Frantically, the Army tries to armor Humvees
Soft-skinned workhorses turning into death traps
By Michael Moran
Updated: 4:51 p.m. ET April 15, 2004
The week before he died, Army Pfc. John D. Hart called his parents in Bedford, Mass., from his base in northern Iraq. Amid the joy of hearing familiar voices, the 20-year-old paratrooper told his dad that he felt exposed in the soft-skinned Humvee he and his comrades rode into battle each day.
“The full consequences of what he was telling us was not obvious at the time,” Hart’s father, Brian, told a news conference a few weeks after his son’s death. “The concern was genuine and very real.”
When Hart died in a small-arms ambush in mid-October, the Army had no official plan to “retrofit” most of the 12,000-odd Humvees in Iraq. This in spite of continuing attacks on convoys and complaints from combat units that they were taking unnecessary casualties in the thin-skinned Humvees.
There is no official figure on how many of the 728 U.S. combat deaths might have been prevented by better armor. Yet as attacks on convoys escalate, an increasing number of the deaths and injuries are being sustained in vehicles. That, combined with public pressure from bereaved parents like the Harts and their representatives in Congress, pushed the Army into action. In late March, the Army told its commanders to make “hardening” of their Humvees a priority.
Way ahead of you
Even if the Humvee problem escaped the attention of senior military officials, it certainly got noticed quickly at the unit level, where maintenance battalions watched one blood-stained vehicle after another come back from patrol.
Since at least late last summer, these crews have been welding any metal they could get their hands on to the sides of the low-slung Humvees — the military forerunner of the Hummers now roaming American highways.
In some cases, says Col. Andy Gembara, a former special operations commando and father of an Army captain who just finished an Iraq tour, local commanders are hiring Iraqis to update the vehicles.
“They call it ‘haji’ armor, and I was glad to hear she had it,” says Gembara, now the CEO of a small defense contracting firm in the Washington area. “It makes sense. The Army may get upset if it’s not done by standard, but so what? They’re smart to do what they can until the Army can catch up.”
Until late last month, the Army’s official guidance on the issue of hardening Humvee armor was a recommendation to troops to put sandbags on the floorboards to deaden the impact of mine explosions. Some soldiers say the military should have addressed the issue much more quickly.
“They don’t like calling attention to things like this, but the problem was obvious right away,” says a U.S. Marine officer in Iraq who asked not to be identified. “The war mutated from armored combat into a guerrilla campaign, and suddenly the tanks were parked and we moved out into the population without much protection.”
When the Army did announce plans to armor 8,400 of the Humvees now in the country and replace another 4,400 with purpose-build armored versions, the news was presented as a logical response to changing conditions.
Yet as far back as 1993, the military knew it might have a problem. Following the loss of 18 U.S. troops in Mogadishu, Somalia, that year, the Army and several other military institutions, including the Marine Corps Command College and the Army War College, undertook reviews of what had gone wrong. The headlines, of course, focused on poor strategic and command decisions — allowing a U.N. humanitarian operation to turn into a manhunt, failing to set up a rational working relationship between U.S. commanders and the U.N. command.
But the reliance on poorly armored or unarmored vehicles, including Humvees, was another lesson supposedly learned. One of the many official studies of the issue, a 1997 paper by Maj. Clifford E. Day at the Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, concluded the reliance on soft-skinned Humvees “needlessly put their troops in harms way without the proper equipment to successfully complete the mission.”
Battlefield adjustments are as old as war itself, of course, and armoring Humvees will not prevent American troops riding in them from becoming casualties. But no one argues they are better off unarmored.
Troops on the ground know this better than anyone. In World War II, U.S. tank crews reacted to an earlier such error — German shells were passing right through the armor on their Sherman, Grant and Stuart tanks — by applying “iron Band-Aids,” spare strips of tank track welded to the hulls of their tanks.
Supply problems also play their part.
