Many Missteps Tied to Delay in Armor for Troops in Iraq
MISSING IN ACTION: THE SUPPLY GAP IN IRAQ
The war in Iraq was hardly a month old in April 2003 when an Army general in charge of equipping soldiers with protective gear threw the brakes on buying bulletproof vests.
The general, Richard A. Cody, who led a Pentagon group called the Army Strategic Planning Board, had been told by supply chiefs that the combat troops already had all the armor they needed, according to Army officials and records from the board’s meetings. Some 50,000 other American soldiers, who were not on the front lines of battle, could do without.
In the following weeks, as Iraqi snipers and suicide bombers stepped up deadly attacks, often directed at those very soldiers behind the front lines, General Cody realized the Army’s mistake and did an about-face. On May 15, 2003, he ordered the budget office to buy all the bulletproof vests it could, according to an Army report. He would give one to every soldier, “regardless of duty position.”
But the delays were only beginning. The initial misstep, as well as other previously undisclosed problems, show that the Pentagon’s difficulties in shielding troops and their vehicles with armor have been far more extensive and intractable than officials have acknowledged, according to government officials, contractors and Defense Department records.
In the case of body armor, the Pentagon gave a contract for thousands of the ceramic plate inserts that make the vests bulletproof to a former Army researcher who had never mass-produced anything. He struggled for a year, then gave up entirely. At the same time, in shipping plates from other companies, the Army’s equipment manager effectively reduced the armor’s priority to the status of socks, a confidential report by the Army’s inspector general shows. Some 10,000 plates were lost along the way, and the rest arrived late.
In all, with additional paperwork delays, the Defense Department took 167 days just to start getting the bulletproof vests to soldiers in Iraq once General Cody placed the order. But for thousands of soldiers, it took weeks and even months more, records show, at a time when the Iraqi insurgency was intensifying and American casualties were mounting.
By contrast, when the United States’ allies in Iraq also realized they needed more bulletproof vests, they bypassed the Pentagon and ordered directly from a manufacturer in Michigan. They began getting armor in just 12 days.
The issue of whether American troops were adequately protected received wide attention in December, when an Army National Guard member complained to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that troops were scrounging for armor to fortify their Humvees and other vehicles. The Pentagon has maintained that it has moved steadfastly to protect all its troops in Iraq.
But an examination of the issues involving the protective shielding and other critical equipment shows how a supply problem seen as an emergency on the ground in Iraq was treated as a routine procurement matter back in Washington.
While all soldiers eventually received plates for their vests, the Army is still scrambling to find new materials to better protect the 10,000 Humvees in Iraq that were not built for combat conditions. They are re-enforced by simple steel plates that cannot withstand the increasingly potent explosives being used by the insurgents, according to contractors who are working to develop more sophisticated armor for the Army.
Army generals say a more effective answer to the threat of explosives may lie in electronic instruments that have proven successful in blocking the detonation of homemade bombs, called improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s. They have caused about a quarter of the more than 1,500 American deaths in Iraq, including those of two National Guard members from New York City just last week.
Such an electronic countermeasure was used at the start of the war to shield Iraqi oil fields from possible sabotage. But some members of Congress and security experts say shortsighted planning and piecemeal buying on the part of the Army has resulted in too few of the devices being used to protect the troops.
Pentagon officials say that despite the shortcomings, their efforts to protect soldiers have saved many lives. And they say they have taken a number of steps to improve their performance, including the creation of a special unit to quickly buy and field vital gear and the establishment of a task force to come up with ways to combat I.E.D.’s.
They say that material shortages and contractor bottlenecks prevented them from moving faster, and that their response, notwithstanding the 24-week startup for bulletproof vests, compares well with the two years that the Army typically has taken to complete such tasks.
“Our planning process wasn’t keeping up with the changes that were required,” said Gen. Paul J. Kern, the head of the Army’s Materiel Command until he retired in January. “That resulted in the lag in response in acquisition. While we would all like to be faster and more responsive, it was fairly responsive.”
