Armor Innovation Needs to Stay on Fast Track
by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)
As violence against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan continues at a steady pace, many wonder what can be done to neutralize the roadside bombs that have become the single most lethal weapon there.
In battlefields such as Iraq, with no definable frontline and no distinctions between forward and rear areas, there is no question that protecting our vehicles has become more important than ever.
Trucks such as the Humvee and other larger transports have been targets of improvised explosive devices since the early stages of the war, and continue to take hits on a daily basis.
To its credit, the Army did a remarkable job rushing deliveries of armor kits for Humvees and other trucks. It also ramped up production of new armored Humvees to more than 500 a month. The Army Materiel Command reports it has met 100 percent of the armor requests from the theater. It has delivered 13,872 kits for Humvees, 3,568 for the FMTV (family of medium tactical vehicles), 2,309 for the HEMTT (heavy expanded mobility tactical trucks) and 6,610 for various other heavy cargo vehicles and tractor line-haul trucks. Only 65 kits remain to be shipped by the end of the month.
Clearly, the armoring program has helped save many lives, as attested by soldiers in hundreds of media reports.
The war in Iraq also has highlighted the value of mine-protected vehicles. Unlike most military trucks, which were not designed originally to be armored, these MPVs typically feature V-shaped hulls that help deflect blasts, and custom axles and drive trains that were conceived specifically to help the vehicle survive mine explosions.
Interestingly, the MPVs saw their genesis at a time of another war that had no front lines: the so-called “Bush Wars” in southern Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, logistics troops also had to be trained and equipped to operate in a combat environment that saw frequent use of mines and ambushes. One of the legacies from that war was the spread of the technology to engineer and build MPVs, most notably by the governments of South Africa and Namibia. The South African Defense Forces further developed the concept and produced vehicles that not only could protect crews, but also could be rapidly repaired after being hit.
Other major players in this market are companies in Australia and Canada. In the United States, companies such as Force Protection Inc. produce mine-protected vehicles for the Army and Marine Corps. And BAE Systems Land & Armaments acquired a South African manufacturer that produces vehicles currently in use by U.S. forces in Iraq. Other U.S. firms have assisted the Army in the acquisition or leasing of vehicles from South Africa.
According to some estimates, the Army and Marines have purchased or leased anywhere from 300 to 400 MPVs since the war started.
But even senior U.S. military leaders have acknowledged that armor alone is not enough.
“Our government has spent large sums of money to get the industrial base capable of producing and it has. And it has been delivered to the troops,’’ Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press. But he noted: “The fact of the matter is that you can protect people to a certain extent, but you always come up with a bigger bomb ... We just need to continually hone our skills ... so that we don’t set a pattern that the enemy can exploit.’’
U.S. forces, Pace said in the interview, must “constantly respond to the way that [the insurgents] operate ... so that our forces not only have physical protection but also the protection of good tactics, techniques and procedures to minimize the risk to them.’’
In recognition of the complexity of the IED challenge, the Defense Department has launched a major effort — the Joint Improvised Explosive Devices Task Force — to bring not just technical solutions to the IED problem, but also changes to military training, tactics and techniques.
But the bottom line is that armor will continue to be a necessity on the battlefield. In Iraq today, any vehicle that drives outside the perimeter of a U.S. base must be armored. Future conflicts are likely to continue that pattern, which means that armored vehicles will continue to be in high demand. Further, we need to infuse innovation into this technology, to stay ahead of the enemy. This also requires a funding commitment, which we’ve seen in the form of war-emergency supplemental appropriations, but eventually will have to transition to the regular Army budget.
Even if the administration begins what could be a limited drawdown of forces in Iraq, efforts to develop new armor capabilities — and to ensure adequate funding and resources for armored vehicles and other force-protection equipment — must continue. This effort will be difficult given the potential for shrinkage of supplemental funding following force drawdown and the ensuing competition for resources as the services rush to complete the “reset” and the “recapitalization” of their equipment before resources dry up. But it is a problem that must be addressed.
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