“In Vietnam, we sometimes found we got authorization for one weapon and ammunition for another,” says Col. Jack Jacobs, a retired infantry leader and recipient of the Medal of Honor. “I had to go barter to get M-60 ammunition in Vietnam because we were only authorized M-19, and it’s not compatible. I wound up trading some supply guy captured enemy weapons, clothing and belt buckles.”
These days, in the age of cell phones, credit cards and the Internet, other options are open to troops who find themselves at the short end of the Pentagon's stick.
Sgt. Ian Mason, for instance, runs a maintenance battalion of the 1st Infantry Division in al-Ramadi, about 75 miles west of Baghdad. He resorted to emailing an Army contractor, ESAB Corp. of Florence, S.C., when he found that spare parts for the plasma cutting torches being used to retrofit the Humvees were not available through Army channels.
“They have been most gracious to us and have put together a care package for us that includes all kinds of safety equipment and spare parts for our plasma cutter,” the sergeant told MSNBC.com in an e-mail. “As far as I know there is not a NSN (National Stock Number) for the parts of the equipment that are expendable.”
In other words, the Army ordered the plasma cutters but not the nozzles and electrodes needed to make them work.
Robert Fernicola, who runs ESAB’s plasma cutting line, says this kind of plea for help from the front line is not unusual.
“They try to back-channel it when they can’t get what they need from the Army,” says Fernicola. “They did it with a credit card.” ESAB also sent Mason's unit a big care package filled with the coveted spare parts.
Jets and casualties
Some Army maintenance chiefs, in desperation, are using their own credit cards to make purchases. One soldier, who asked not to be identified, listed boots, goggles and protein bars as particularly coveted items.
Gembara noted that special forces soldiers, in particular, tend to go outside the Army system to get specialized gear, from belts to knives to small arms.
But it has gone too far, he says, when troops find themselves re-engineering an entire weapon system — the Humvee — in the field.
"I think it’s a valid criticism to wonder why it took so long to put armor on these vehicles," he says. "But this is the never-ending battle between people in Washington who want another 20 supersonic jets vs. making our troops safer. There were no big companies or heavy lobbies lined up behind ‘armored Humvees,’ and it’s the troops who pay the price."
The cost of an armored Humvee, built from scratch, is $150,000. That's $1.8 billion to replace every Humvee in Iraq with one that offers armored protection. Or, looked at through the windshield of a Humvee on the Baghdad-Tikrit highway, that's less than 2 percent of the $99 billion the Air Force is spending on the F-22 fighter it insists it needs.
You do the math.
© 2004 MSNBC Interactive
Our army has always been slow to learn. In WWII they let thousands of tankers die in Shermans that desperately needed spaced armor. G.I.s took matters into their own hands as usual. Sandbags, steel plates welded on and other remedies took up the slack while the army got around to getting off its dead ass to up armor the tanks. The Germans and the Russians caught on right away. Thick armor, very hard armor and spaced armor were all utilized as fast as possible to increase crew survivability.
In Vietnam, we had to learn our lesson all over again. Aluminum personnel carriers were poor protection from RPGs and mines. Camo fatigues were sparse and rarely seen except for SF and Marine recon. Some units managed to get them, but usually they were more prevelent among company clerks. We were in a jungle war. You'd have thought that someone would have considered that.
In Iraq, we spent a fortune on Humvees. Many are so much twisted metal on the side of the road. Markers to the men or women killed while riding in them. We not only need to get off our ass and redo the protection on those vehicles, but we need to rethink the whole concept of personnel transportation in a combat zone. Of course, the army will get around to that some time in the 22nd century.
rn45: agreed, the venerable M113, the tracker personel carrier, during the Vietname war had a single 50cal M2 BMG which exposed the operator to enemy fire. Now those S. Vietnamese guys know that a shirt is offers very little protect from the bullets so they put on shields for the operators and added 2 or 3 M60(?) machine guns in the process. After the war, that those were discarded.
America has never fought a war where we had enough troops or the right equipment.
I drove around in a soft-skin for 6 months and never really felt like it was worse than an up armor.
