The Army pulled out all the stops to add armor to Humvees in Iraq, but still couldn't keep up with the demand.
When the Iraqi insurgency first flared in 2003, the Army quickly assembled a handful of military and civilian workers at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for a special project. The eight-member team-which included a physicist, an Army major with an engineering background, a welder and a machinist-were given 30 days to find a cheap and easy way to protect thousands of the service's Humvees from roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.
During the next month, the team met every morning to brainstorm. In the afternoon, they'd test crude models of their ideas from the day before, built overnight by the research lab's machinists and welders. Some options were quickly ruled out. Adding lightweight composite armor to the vehicles wouldn't work because it would take far too long to manufacture. Plexiglass windows and aluminum doors were too easy to destroy. The unique armor used for the Army's Stryker vehicle-a reinforced steel cage attached to the frame-wouldn't work because it made the Humvees nearly two feet wider and harder to turn.
The trial-and-error sessions marked the first stage in the Army's sometimes quixotic and much-criticized quest to armor all vehicles in Iraq. The service's struggle to field Humvee armor kits revealed weaknesses in its procurement and logistics systems-among them an inability to shift funds quickly to meet rising demand. But in taking on the challenge, managers and employees found a way around many of the problems, turning 13 million pounds of steel and 40,000 windows into nearly 13,000 Humvee armor kits.
Within a month of getting its marching orders, the Aberdeen Proving Ground team had settled on a common-sense approach that involved producing one-and-a-half-ton sets of armored plates and reinforced doors with bulletproof windows that could be bolted onto Humvees in four to six hours. "There was no one breakthrough technology. It was the mind-set that you could develop an armor kit that you could make hundreds of and logistically get it quickly from the United States to the theater to install," says Michael Keele, a mechanical engineer at Aberdeen who worked on the team that designed the kits.
The concept proved so popular that the Army has since developed add-on armor for all its unprotected vehicles in Iraq and has moved to purchase additional armored vehicles. But the process has taken longer than expected, despite the $1.5 billion the Army has spent on add-on armor and the $1.8 billion it has used to buy new vehicles since 2003. The service only finished fielding the add-on Humvee kits this month, and expects to complete its purchase of 10,000 new armored Humvees by June. Armor kits for other larger trucks, which primarily add steel to the cab areas where drivers sit and protect cables and other exposed parts, might not be completed until early 2006.
The Army has been maligned for not getting armored vehicles to Iraq faster. The Government Accountability Office concluded in an April report (GAO-05-275) that the service had not made full use of its production capabilities or properly allocated funds to meet the demand for armored vehicles. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., repeatedly has chastised the service in public hearings and has said the Army supply system "suffers a case of the slows." Much is at stake: The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this spring that about 40 percent of the 1,037 troops killed in Iraq since major combat operations ended died as a result of attacks on military vehicles.
Soldiers have protested the shortages too. An Army Reserve platoon serving in Iraq refused orders last year to deliver fuel to a dangerous area, claiming it was a "suicide mission" because their vehicles lacked armor. In December, a National Guardsman raised the issue with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a town hall meeting, prompting Rumsfeld to infamously reply, "You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want," and add, "You can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and it can [still] be blown up."
Lt. Col. Jeff Voigt, the Army's system coordinator for add-on armor, says the service did the best it could, given the ever-increasing demand for better-protected Humvees. "I do not think we could have done it any better," he says. "The Humvee kits were a tremendous success story."
The story of armored Humvees begins in the mid-1980s, when the Army began fielding them to replace jeeps, which had been a staple of the service since World War II. The new vehicles were designed to be jacks-of-all-trades-rugged enough to serve as launchpads for anti-tank missiles and fast enough to be used as ambulances. But they were supposed to be used behind the front lines, not in the face of regular enemy attacks. Up until the past year, most of the 111,000 Humvees in the Army's fleet did not have permanent doors or roofs, only canvas canopies with plastic windows.
The Army had only 235 armored Humvees in Iraq during the first months of the conflict. War planners had not foreseen that U.S. forces would remain there for the long term. But when the Iraq mission changed from fighting to occupation in the summer of 2003, the Army decided it needed about 1,400 armored Humvees in the country and ordered forces around the world to send such vehicles to Iraq.
It soon became clear that these would not be enough. So the Army considered ordering new up-armored Humvees. Options to do so proved to be limited because the Army only had one manufacturer that could produce such vehicles-O'Gara-Hess and Eisenhardt, a division of Armor Holdings Inc. The company said it would take months to ramp up to a peak production rate of almost 500 vehicles per month. That's when Army officials decided to launch the project at Aberdeen Proving Ground to figure out how to design and build add-on armor kits for existing Humvees.
In September 2003, Maj. Dan Rusin, an Army mechanical engineer and computer scientist who served on the project, drove four prototype doors from the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md., about 75 miles south to Army Materiel Command headquarters at Ft. Belvoir, Va. In a parking lot there, he showed then-AMC chief Gen. Paul Kern and his staff how armor could be attached to Humvee doors. Kern, who recalls soldiers he led in Vietnam attaching chain-link fencing to their vehicles to deflect Viet Cong attacks, ordered a colonel to take one of the doors to Iraq and ask field commanders there to evaluate the armor kits.
