Safer Vehicles for Soldiers: A Tale of Delays and Glitches

New York Times

When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Iraq last year to tour the Abu Ghraib prison camp, military officials did not rely on a government-issued Humvee to transport him safely on the ground. Instead, they turned to Halliburton, the oil services contractor, which lent the Pentagon a rolling fortress of steel called the Rhino Runner.

State Department officials traveling in Iraq use armored vehicles that are built with V-shaped hulls to better deflect bullets and bombs. Members of Congress favor another model, called the M1117, which can endure 12-pound explosives and .50-caliber armor-piercing rounds.

Unlike the Humvee, the Pentagon’s vehicle of choice for American troops, the others were designed from scratch to withstand attacks in battlefields like Iraq with no safe zones. Last fall, for instance, a Rhino traveling the treacherous airport road in Baghdad endured a bomb that left a six-foot-wide crater. The passengers walked away unscathed. “I have no doubt should I have been in any other vehicle,” wrote an Army captain, the lone military passenger, “the results would have been catastrophically different.”

Yet more than two years into the war, efforts by United States military units to obtain large numbers of these stronger vehicles for soldiers have faltered – even as the Pentagon’s program to armor Humvees continues to be plagued by delays, an examination by The New York Times has found.

Many of the problems stem from a 40-year-old procurement system that stymies the acquisition of new equipment quickly enough to adapt to the changing demands of a modern insurgency, interviews and records show.

Among other setbacks, the M1117 lost its Pentagon money just before the invasion, and the manufacturer is now scrambling to fill rush orders from the military. The company making one of the V-shaped vehicles, the Cougar, said it had to lay off highly skilled welders last year as it waited for the contract to be completed. Even then it was paid only enough to fill half the order.

And the Rhino could not get through the Army’s testing regime because its manufacturer declined to have one of its $250,000 vehicles blown up. The company said it provided the Army with testing data that demonstrate the Rhino’s viability, and is using the defense secretary’s visit as a seal of approval in its contract pitches to the Defense Department.

Many officials in the military and the government say the demands of war sometimes require the easing of procurement requirements like testing, and express frustration at the slow process for getting equipment.

“When you have troops in the field in a dynamic environment, where the tactics of the opposition are changing on a regular basis, you have to be nimble and quick,” said Representative Rob Simmons, a Connecticut Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “If you’re not nimble and quick and adaptable, people will die.”

Nearly a decade ago, the Pentagon was warned by its own experts that superior vehicles would be needed to protect American troops. The Army’s vehicle-program manager urged the Pentagon in 1996 to move beyond the Humvee, interviews and Army records show, saying it was built for the cold war. Its flat-bottom-chassis design is 25 years old, never intended for combat, and the added armor at best protects only the front end from the heftier insurgent bombs, military officials concede.

But as the procurement system stumbled and the Defense Department resisted allocating money for more expensive vehicles, interviews and records show, the military ended up largely dependent on Humvees – a vast majority of which did not yet have any armor – in both combat and noncombat operations in the war.

Today, commuting from post to post in Iraq is one of the deadliest tasks for soldiers. At least 73 American military personnel were killed on the roads of Iraq in May and June as insurgent attacks spiked. In May alone, there were 700 bombings against American forces, the most since the invasion in March 2003. Late Thursday, a suicide car bomber killed five marines and a sailor in a convoy of mostly female marines who were returning to camp in Falluja. Thirteen others were injured. Officials said the vehicles most likely included a seven-ton truck.

Last winter, 135 convoys were attacked on the Baghdad airport road alone, and even the most fully armored Humvee is no longer safe from the increasingly powerful insurgency bombs.

Marine Corps generals last week disclosed in a footnote to their remarks to Congress that two of their best-armored Humvees were destroyed, while a Marine spokeswoman in Iraq said five marines riding in one such Humvee were killed this month in a roadside bomb attack.

Still, thousands of Humvees in Iraq do not have this much protection.

The Pentagon has repeatedly said no vehicle leaves camp without armor. But according to military records and interviews with officials, about half of the Army’s 20,000 Humvees have improvised shielding that typically leaves the underside unprotected, while only one in six Humvees used by the Marines is armored at the highest level of protection.

The Defense Department continues to rely on just one small company in Ohio to armor Humvees. And the company, O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, has waged an aggressive campaign to hold onto its exclusive deal even as soaring rush orders from Iraq have been plagued by delays. The Marine Corps, for example, is still awaiting the 498 armored Humvees it sought last fall, officials told The Times.

In January, when military officials tried to speed production by buying the legal rights to the armor design so they could enlist other venders to help, O’Gara demurred, calling the move a threat to its “current and future competitive position,” according to e-mail records obtained from the Army.

Defense Department officials defended their efforts in supplying troops with armored vehicles, saying they have managed to convert a largely unarmored fleet into one in which every vehicle in combat has some level of shielding.