The problem with slapping on all that armor was they don't change out the suspension system. Because my unit was anti-armor infantry we kept the thin-skins while the MP's got the air conditioned up armors. Every week we would go past the MP motor pool and see a couple in repair for suspensions.
We knew that if we got hit with anything we'd be dead, so we took all the doors off and had every set of eyes facing out. Hard to do in an up armor when you can't turn around in the cramped driver and TC seat. We used speed as an effective defense. We would either rush through an area before anyone knew we were there or creep along so slowly that we were able to check out anything suspicious before getting to close to it.
On most of our patrols I was sitting on 48 grenades with another 300 or so strewn around behind me, 6 anti-armor missiles pointing at the back of my legs and my drivers head, and enough small arms ammo to make any arfcommer happy for a weekend.
I guess what I'm trying to say is you have the equipment the Army gives you, you just have to figure out how to use it so you come back home.
On a side note, my buddy actually had an RPG round deflect off the back of his humvee. You can actually see where the fin scraped.
There using a transportation vehicle squarely in the middle of an urban combat zone.... I don't think this is None too smart...
True. Remember, the Hummvee is a replacement for the jeep. If it's armor that's needed, then the answer is APCs and tanks, not Hummvees (armored or not).
Armoring a Humvee is the wrong answer.
If you notice how the British (and we have been doing this urban warfare thing since 1945 ) operate, if you expect to get serious resistance they use Warrior APC's with extra reactive armour and stuff… very heavy protection, much better than a Bradley. However when they go running around in the Landrovers on general patrol, you will notice something odd. No doors, windshields, canvas tilts etc. Reason? experience has show them that the best defence for thin skin vehicles is a soon as you draw fire, everybody bails out of the vehicle as fast as possible and goes tactical. An RPG needs an enclosed vehicle do real damage, an open truck just gets a neat hole puched in it.
In a heavy unit, over a decade and a half ago, we knew there were issues with this. Even the humvees in support units need to at least have the fragmentation armor, and every support vehicle except for ambulances and fuel trucks should be supporting at least one MG, HMG or GMG. Patton identified that as a weakness for our support troops 60 years ago.
Overall, the training levels and equipment for support troops have been long-neglected by the Army, although there is a certain cold logic to it. Not every soldier can be a steely-eyed tactically elite killer. That may work well in smaller militaries or in individuals who self-select for Special Operations, Airborne and USMC units, but in a large Army, with lots of specialized CS and CSS units filled with a collection of lower-end members of society, wierd misfits (like MI) and kids making money for college, you are only going to get so much espirit de corps and hard-charging ball-busting; those folks are more economically served by a light regimen of what is essentially defensive training and sparse equipment necessary for that role (bare-bones rifles, MOPP gear and the occasional crew-served weapon). Most support troops can hold a perimeter if you show them where it is at and they have some competent leadership, and that is all that is organizationally expected of them, and all that they are equipped for. Support troops are designed, at the unit level, to support moderate to heavy intensity ground combat in relatively secured areas. The down side of that is that in a generalized counter-insurgency, those CS and CSS troops are woefully underprepared and under-equipped to do anything outside of their secured base camps.
While this is all to be expected, now that the Army finds itself firmly emeshed in a COIN-type shooting war, they need to re-align, retrain and re-equip the support units, and each and every support troop deploying or in theater should be adequately trained and equipped to conduct mounted and dismounted operations as an infantry soldier. Unfortuantely, Strykers, XM-8s, DDXs and F-22s are sexier and more profitable for the defense lobby than CCOs, SAPIs, RAS and SureFire will ever be.
I was 11H in the reserve for 8 years. I was in a thin skin hummv the whole time. I was never deployed but what yakrat101 is saying pretty much mirrors what I would believe my experience would have been. We trained that we would either creep around or jam out of situations. We had the kevlar doors that suposedly would take ak rounds. But the whole body was thin sheet metal. We were taught once we got hit every body ditch the vehicle and go tactical. The only person would be the gunner laying down fire. If we were doing convoy security or some other mission where we could not stop then you shoot like it was bullet fest and keep on moving. The hummv is not a tank or APC, it never was ment to be. What I believe the army has to learn is that if your patrolling in an area that you know your people are going to get hit, then do it in a bradley or some thing that was designed to take that kind of punishment. Hummvs are not designed to take punishment so don't use them.