American military commanders and Pentagon officials now concede that they consistently misjudged the strength and ingenuity of the insurgency in Iraq, which has grown more sophisticated in its tactics. Because commanders failed to take that force into account, the Army’s procurement machine could never catch up, no matter how hard it tried.
Several former high-ranking officers say a complete overhaul of the supply system is needed to ensure that America’s troops get all the tools they need to face a determined foe, particularly terrorists.
“This is a new age in war with an enemy that adapts faster than we do,” said Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., retired, a former head of the Army War College. “Al Qaeda doesn’t have to go to the Board of Accountability in order to develop a new roadside bomb or triggering device.”
Others say that the Pentagon’s longstanding preference for billion-dollar weaponry has made it less prepared to deliver the basic tools needed by soldiers on the ground.
“We’ve never been very good at equipping people in a simple, straightforward fashion,” said Thomas E. White, who resigned as secretary of the Army in April 2003 after a falling out with Mr. Rumsfeld.
Scrambling for Body Armor
The insurgency had already taken root in Iraq when General Cody made his decision on April 17, 2003, that enough soldiers had bulletproof vests. As more casualty reports flowed in during the next month, he came to recognize that the advice he had gotten from staff members in Washington did not reflect the reality of the war.
“We began to realize how wrong we were and the Army has been scrambling ever since,” Mr. White recalls.
General Cody, now the Army’s vice chief of staff, declined to comment, but his staff members confirmed the details of the supply problems. Some of the most glaring problems were contained in an April 20, 2004, report by the inspector general that remained confidential until it was released to The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Pentagon put the inspector general on the case after Defense Department officials, noticing that its allies were getting armor so quickly, became suspicious that they were taking armor intended for American soldiers.
But the report wound up criticizing the Pentagon instead.
The allies had indeed asked the Defense Department for bulletproof vests, the inspector general found. After being told they would have to wait until the Americans were fully equipped, they ordered their 9,600 sets from a manufacturer from Central Lake, Mich., Second Chance Body Armor.
By contrast, the inspector general found, the Pentagon took much longer.
For starters, it took the Army 47 days from when General Cody issued his order for bulletproof vests to allocate the necessary funds so that contracts could be awarded, the inspector general found.
Then, the handful of tiny companies making the vests and plates for the Army were snowed under by the soaring demand.
To speed things up, the Pentagon decided to relax its weight requirement, accepting some plates 30 percent heavier and making it possible for more manufacturers to produce them.
But by the fall of 2003, as Pentagon officials were assuring Congress that they were moving as fast as they could to get armor to soldiers, one of the Pentagon’s chief producers of plates was fuming.
The company, ArmorWorks of Tempe, Ariz., and its supplier of ceramics, the beer-making Coors family of Colorado, had ramped up their operations to meet the demands of the war, but ArmorWorks’ president, William J. Perciballi, says Defense Department delays in awarding contracts for more plates forced him to lay off workers and shut down his assembly line for two months.
When the additional orders were finally awarded in early 2004, he lost out to three lower bidders.
One of those companies, High Performance Materials Group of Boothwyn, Pa., said it could make 20,000 plates for $4,960,000, a price 11 to 15 percent below even the next two successful bidders.
The Pentagon’s Defense Supply Center, which handled the contracts, says an Army ballistics engineer determined that High Performance, a research and development company, could do the work, despite its lack of experience in mass production.
“We certainly demonstrated that we could make the plates,” said the company’s founder, Kenneth A. Gabriel, a former Army researcher who left the military in 1999. He said he had developed his own version of the ceramic plates that passed Army testing and prepared detailed plans for production that the supply center reviewed.
But Mr. Gabriel said he ran into unforeseen trouble. His source for ceramic dried up. Then he lost his building lease. Last December, after missing four deadlines and delivering only 356 plates, he transferred the contract to one of the other winning bidders, and his company dissolved.