In Iraq, troops already had taken to scrounging scrap heaps for metal to make their own makeshift protection, known as "hillbilly armor." They also placed sandbags against Humvee doors and even hung flack vests over plastic windows. Army commanders took one look at the prototype doors and asked how soon full armor kits could be sent overseas.
Before the kits could be built, however, Army engineers had to determine how two tons of steel and glass could be added to Humvees without leaving them stuck in the sand. During Columbus Day weekend in October 2003, a handful of Army designers and engineers met at Aberdeen to settle on the final design. They debated ways to reinforce support pillars attached to the Humvees so armor could be hung, drew diagrams showing where holes should be drilled, and, as an added twist, figured out how all the work could be done with tools soldiers already had in Iraq. By Monday, they had settled on a design and were ready to build.
Normally, the Army does not begin building hardware without a set of detailed requirements from those in the service who will use it. Rusin, however, knew the kits were desperately needed in the field and sought to create an "irreversible momentum" for the project by building the first 40 kits before specific requirements had been set. He pushed the Army Research Laboratory and the service's Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Mich., to build those first kits using excess materials they already had on hand. By Halloween, Rusin had succeeded. He flew to Iraq to make sure the first 40 kits were installed correctly.
Working around the system had paid off. Congress and the Army approved the order of 1,000 kits in December after they saw the first models fielded in Iraq. The next challenge would be figuring out how to manufacture them in large numbers. "We had plenty of resources here for building 100 kits, but not thousands," says Lt. Col. Craig Langhauser, deputy director of the Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.
The Army could have turned to a contractor to manufacture the kits, but officials figured that would take too long and leave the service with huge bills if requirements changed as the insurgency ebbed and flowed. So the Army turned to its aging network of in-house manufacturing facilities, located within its depots and arsenals. "You don't need a contract with us," says Fred Smith, deputy director of the Army's Ground Systems Industrial Enterprise. "You can change your mind a hundred times. We won't like it, but will do it for you."
The manufacturing facilities quickly stepped in. Letterkenny Army Depot in south central Pennsylvania, for example, rearranged its production lines to shift from repairing missiles to building armor kits. "I'm not knocking private industry, they've supported us tremendously," says the depot's commander, Col. William Guinn. "But often they can't stop supplying one customer just to do work for us."
Even with the depots and arsenals kicking in, it was difficult to meet the Army's ever-increasing demand for armor kits. In early December 2003, the service said it wanted 1,000 kits. But by the end of the month, it had ordered another 3,670 kits. Smith says the Army's facilities were on target to meet that requirement in March 2004 by building about 100 kits per week at five depots and two arsenals. In February, the program was ahead of schedule, with some kits already on their way overseas.
But the situation changed again in early March, when the insurgency escalated. The Army asked for another 2,090 armor kits. To make them, the depots and arsenals needed to purchase armor to bend, weld and cut. The Army's main supplier, Mittal Steel USA of Conshohocken, Pa., told the service it would take at least six months to deliver the thick steel plates needed to fulfill the new order. Due to "Buy American" provisions in federal law, the Army had no other options.
In early March, Hunter caught wind of the problem and sent a top staffer to visit Mittal Steel. Its owners agreed to delay their commercial work to meet the military's demand. Tom Dean, the company's armor plate manager, says the firm could have produced more armor much more quickly if it had known upfront how much would be required. "The post-mortem on this won't be pretty," he says. Even when the Army increased its requirements, Dean says, the service often took six to eight weeks to come up with the money for the new orders.
Once steel started coming in, the Army was able to open a sixth manufacturing plant at a naval facility in Crane, Ind., and increase production to 1,000 armor kits a week. By April 2004, all 6,760 kits the Army had requested had been manufactured. But then the orders started piling up again: 1,516 in May; 492 in June; 1,000 in August; 2,515 in October; and 450 in January. All told, the Army now had ordered nearly 13,000 kits-most of them on a piecemeal basis as new threats emerged in Iraq. This led to lags in production.
If the Army had known how much it would ultimately need upfront, Smith says, he could have ordered the materials at once, set up production lines and had all the kits needed built within six months after the program kicked off in late 2003. Instead, the project took nine months longer, finally finishing in April 2005. Rising steel costs over that time caused the price of the kits to increase from $6,200 to $6,800 for each two-door Humvee and $9,500 to $10,500 for four-door models.
Col. Robert Groller, the Army's project manager for tactical vehicles, concedes the service has a "lousy process" for matching its requirements with funding to produce armor kits. Every time new requirements were added for the kits-such as air conditioning units for the now-covered vehicles or better windshields-orders could not be placed until money either was received from Congress or reprogrammed in the Army budget. "The question of doing it was never the problem; it was just a question of how fast we could get the money," he says.
At the Pentagon, Voigt says it usually takes three to six months to win approval from the Office of Management and Budget and Congress to shift or add funds. In the case of the armor kits, the Army cut that down to 30 to 60 days. Sometimes, he says, the service even rolled the dice by paying for materials before money could be reprogrammed.
Gary Motsek, director of support operations for Army Materiel Command, gets frustrated when the Army effort to field the armor kits is criticized. "Name one other acquisition program that has gotten out this fast," he says. "If anyone thinks it's slow, I don't know what they are smoking."