Saturday, December 27, 2003

The Emperor Has No Armor 
Here's something that makes me want to tear my hair out:

A.P.----Fearing roadside bombs and sniper bullets, members of the U.S. Army Reserve's 428th Transportation Company turned to a local steel fabricator to fashion extra armor for their five-ton trucks and Humvees before beginning their journey to Iraq earlier this month.

But their armor might not make it into the war, because the soldiers did not obtain Pentagon approval for their homemade protection.

The Army, which is still developing its own add-on armor kits for vehicles, does not typically allow any equipment that is not tested and approved by the Army, Maj. Gary Tallman, a Pentagon spokesman for Army weapons and technology issues, said last week.

"It's important that other units out there that are getting ready to mobilize understand that we are doing things" to protect them, Tallman said, "but there's policy you have to consider before you go out on your own and try to do something."

I’m glad to see this story finally hitting the national press. Of course, it doesn’t make the desk-jockeys at the Pentagon look good, but what else is new?

What the story’s missing—some tough questioning from the reporter about why it’s taking so long to figure this out. After all, here we are over ten months into the most widely anticipated war since Yeats wrote The Second Coming, units are still scrambling to acquire the rare “up-armored” M1114 Humvees, and we still haven’t come up with a practical, authorized vehicle-hardening solution that commanders who’s units are rotating into Iraq this spring can actually implement before they hit the war zone?

And why are they leaving it up to Central Command to authorize the proposed solution? CENTCOM doesn’t have an Aberdeen proving ground. Why can’t Forces Command—FORSCOM—the command actually responsible for mobilizing units before they arrive in theatre—cough up some vehicle mileage money and tell some wizened old Chief Warrant to get in his car and drive to Mississippi and evaluate the hardening solution for the unit, and make his recommendation, or propose any modifications right there on the spot?
I’m not suggesting that the Pentagon is wrong to want to make sure the plate metal is going to work as planned. Here’s a story from out here in the real world:

Last spring, shortly before we rolled into Iraq, we decided we wanted to harden our own 2 ½ ton trucks against land mines and IEDs. So we selected one ‘Beta’ truck, and sandbagged the back and sides, according to some manual we saw somewhere, and shored the sides up with plywood.

Unfortunately, the pennypinching procurement officers in the State of Florida opted to equip us with the cheaper but inferior M35A3 model, with four wheels, rather than the M35A2 model, which has dual wheels in the rear, on each side.

(The A3’s are so obsolete that when we got to Iraq and we were hooking up with the 3rd ACR’s maintenance system, they told me to forget about getting parts for them—the active duty army didn’t even stock their parts anywhere in its inventory.)

As a result, the rear axle couldn’t handle the load, and except for a vigilant chief maintenance warrant officer, we could have caused severe damage to a vehicle we couldn’t fix. Ergo, we were never able to harden those trucks to standard. Those trucks still transport our troops through Ar Ramadi every day. Yes, several of our soldiers have been wounded in them.

Meanwhile, in the absence of guidance from echelons above reality, the units here on the ground have resorted to all manner of equally unauthorized Rube Goldberg contraptions in order to protect themselves on the road.
Most of our Hummers have thin canvas doors. “Hang your flak jackets over the windowsills,” the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment told us, helpfully.

Actually, when we got the new Kevlar body armor vests, we took the old Viet Nam era flak jackets, procured for us by the same farsighted geniuses who bought us the A3s, we strapped them like balustrades along the outsides of the truckbeds. You haven’t seen a finer sight since The Grapes of Wrath.

Other units contracted with Iraqi machine shops to make metal doors to replace the canvas doors with which the light infantry units had been so thoughtfully provided. (Did we really think that light infantry would not, sooner or later, get embroiled in a counterinsurgency campaign?).

Engineer units, with their easy access to plywood and powertools, are the worst—some of their trucks are driving around looking like British double-decker buses, for all the home-made, gee-whiz erratica they’re schlepping around in their truckbeds.
Somehow, despite the Pentagon’s fears, the units manage to continue functioning, and the trucks continue to roll. We’re not that stupid, after all, thank you.

Only now, nearly ten months into our deployment overseas, is the Army finally addressing the hardening issue with our own vehicles. We’ve contracted with someone called Armox, and they’ve been out this week welding metal and Kevlar panels to our vehicles. Well, to 20% or so of our vehicles. We’ll see how it works out. In the meantime, the soldiers riding in the rest of our vehicles are still hunkering down behind flak vests strapped to the outside of the truck.

The bottom line: if the Pentagon wants to stand in the way of a reserve commander taking initiative to protect his troops, then they must come up with an alternative plan pronto. Get the chiefs out into the field. Unleash that American know-how we keep lording over the French and Canadians.

After all, urban counterinsurgencies are nothing new. After Mogadishu, after Grozny, after Afghanistan, after Belfast, after years of intifada already, and after nearly a year of our own hard experience here, and after the Humvee’s been in the inventory for nearly 20 years, and the deuce and half truck at least since Vietnam, it’s inconceivable to me that we’re still trying to figure out how to do this.

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