In interviews and written responses, the Defense Supply Center said it pressed High Performance as best it could. “Throughout the period of delinquency the contracting officer considered the possibility of a termination for default and a repurchase of the items. However, when reviewing the facts together with the applicable FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) provisions, it was determined that a termination for default would not be the appropriate action,” the center said.
Mr. Perciballi of ArmorWorks eventually got more orders, but said: “It was stop, start, stop, start. Couldn’t they have ramped up at the start of the war? Our problem was they were taking little bites and never got the whole industry together to see just what we could do.”
The final hitch arose in Iraq.
The Army agency responsible for equipping soldiers got swamped by other materials being rushed to Iraq, the inspector general found. The bulletproof vests had been labeled high priority, but in the ensuing chaos, everything got treated as high priority, which meant that in fact nothing was. The Pentagon has a special term for items that get lost in the shuffle: frustrated cargo.
“The massive push of supplies and materiel initially led to containers with OTV (the outer tactical vest portion of body armor), Desert Camouflage Uniforms, boots, T-shirts, and socks being stacked up and becoming frustrated cargo,” the inspector general’s report found.
The delivery and tracking of body armor was so chaotic that by Jan. 23, 2004, when the last American soldiers got theirs, 10,000 plates were still missing, the report says. Pressed by the inspector general’s inquiry, the Army quickly found 97 plates in containers filled with uniforms, boots and socks.
General Kern, who had overseen the procurement system as head of Materiel Command until he retired this year, said he accepted the criticism in the report as a “fair assessment.” The report did commend the Army for pushing the industry to increase production by recruiting more companies.
But in all, General Kern said, the 167 days it took to start getting armor to the troops was “historically pretty good.”
Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said some of the acquisition rules are necessary to prevent fraud and abuse, but the Pentagon could strip away layers of approvals and evaluations without jeopardizing the process.
“Congress is to blame for some of this,” he said, citing the oversight hoops through which the Pentagon has to jump.
Some soldiers waiting for the body armor say they felt punished for speaking out about the delays. Specialist Joseph F. Fabozzi of the New Jersey National Guard complained publicly during a visit home in late 2003.
Returning to Iraq a few weeks later, he said, he was handed a $912 bill for having rear-ended a truck the previous summer while on a convoy. His National Guard unit did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Fabozzi appealed the bill and won, records show, in part by explaining precisely how his gas pedal had jammed – because the trucks did not have armor plating, he and others had been told to place sandbags on the floors. “They would break and spill into the pedals,” he said.
Vehicles Without Shielding
Soldiers are still jury-rigging protection for their trucks and Humvees because of another contracting problem with which the Pentagon continues to wrestle.
Going into the war, it had only one contractor, O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt of Fairfield, Ohio, re-enforcing new Humvees with armor, handling 50 a month.
The Pentagon decided against asking Detroit automakers like General Motors, which makes the Humvee’s civilian version, the Hummer, to start making armored Humvees because they would need too much time to set up new assembly lines.
But the Pentagon only gradually pushed O’Gara-Hess to ramp up to 550 vehicles a month, a level the company expects to reach only this spring. The latest uptick in ordering came in December after Specialist Thomas Wilson, a member of the Tennessee National Guard, confronted Mr. Rumsfeld in Kuwait.
Mr. Rumsfeld immediately came under criticism for what some saw as a callous dismissal of Mr. Wilson’s complaints. In a television appearance last month on “Meet the Press,” the defense secretary said that his comments were taken out of context and that the Army was working as hard as it could to provide armor, stressing that money was not an issue.
“It’s a matter of production and capability of doing it,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Dov S. Zakheim, the Pentagon’s comptroller and chief financial officer until last May, said the Pentagon did not want to saddle O’Gara-Hess with more work than it could handle because of problems that arose with other manufacturers of big-ticket items.
“Given the level of Congressional scrutiny about all contracting procedures,” Mr. Zakheim said, “clearly there was a concern that this be done in a graduated fashion so as to avoid another scandal.”
At the same time as installing shielding in new Humvees, the Pentagon has had to deal with the 10,000 Humvees in Iraq that were never re-enforced for combat.
