Politics & Policy

Humvee Heartburn

Continuing transformative needs.

The media have done a job on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld–again. First, they celebrated a tough question he received from a National Guardsman at a Kuwait town-hall meeting about unarmored Humvees as a kind of grassroots revolt against the secretary. Never mind that a reporter with the Chattanooga Times Free Press planted the question. Then, they distorted his answer to make it appear that he had brushed off the soldier’s question in the most dismissive way possible. Actually, he emphasized that the military realizes how crucial it is to get properly armored vehicles in theater and even shared an anecdote about how he had immediately sent a few up-armored Humvees he noticed protecting the Pentagon to the region.

None of this is to say that the question wasn’t a fair one, and–judging by the reaction it got from the troops–one that is understandably much on their minds. Every armchair general now knows we need more up-armored Humvees. But as Rumsfeld put it, in a statement that caused much media heartburn, you go to war with the army you have, and ours has yet to be truly transformed to deal with 21st-century threats.

Remember: When Rumsfeld showed up at the Pentagon for his second stint as secretary of Defense, the army was hell-bent on building the Crusader, a “mobile” artillery system that couldn’t even fit into a C-130 transport plane. It wanted to build the Comanche helicopter, an aircraft conceived in 1983 with our Soviet adversary in mind. The army was caught in a bad Cold War flashback. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year, “Even as the armored Humvee proved itself in small conflicts around the globe, the Army failed to buy more because it was focused on preparing for major wars with other large armies–rather than low-end guerrilla conflicts.”

“Is it frustrating that only

400-something up-armored Humvees

are being produced a month? Yes.”

At this point, of course, everyone agrees on the need for more armored Humvees, which weren’t originally conceived as combat vehicles. But in considering today’s conventional wisdom, it is always useful to remember yesterday’s. Before the roadside bombs really took hold as the Iraqi insurgents’ weapon of choice, commentators were praising the British in Iraq for their unthreatening approach that emphasized soft vehicles and foot patrols. The Pentagon was criticized for its attachment to armor, not for having too little of it.

Once improvised explosive devices began to take their awful toll, the U.S. military did all you can ask from a military force encountering an innovative and persistent enemy–it adjusted to circumstances. First, the Pentagon sent up-armored Humvees from around the world to the Iraqi theater. Then, it started producing more of the up-armored Humvees, a specially manufactured vehicle that provides the most protection to its occupants and heretofore was typically provided to military police. As a second-best option, it began using specially manufactured add-on kits to beef up a vehicle’s armor, although this doesn’t protect against explosions beneath the vehicle. And as a last resort, it began adding non-manufactured steel plates to some vehicles.

According to General Steven Whitcomb, who is in charge of ground troops in Iraq, commanders in Iraq want 8,100 up-armored Humvees. The military has produced 6,000 so far, and is churning out more than 400 more per month. Roughly 10,000 Humvees have been fitted with add-on kits. So, of the 19,000 or so Humvees in theater, 15,000 have some form of protection. Of 30,000 total wheeled vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly 22,000 have some sort of armor. Whitcomb relates that the last full brigade that deployed into Iraq from Kuwait had roughly 1,000 wheeled vehicles and almost every one of them had armored protection of some sort. Vehicles without armor are now typically loaded onto military trucks and driven into Iraq that way.

Needless to say, the sooner our troops are totally comfortable with their vehicles, the better. Is it frustrating that only 400-something up-armored Humvees are being produced a month? Yes. Some combination of the contractors’ manufacturing capacity, the congressional-funding process, and the complexity of the military’s contracting system are responsible. We wish the Pentagon leadership had more vigorously applied its creativity to this problem. Of course, it is not impossible to imagine, had, say, the contracting process been short-circuited, a hue-and-cry going up about some company’s “sweetheart deal” to produce Humvees. And perhaps reporters would now be attempting to get soldiers to ask Rumsfeld about that.

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