Union Tribune

November 20, 2003

Senators decry quality, supply of protective gear for troops

By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON Alarmed by the rising U.S. casualties in Iraq, key senators yesterday sharply questioned the Army's decision to deploy troops without the best available protection for individuals, vehicles and helicopters.

Senate Armed Services Committee members from both parties were highly critical of the shortage of the top quality armored vests to protect soldiers from gunshots and armor to protect Humvees against roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

The committee's leadership also asked why all the helicopters in Iraq did not have the latest missile-defense system, which might have prevented some of the recent crashes that have killed 39 soldiers. One of the most costly was the Nov. 2 destruction of a Chinook CH-47 operated by a joint Illinois-Iowa Army National Guard unit. The incident claimed 16 lives.

Committee members also challenged the increasing reliance on National Guard and Reserve troops to fight the war on terrorism, and pressed the Army's civilian and uniformed leaders on the need for more active duty soldiers.

Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee and Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, attributed the lack of protective equipment in Iraq to overall shortages and said the armed services were pushing hard to supply soldiers with the best gear.

Brownlee said every soldier and Pentagon contractor in Iraq should have the best vest, the Interceptor Body Armor, by the end of the year. He said it would be 2005 before the Army had enough of the so-called "up-armored Humvees" to replace all the unprotected utility vehicles in Iraq.

The normally supportive committee chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., called the replacement rate for the Humvees unacceptable.

Brownlee agreed and said the Army was looking at ways to add protective armor to existing vehicles rather than waiting until new Humvees could be built. Some units are improvising by placing sandbags on the floor of their vehicles and their armored vests on the inside of the doors.

The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, joined Warner in demanding to know why the low-flying helicopters did not have the latest defensive system, the ALE-47, to protect them from the readily available shoulder-fired missiles.

Schoomaker said all the helicopters in Iraq had the basic missile defense system and that adding the improved system would take time.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has said that six of the 14 National Guard helicopters from Illinois did not have working missile-defense systems when they deployed to Iraq. An Army official told Durbin in a private briefing that all but one of the helicopters now have the basic defense system.

Warner opened the hearing by citing a long list of concerns about the heavy worldwide commitment of the Army, signs of sagging morale, reports of shabby conditions for Guard and Reserve soldiers awaiting medical treatment at Fort Stewart, Ga., and failure to provide the citizen soldiers accurate information on how long they would be on active duty.

"I have to go back and question the decision-making" that sent the troops to Iraq without the protective vests and armored Humvees, Warner said.