Marines in heart of war still
must improvise armor
By Hal Bernton; December 11, 2004
Just before the November attack on Fallujah, Lance Cpl. Garrett
Ware spent long hours trying to piece together a patchwork of armor to
fortify his Marine Humvee. He tied ceramic plates along the sides of
the vehicle and slapped sandbags and plywood atop the cab.
Despite his labor, Ware said, the result was far from perfect.
"It was pretty jury-rigged, and sometimes stuff would be falling
off," said Ware, a Marine from Kirkland. "At times, you didn't have
protection where it was really important — your arms and neck. ... If
we could get something better, we would take it in a heartbeat."
In a yearlong push to improve the armor of U.S. troops in Iraq,
the Marines who have been sent to some of the most deadly areas of Iraq
have not received top-of-the-line vehicles. And their situation appears
to contradict statements made Wednesday by Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, who told U.S. troops in Kuwait that the forces most likely to
go into combat "are the ones that have the best equipment."
In recent months of fierce fighting, Marines have taken some of
the heaviest casualties. Though the Marine Corps does not specify how
individuals die, published news reports reviewed by The Seattle Times
indicated at least eight Marines died in November when riding in
Humvees attacked by insurgent forces.
U.S.-based factories have been churning out a new generation of
fully armored Humvees — the M1114s — complete with hard tops, underside
protection and fortified chassis to help carry more than 3,000 pounds
of additional weight. Admiring Marines have given them a nickname — the
"Air Force Ones," Ware said.
But the vast majority of the more than 5,900 M1114s delivered to
Iraq to date have gone to the Army. Meanwhile, the Marines continue to
improvise with the armor kits, sandbags and plywood on a fleet of more
than 2,000 Humvees in Iraq.
Marine officials say they went with the Humvees they had on hand
when units were redeployed on short notice earlier this year. But they
said they worked hard to add armor to those vehicles and are proud of
their efforts to design, deliver and install protective kits on all
their vehicles that ended up in Iraq.
"It was an unprecedented success story," said Maj. Robert Crum,
a public-affairs officer at Marine Corps System Command.
But Marine Corps commanders concede the Humvee armor now in the
field still needs improvement. At the end of November, they announced a
program to install a new generation of tougher, better-designed kits.
These kits include hardened tops, gunner shields and reinforced doors.
Though the first shipments already have begun, they estimate it
will take 12 to 18 months to install all those kits in Iraq.
In a Nov. 30 press release announcing the kits, Marine Corps
officials said they had a "distinct advantage" over factory-produced
Humvees, citing more versatile protection. And Crum said the Marines
currently have no plans to purchase any of the M1114s to help bolster
the Humvee fleet.
"Marine Corps System Command determined that the best solution
is the Marine armor kit," Crum said. "That's not to say that down the
road there might be a requirement for another type of solution."
But officials of the company that produces the M1114s say the
Marines have expressed interest in recent weeks in acquiring up to 100
of the vehicles each month. That company, Armor Holdings, yesterday
announced it would increase production from the current level of 450
vehicles a month to 550.
Michael Fox, an Armor Holdings spokesman, said that all of the
monthly production is contracted by the Army. But the Army could
distribute some of those vehicles to the Marines.
Fox said the M1114 is intended to provide much better protection than
Humvees fortified with kits. It has more armor underneath, as well as
more undercarriage support to carry the extra weight, Fox said.
"There are lots of differences between the kits and the factory
vehicles," he said.
Also this week, Textron Systems, manufacturer of an armored car
that has fared well in Iraq, announced it has been contracted to
provide 50 additional vehicles to the Army, which would bring the total
to 182. So far, there are no contracts to produce vehicles for the
Marines, said Clay Moise, a Textron vice president.
The troubled effort to armor U.S. vehicles in Iraq has been
politically sensitive for more than a year, with bereaved families of
troops who died in an initial deployment of unarmored Humvees lobbying
Congress and the Pentagon for more protection.
Concerns over armor have intensified in recent months as a
deadly insurgency targets more U.S. troop vehicles. The issue took
center stage earlier this week as a U.S. Army National Guard soldier in
Kuwait, acting at the request of a Tennessee reporter, complained to
Rumsfeld about scavenging for protective metal in a scrap heap.
Marines long have prided themselves as a tough, fast-moving
force that emphasizes firepower over the use of heavily armored,
slow-moving vehicles, such as tanks.
But this year, as the Marines have faced a multitude of vehicle
attacks in Iraq, armor has emerged as a major concern. That concern
surfaced at a Nov. 17 hearing of the Armed Services Committee as Rep.
Curt Weldon, R-Pa., read a letter from an anonymous Marine.
"The only thing I would complain about concerning the equipment
is the armor we have for Humvees," the Marine wrote. "It is very thin,
and a mine strike or an IED [Improvised Explosive Device] could rip
right through the thin armor with ease. I've seen IED strikes and mine
strikes first hand, being a combat engineer. After shipping up to a hit
vehicle, it's not a pretty sight. I know there's better armor out
there, because I've seen civilian contractors with vehicles that can
withstand a mine strike and keep on going."
Lance Cpl. Ware took several days to piece together armored
protection for the battle in Fallujah. At the end of it, the Humvee cab
was protected with plywood and sandbags. But the rear of the Humvee,
which seated four Marines, still had no roof to help shield from
hostile fire that might come from above.
"That's how the military works with the Marines, and somehow we
deal with it," Ware said.
Ware was wounded during the first day of the battle for
Fallujah, taking shrapnel to the eye as he dismounted from the vehicle
to fight in the street. He is now back at his home in Kirkland
Researcher David Turim contributed to this story.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org