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Shields of steel: U.S. army leaders contemplate options to improve truck armor.

In fits and starts, the Army so far has outfitted more than 22,000 trucks with protective armor for troops in Iraq. While Army officials cite this accomplishment as proof that depots and suppliers can be mobilized rapidly it times of need, they also view it as a cautionary tale of poor planning.

The fast-and-furious surge in armor production started more than a year ago, and is likely to continue for some time. Facing a daily average of 20 to 30 suicide bombs and roadside explosives targeting U.S. troops in Iraq, commanders are not allowing soldiers to leave their bases unless they are in armored vehicles.

Stung by the experience, senior Army leaders have set up a special panel to lay down guidelines for future truck procurements, shape buying decisions for vehicle upgrades and improve training and logistics support for vehicle operators and maintainers. Most importantly, officials said, the panel, known as the "tactical wheeled vehicles board of directors," must ensure that trucks sent to the front lines offer adequate protection for soldiers.

"We need a more systematic, methodical approach to requirements," said Brig. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, Army program executive for combat support vehicles, and a member of the panel.

The process of setting requirements for truck armor has been erratic at best, critics charge. The Army will receive $41 billion in emergency spending in coming months--$3.2 billion of which will pay for trucks and combat vehicles--and lawmakers would like to see a clear procurement strategy, noted Lt. Gen. David E Melcher, Army deputy chief of staff for operations and programs. He acknowledged there is "frustration in Congress about requirements," but he did not see how the Army could have predicted that insurgents in Iraq would target U.S. truck convoys so aggressively. "I don't think any of us had a perfectly clear crystal ball about what the future was going to look like," Melcher said.

His predecessor, Gen. Benjamin Griffin, conceded that the Army planned poorly. "One area I did not do very well was in the tactical wheeled vehicles strategy," said Griffin, who is now head of the Army Materiel Command.

In the future, he said, the plan is not to "armor everything," but to have protective gear available when it's needed.

Armor kits in use today were designed as an after-market product, and can be cumbersome to work with, officials stressed. Many of the kits now being shipped to Iraq require more than 120 hours of labor to install. The additional thousands of pounds of extra weight also increase the maintenance workload and require more frequent engine replacements and suspension repairs. Each truck that gets armored plating also receives an air-conditioning unit, which adds to the workload.

Of the 22,500 armored trucks in Iraq, 26 percent have so-called level-1 armor kits, which means the vehicles were built with armor in the factory. An example of that is the up-armored Humvee. About half the trucks have level-2 armor, which are not factory-quality, but are Army-approved and come with ballistic glass and air-conditioning units. The rest of the trucks have level-3 armor, which is made with locally fabricated steel plates and offers significantly inferior protection compared to levels 2 and 1 armor, experts noted.

To help improve the quality of level-3 armor, Melcher said, the Army requested a waiver from Congress to purchase foreign steel, and has enlisted Navy and Air Force welders to assist in cutting doors and panels.

During a recent tour of truck-armoring shops at military bases in Iraq, O'Reilly said, he got the message loud and clear. "When you give them armor kits that take 120-130 hours to put on, you are creating a significant burden for someone who's already stressed from the war."

To minimize the installation and maintenance hassles, O'Reilly said, the Army should consider building applique armor that does not require heavy tools. To install one of the earlier Humvee kits, for example, engineers had to bore holes, reinforce pillars, create new hinges and provide a new windshield.

"That can't be done by soldiers. It requires depot engineers or contractors," explained Richard McClelland, director of the Army's Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.

The Army also should demand that truck manufacturers design armor kits for each vehicle model, and ensure that the truck has all the necessary "hooks" for the armor, McClelland said.

Army researchers, meanwhile, are experimenting with an array of lightweight protective materials that potentially could replace steel armor. They also are working on "active" protection systems, which shoot munitions to defeat incoming rockets. Only "passive" defenses, such as armor, however, protect from roadside bombs.

"Lots of things look promising in the lab," said Brig. Gen. Roger Nadeau, head of the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. The Army still is several years away from a major breakthrough, he said. "There is no one known technology leap right now that is going to make life better on the battlefield in three months."

One example of a promising technology is a new "hybrid" Humvee door that is part-steel and part-composite materials. That door is 30 percent lighter than the current armor door used on the Humvee, said Maj. Dan Rusin, an armor expert at the Army Research Laboratory.

Several materials are being evaluated in this project, he told National Defense, including ceramics and metal-composite laminates. "In this war, we jumped with both feet to metal solutions," he said. But, during the next three to five years, other alternatives will emerge, such as active-protection systems and possibly protective air bags that would be mounted on light-truck doors.

Commanders in Iraq increasingly are resorting to other techniques for surviving explosions. Among the most effective is the use of electronic devices that can jam the signals from the detonators used by insurgents, such as cellular phones or garage openers.

Jammers are deployed on airplanes or ground vehicles. Most recently, the Marine Corps introduced a piece of software called the "convoy planning tool," which allows convoy commanders to plot the location of jammers on trucks, based on intelligence on the threats they might face along a particular route.

Although these methods are not foolproof, neither is armor, noted Gen. Michael Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps. He recalled one instance when an up-armored Humvee literally was "ripped apart" by an explosion, even though this vehicle is reported to have an impressive track record against roadside bombs. "If you put enough explosives, you are going to take the vehicle apart," Hagee told reporters.
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Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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