“We are constantly assessing and making the necessary adjustments to make sure they have the best possible protection this country can provide,” said a Pentagon spokesman, Bryan G. Whitman, adding that no amount of armor would defeat the insurgency’s biggest bombs. He said Mr. Rumsfeld had ridden in many types of vehicles, including Humvees, and “travels in whatever vehicle the commander feels is appropriate.”

The Defense Department created a task force last winter that is charged with revamping its entire fleet of light vehicles, including the Humvee.

Some say these efforts, however resolute, will suffer if the Pentagon does not also overhaul its underlying procurement system.

“There’s been a confluence of factors that colluded to keep this system hidebound,” said Dov S. Zakheim, the Pentagon’s comptroller until May 2004. “It’s going to take a joint effort by Congress and the executive branch working in good faith, and I underline good faith, to bring about a change.”

Old Problems, New Details

By the time an Army National Guard member complained to Mr. Rumsfeld in December that troops were still scrounging for steel to fortify their Humvees, the Pentagon’s troubles with armoring vehicles had been years in the making.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of insurgencies more than a decade earlier had changed the dynamics of war for American troops. The problem came into bloody relief in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 when militia members cornered and killed 18 American soldiers who were trying to capture a warlord’s top assistants using Black Hawk helicopters and unarmored Humvees.

At an Army command center in Warren, Mich., John D. Weaver saw the events unfold and set out to revamp the light-vehicle program that he managed.

One option came from executives at O’Gara, who proposed adding the extra steel shielding to Humvees. Mr. Weaver praised the effort but foresaw some flaws, he said in interviews.

Because the Humvee’s hull is flat, its underbelly absorbs the force of blasts more readily than combat vehicles with angled bodies.

Moreover, the chassis can carry only so much armor, leaving the rear more exposed.

And while land mines were the biggest threat at the time, Mr. Weaver said his group began worrying about a more insidious one: a fragmentation mine called the M-18 Claymore.

Developed by the United States for the Vietnam War, the device can be remotely detonated to hurl its 700 steel spheres at any part of a passing vehicle – much like the improvised devices that insurgents are using in Iraq.

That means the armored Humvee is vulnerable to a timed attack that focuses on its underbelly or rear, Mr. Weaver said. Its box shape also makes it less able to deflect low-flying bullets.

“We need to invest more in the details of the design, to integrate state-of-the-art material, which, while costing more, weighs less and provides greater levels of protection,” Mr. Weaver wrote in a paper presented to the Army’s 1996 armor conference at Fort Knox, Ky. “Finally, we must overcome the paradigm that wheels are cheap and ‘throw away.’ The vehicle may be, but the occupants are not.”

By 1997, when Mr. Weaver left his post, he was helping draft an Army mandate requiring new vehicles like the M1117. “I’m not sure anybody got their arms around what was needed,” he said.

By 1999, the Army began buying a limited number of M1117’s. Three years later, it canceled the program.

At roughly $700,000 each, the M1117 is considerably more expensive than the current $140,000 price for an armored Humvee.

“This decision is based upon budget priorities,” Claude M. Bolton Jr., an assistant Army secretary, wrote to Congress in 2002. Existing vehicles, he added, can be used instead “without exposing our soldiers to an unacceptable level of risk.”

Yet the military was reluctant to mass-produce the armored Humvee, with many in the Army agreeing that the vehicle made little tactical sense.

By the time the Iraq war started, the Army had been ordering only 360 armored Humvees a year.

“We never intended to up-armor all the Humvees,” said Les Brownlee, who was the acting Army secretary from 2001 until late last year. “The Humvee is a carrier and derives its advantage from having cross-country mobility, and when you load it down with armor plating, you lose that.”

But just months into the war in Iraq, it was lives the Pentagon was losing, and it reached for the quickest solution.

Clinging to a Contract

What the Defense Department thought would be the easiest option turned out otherwise.

The Humvee chassis is rapidly made on a vast assembly line near South Bend, Ind., by AM General. But before its vehicles can be rushed to Iraq, they are trucked four and a half hours to O’Gara’s shop in Fairfield, in southern Ohio – which had 94 people armoring one Humvee a day when the war began. There, the Humvees are partly dismantled so the armor can be added.

“Clearly, if you could have started from scratch you wouldn’t be doing it that way,” Mr. Brownlee said in a recent interview.

In February 2004, Mr. Brownlee visited the O’Gara plant and asked the company to increase production, gradually pushing its monthly output to 450 from 220 vehicles. The Defense Department also wanted to contract with other companies to make armor.

Determined to hold onto its exclusive contract, O’Gara began lobbying Capitol Hill. Among those it drew to its side was Brian T. Hart, an outspoken father of a soldier who was killed in October 2003 while riding in a Humvee. Early last year, as a guest on a national radio show, Mr. Hart urged the Pentagon to involve more armor makers. Two weeks later a lobbyist for O’Gara approached him.

“He informed me that the company had more than enough capacity,” Mr. Hart says. “There was no need to second-source.”

Mr. Hart then redirected his efforts to help the company push Congress into forcing the Pentagon to buy more armored Humvees. With support from both parties, the company has received more than $1 billion in the past 18 months in military armoring contracts.

