Why is the White House underfunding Humvee armor?

Military analysis.
Feb. 18 2004 6:43 PM

Hummer Bummer

Why is the White House underfunding armored Humvees?

No budget for armor?
No budget for armor?

You've read the story countless times: An American convoy in Baghdad or Fallujah or Tikrit is attacked; a GI is killed and others are wounded. Nearly all those convoys include the all-purpose Humvee, which, it is becoming clear, lacks sufficient armor. Many feature no more than canvas roofs and doors. "We're kind of sitting ducks in the vehicles we have," one lieutenant colonel told Newsday.

The Army has acknowledged that it miscalculated the intensity of the guerrilla war in Iraq and subsequently goofed on the number of armored Humvees it needed. "We do not have as many armored Humvees as we would like," the Army's vice chief of staff testified before Congress in late September.

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So how is the White House proposing to deal with this? By underfunding the program to armor Humvees.

There are two ways to produce armored Humvees. One method is to add armor kits to unprotected Humvees. The other way is to build them from scratch at the factory. The latter are known in Pentagon-ese as up-armored Humvees; they offer more protection than the retrofitted variety but take longer to produce. Given that, the Pentagon has decided it needs a mix for Iraq and Afghanistan: a total of 4,200 up-armored Humvees and 8,400 armor kits.

It's unclear how many of either are already in Iraq. When asked at a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing last week how many soldiers "are going out on patrol with light-skinned Humvees," the Army's chief of staff responded, "Sir, I don't know."

The need appears to be significant, however. One congressional staffer told me that Iraq and Afghanistan currently have about 1,600 up-armored Humvees—meaning there's a need for 2,600 more. And according to a recent story on the military's Army New Service wire, a total of about 1,000 armor kits have been shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan. That would leave about 7,000 to go. What's more, the Pentagon's requirements have been subject to constant upward revision, as it apparently realizes that just about all its vehicles in Iraq are subject to attack.

The Pentagon is rushing to fill the shortfall. Besides armor kits, it's ramping up production of up-armored Humvees—to 220 per month—and it's shipping as many as it can from other theaters to Iraq. Still, the military says it doesn't expect to meet the need for either type of protection before late 2005.

The White House doesn't appear to be helping. Its proposed budget for 2005 includes funds for 818 up-armored Humvees, which may or may not be enough, depending on whether the military's latest estimate of its needs holds steady and how many up-armored Humvees are already in the pipeline. (An Army spokesman said he wasn't sure of the number.) As for the thousands for armor kits the military says it needs, the proposed budget includes exactly zero dollars for them.

Much has been made of the $50 billion the White House estimates it will need for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—keeping troops in the field fed, equipment maintained, etc.—but didn't include in the proposed 2005 budget. Not including any money for armor kits may be motivated by the same likely impulse, that is, an effort to low-ball the budget until after the elections. The White House says it doesn't need the $50 billion now, arguing that there's plenty of money in the current budget to cover operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of this year. Anyway, says the White House, it wouldn't be smart to budget for more money now, since nobody knows what the operation in Iraq will look like in a year.

The military's chief of staff didn't buy that argument. "We're all concerned," one general told senators last week. Besides, armor kits are procurement, not operational, items—that is, durable goods the military says it knows it needs. There are plenty of procurement items in the proposed budget, the up-armored Humvees being one. And, of course, the Pentagon already knows at least the minimum number of kits it needs.

More important, while the White House insists that there's plenty of money already budgeted to cover operations through the end of the year—mostly from the $87 billion that Congress approved in the fall—by the Pentagon's own estimate, the current budget already scrimps on retrofitting Humvees. According to an Army document offered to Congress, the military has an existing $323 million shortfall for add-on armor kits.

Most of that missing money would cover Humvees. But the military also wants other vehicles—trucks, tankers, etc.—to get the kits and, according to the Army, those are being underfunded, too. For instance, the current budget has just 27 percent of the money the Army estimates it needs to get medium trucks up to snuff. This situation doesn't seem to improve with the proposed 2005 budget. As Sen. Ted Kennedy noted in a recent Armed Services Committee hearing, "Medium truck add-on armor kits: zero '04 funding, zero '05 funding. Heavy truck add-on armor kits: zero '04 funding, zero '05 funding."

The Army will likely get its money, eventually. It will have to take it from other military programs and "reprogram" the funds for the armor efforts. That requires congressional approval and takes time. Not the best way to do business. One congressional staffer described it as "forcing the Army to eat itself." (Another congressional staffer argued that the Army itself is partly to blame, saying it at least acceded to the underfunding calculating that Congress would find money for such a hot-button issue anyway.)

In the meantime, as the shortfall continues, soldiers have been jury-rigging their own armor. Some simply add sandbags—apparently not a good idea if you're concerned about the vehicle's stability—and some have gotten even more inventive. An Army reservist in Baghdad became a mini-celebrity after he scrounged for materials and devised his own armored Humvee. Dubbed the "Butler Mobile" after the name of its creator, the home-made armored Humvee has standard steel, and the protection is at best adequate. Of course, that's not satisfying many. One National Guard officer told the Army Times that the failure to deliver a sufficient number of armored and up-armored Humvees to Iraq "bordered on negligence." The budget writers might want to ponder that.

Eric Umansky, previously the "Today's Papers" columnist for Slate, is currently a Gordon Grey Fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism.

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