The Air Force uses a bunch of UAHs in some very specific areas. In one that I'm familiar with, they are replacing the suspensions every 90 days because they're putting over 100,00 miles on them every year (convoy operations). The things are waaaaaay overweight; I've been told that, sitting empty, they are right at max gross vehicle weight; throw in 4 troops and 1000 lbs of gear, and it's a little stressful on the engine, transmission and suspension.
We just got done sending a whole bunch of USAF UAHs to the desert. Not sure if it's going to help, but it's something.
Whoever comes up with a lightweight uparmor option for the HMMWV is going to get really rich, really quick, once he waits a few years for the concept to be tested and approved.
Kevlar is cheap these days. Speaker cones are made from it fairly often these days. So why isn't someone building Kevlar armor systems for these vehicles? There's some protection, and it's very light compared to steel armor.
Kevlar, or any of the other ballistic fibers, alone, won't stop rifle rounds. You need steel, titanium,t ceramic, ceramic composites or possibly heavily laminated ballistic fibers to do that. The lightest off-the-shelf rifle-stoppers around are probably laminated Spectrashield; a 3.5 pound, 1" thick 10' X 12" plate in that case rated by NIJ at Level III. Most of the military stuff is a lightweight ceramic composite; a laminated aramid fiber sandwiched with layers of ceramic; fairly effective, but still heavy enough that it would make for a lot of weight if you tried to armor up an entire vehicle with it.
On a related side note, as a welder searching the online job boards, there's a HUGE upswing in positions for Welders , in Iraq, prior military prefered, vehicle repair a plus, pay open. I assume it is in connection with this need.
Yes, I've applied.
Ah, yes the "Zippo"....guaranteed to light the first time. I think the same nickname could be applied to the HUMVEE.
Tempe firm's Humvee kit helps troops in Iraq
Christine L. Romero
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 29, 2004 12:00 AM
ArmorWorks LLC, a maker of armor for the military, signed a $30 million contract with the Army to shore up Humvees used by soldiers in Iraq.
The Tempe-based company hopes to deliver 1,500 Ballistic Advantage Armor Kits by year's end. The privately held firm, now with about 100 employees, will hire another 100 and double space to 80,000 square feet, said Bill Perciballi, ArmorWorks president.
ArmorWorks' 1,000-pound kit is designed to perform like steel and withstand roadside bombs, land mines, machine guns and assault rifles.
The protective kits reinforce the sides of the Humvee with encased high-tech ceramic plates, which resemble bathroom tiles.
Soldiers can install the kit in about four hours, Perciballi said. A similar steel device would weigh 4,000 pounds.
AM General Corp.'s Humvees came under recent criticism when a top Army general warned they are not as effective as General Dynamic Corp's Stryker. On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee said it would review the Humvee's safety.
A Humvee fitted with a kit was attacked by a roadside bomb in January.
"Everything was fine," Perciballi said. "They just kept driving. We got thank-you e-mails saying, 'Thanks for saving my life.' "
We are using Humvees because of the Billions wasted building a handful of Strykers. A armored truck shouldn't cost 3.3million a copy. If we had that money back now we would have hundreds of up-armored M113's out in Iraq instead of fitting armor to humvees.
Agrred! I also agree that our military is often under supplied...by our standards but not by the standards of any other military
1) A Hardback Humvee, the ones the press and the democrats are so lovingly and longingly referring to as "armored", are not armored. They just don't have softsides, like the other Hummers on every unit's T/E.
2) EVERY swinging dick who's ever gone through any Motor T or Infantry training, knows how to "harden" vehicles.
3) This is more a failure of tactics, not equipment.