WASHINGTON – Changing gears in the face of an emboldened insurgency in Iraq, the Army is asking for additional tanks or other heavy armored vehicles to improve protection for soldiers.
The request reflects a recognition by military commanders that they must adapt as the insurgency evolves. With at least 115 deaths, this has been the deadliest month for U.S. forces since they invaded 13 months ago; troops are killed and maimed daily by improvised bombs and rocket-propelled grenades that can penetrate the relatively thin skin of the jeep-like Humvee.
When the Army rotated fresh units into Iraq this spring, the newly arrived forces left some of their tanks, Bradley infantry vehicles and armored personnel carriers at home, figuring they needed a higher proportion of Humvees to be light and more agile to deal with insurgents.
But as the anti-occupation violence has grown, Army leaders have concluded that the lighter force should be stiffened with more armor. Initially the response was to add armor plates to the Humvees, giving them a measure of extra protection. Now, even that seems too little.
Gen. Larry Ellis, commander of Army Forces Command, recently told his superiors at Army headquarters that Humvees equipped with extra armor are inadequate in the face of insurgent attacks, a senior defense official said.
The matter has become an issue in the presidential race. Democratic candidate John Kerry’s campaign said Tuesday the Army’s call for more armored vehicles is an example of the Bush administration’s “disregard for the men and women who put their lives on the line every day in Iraq.”
At the Pentagon, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the request has not reached his office, but he understands U.S. commanders want a “modest” increase in armor for troop protection. He did not specify the type of vehicles that would be added, but presumably it would be a mix of tanks, Bradleys and armored personnel carriers.
“It’s not a major change in philosophy” about how to defeat the insurgency, Myers said.
Myers argued that Humvees with extra armor tacked on have been proven lifesavers in Iraq. He also stressed that even the most heavily armored vehicle – the M1A1 Abrams tank – cannot fully protect the soldiers inside when hit with an improvised explosive armed with a 105mm shell.
Gen. Paul Kern, commander of Army Material Command, which supplies the Humvees and the rest of the equipment used in Iraq, said in an Associated Press interview Tuesday that U.S. commanders in Iraq have made “adjustments” that include requesting more heavily armored vehicles.
Kern said he could not discuss the details because it would reveal too much about the military’s operations in Iraq, but he said the change has had a ripple effect on the supply of spare parts.
Speaking at his office at Fort Belvoir, Va., Kern also said he disagrees with those who say the heavy strain on the Army since Sept. 11, 2001, is a temporary “spike,” and not a longer-term pattern. He sees no reason to expect a dropoff anytime soon in the Iraq or Afghanistan missions.
“We believe that the tempo of current operations is one which we need to continue to plan for,” he said. “There were some suggestions in the past that we were at a peak. We think that this war on terrorism is going to be more of a norm for some period of time.”
Kern did not discuss U.S. troop levels in Iraq, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that he was studying options for maintaining the 135,000-strong U.S. force in Iraq beyond this summer. The force was to have been cut to 115,000. Rumsfeld recently scratched that plan, extending the tours of about 20,000 soldiers who otherwise would have left Iraq this month.
Rumsfeld said he also was looking at possibilities for increasing the force beyond 135,000 at some point.
“I should add that we have no requests along that line, either for replacement troops or for troops above the replacement level,” he said.
The defense secretary left open the possibility that the administration would have to ask Congress sooner than it had planned for additional billions of dollars to run the Iraq war. So far the administration has said it did not intend to ask for more money until early 2005.
Rumsfeld said his budget specialists are reviewing figures to see if they can make ends meet on the existing budget.
“Is it conceivable that they’re not going to be able to manage the additional costs?” he asked without answering, referring to the cost of keeping more troops in Iraq than previously planned and the cost of intensified up fighting.