Humvees long before now."

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

Standard, nonarmored Humvees never were meant to see front-line 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; others, like the popular "turtleback" model, have a hard roof and machine-gun turret.

The deadly 1993 raid in Somalia led to a Humvee with better armor protection. But at a price of about $150,000, they never were designed for wide military use. Iraq has turned that requirement on its head as vehicles never intended to see front-line 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 said it has no armored Humvees in its normal peacetime stocks.

Right now, the only source of new armored Humvees will be the production line, because the Army 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.

Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein after his capture by US forces. (Reuters Photo)
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