Meanwhile, the Army did not give up on trying to speed production by involving more armor makers. Brig. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly said several armor companies were eager to be part of a plan to produce armored Humvees entirely on AM General’s assembly line.

In January, when it asked O’Gara to name its price for the design rights for the armor, the company balked and suggested instead that the rights be placed in escrow for the Army to grab should the company ever fail to perform.

“Let’s try this again,” an Army major replied to the company in an e-mail message. “The question concerned the cost, not a request for an opinion.”

The Army has dropped the matter for now, General O’Reilly said, adding that he hoped to have other companies making armor by next April.

Robert F. Mecredy, president of the aerospace and defense group at Armor Holdings, the parent company of O’Gara, acknowledged that the company was protecting its commercial interests. But, he said, the company has proved it can do the Humvee work and he blamed the Defense Department for delays. Military officials concede that it sometimes took months for requests made in Iraq to filter through the Defense Department. O’Gara says it has armored nearly 7,200 Humvees since the war began, and while there is a persistent need for more in Iraq, the company stresses that the Pentagon keeps changing its orders: from 3,600 in the fall of 2003 to 8,105 last year to more than 10,000 today.

Asked why the Marine Corps is still waiting for the 498 Humvees it ordered last year, O’Gara acknowledged that it told the Marines it was backed up with Army orders, and has only begun filling the Marines’ request this month. But the company says the Marine Corps never asked it to rush.

The Marine Corps denies this, but acknowledges that it did not get the money to actually place the order until this February. Officials now say they need to buy 2,600 to replace their Humvees in Iraq that still have only improvised armor.

Beyond the Humvee

With insurgents using increasingly powerful bombs and bullets, American troops in Iraq have been looking beyond the Humvee.

When the Marine Corps returned to Iraq last year, it settled on the Cougar as a superior vehicle to perform one of its main jobs: searching the roads for improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s. The Cougar can take more than twice the explosive punch as the armored Humvee and deflect .50-caliber armor piercing bullets. British troops had used the vehicle during the invasion.

The Marines used a new ordering method called the Urgent Universal Need Statement, which allows it to skip competitive bidding, to speed the process, officials said.

Even at that, the Marines Corps took two months to complete a product study, its records show. The contract took two more months to prepare. By then, one of its units in Iraq, Company E of the First Marine Division, was suffering the highest casualty rate of the war; more than half of the 21 marines killed were riding in Humvees with improvised armor or none at all.

When the Cougar order was completed in April 2004, the Marine Corps got only enough money from the Iraq war fund to buy 15 of the 27 Cougars it wanted. “This start-stop game is driving everybody nuts,” Michael Aldrich, an executive with the Cougar’s maker, Force Protection, said in a recent interview.

Marine Corps officials, who have high praise for the Cougars they have, said they needed to move cautiously for fear of overwhelming the company, which had only 39 workers. It now has 250 and is racing to fill a new order for 122 Cougars, at $630,000 apiece, by next February.

“I think we are moving about as fast as we could move,” Mr. Aldrich said. “It’s the chicken and egg. If you don’t have the order you can’t make the investment, and there are extremely long lead times” on the components.

Wars are always tricky affairs for military contractors that are asked to ramp up overnight. But for this and other makers of armored vehicles, the Iraq war has been especially challenging.

To get Congress’s attention last year, Mr. Aldrich compiled maps that showed the number of troops from each state who had died in Iraq in vehicles that were inadequately armored.

“I got some very open pupils and a couple of gasps and a couple of questions on who I had showed this to,” said Mr. Aldrich, who presented his findings during the fall election campaign when the issue of equipping troops became a focus of intense debate. “The Republicans wanted to know if I showed it to the Democrats, and the Democrats wanted to know if I showed it to the Republicans.”

The M1117, made by Textron in Louisiana, had advocates in that state’s senators, who told Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, in a September 2003 letter that the vehicle was superior to the armored Humvee in blast and bullet protection.

Still, the M1117 did not shake off its 2002 cancellation until last summer, when the Army began placing a series of orders totaling 290. The company, which will make 16 vehicles this month, has been asked to more than triple that pace by next March, Textron officials said.

Labock Technologies, which makes the Rhino Runner in Israel, thought it had the best advertising ever. Besides posting photographs of Mr. Rumsfeld aboard the Rhino at Abu Ghraib, the company has pictures of a shackled Saddam Hussein going to court last summer, with the headline: “So safe. … some V.I.P. won’t ride anything else.”

The Defense Department says some military personnel are using the privately owned Rhinos that run the gantlet of bombs on the airport road. But with the Army not accepting the company’s test results, and Labock not wanting to destroy a Rhino on the chance of getting orders, some soldiers in Iraq are doing their own lobbying.

Last month, the company says, an Army colonel and two other soldiers at Camp Victory in Baghdad picked up a satellite phone and called Labock at its Florida office to pepper the company with questions about performance, price and how fast it could deliver.

Mark Dunlap, a company executive, said in recounting the exchange, “They said they would run it up their chain of command.”

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