To help protect these vehicles, a Pentagon unit that was expediting purchases began pushing the Army to buy ceramic plates from private contractors.
The Army, though, opted for plain steel plates that it could make in its own depots. The plates are failing to withstand the insurgent’s bigger bombs, which are also blowing up more heavily armored vehicles. As a result, the Army has been forced to look for additional materials to protect the Humvees, according to contractors involved in the effort.
Learning to Outsmart Bomb
Long before the war, the Pentagon was excited about new ways to subvert these bombs.
A California military contractor developed a countermeasure during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Known as the Shortstop Electronic Protection System, it evolved into a portable device that was heralded for its ability to jam the radio frequencies used by insurgents to detonate their bombs.
Col. Bruce D. Jette, a participant in the meetings of the Strategic Planning Board, the panel led by General Cody, used a jamming device to protect the oil fields in Iraq. Colonel Jette was heading up a new unit called the Rapid Equipping Force, which was given license to ignore the lumbering ways the Army traditionally fills orders from the field.
Colonel Jette, who has a Ph.D. in electronic materials from M.I.T., dodged the Army’s research-and-development agencies and phoned his scientist friends to find a commercial robot that could search for explosives. He embedded his staff in combat units. He took manufacturers to Iraq so they could quickly modify designs for body and vehicle armor.
In a report to Congress in January, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, said the unit’s work in developing these explosive countermeasures and other tools was emblematic of the Army’s transformation into an agile force.
Some Pentagon officials say they first realized soldiers were being killed by I.E.D.’s as early as June 2003, and late that summer the Army’s 101st Airborne Division issued a report that cited “numerous” injuries from I.E.D.’s in its plea for more vehicle armor and training to evade the bombs.
The Defense Department had been producing various I.E.D. countermeasures. But the Pentagon did not start ordering large quantities of one of the most promising ones, known as the Warlock, until December 2003, nine months after the war began, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a research firm based in Alexandria, Va.
The firm said in a report that EDO Communications and Countermeasures of Simi Valley, Calif., has received three orders totaling $31 million for 1,899 Warlocks. EDO declined to comment, citing the secrecy constraints imposed by the Pentagon.
The Pentagon has declined to say publicly how many devices it still needs in Iraq to protect all of the troops. But after learning the Army had so few that it could not spare any for training exercises, the House Armed Services Committee in December pushed the Pentagon for a big increases in its spending on I.E.D. countermeasures, to $161 million, in the next few months, until next year’s budget is approved.
In presenting that budget to the committee on Feb. 16, Mr. Rumsfeld said the Defense Department had begun a vast effort to fight I.E.D.’s that encompasses many tools and strategies. “U.S. forces are now discovering and destroying more that one-third of I.E.D.’s before they can detonate,” he said. “We have every reason to believe that this will improve.”
At the hearing, Representative Gene Taylor, a staunch military supporter and Democrat from Mississippi, pointed out that his state had just lost four more National Guard members and criticized the secrecy enshrouding the Defense Department’s efforts to deal with the explosives.
“There is the technology to prevent the detonation of most improvised explosive devices that exist,” Mr. Taylor said, speaking with frustration. “We’ve allocated money for it. And yet that number remains classified, Mr. Secretary, not because the insurgents don’t know how few are protected, but because I’m of the opinion the American people would be appalled if they knew how few are protected.”
Colonel Jette was also frustrated, and in October he resigned. In interviews, he said as the rush of war wore off, the Army’s traditional supply corps began reasserting lengthy contracting and testing regimens, leaving him increasingly discouraged.
“That perfection in testing becomes the enemy of what is operationally good enough,” he said. “And the soldiers in the field are looking for good enough.”
The Rapid Equipping Force has a new leader, but still operates without a permanent charter. Gen. John M. Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff who helped establish the program, said he shares Colonel Jette’s concern for its future. “The acquisition system would see it as a threat,” said General Keane, who retired in 2003. “There is an implied indictment that they can’t deliver in that rapid a period of time, which is essentially true.”