Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
January 20, 2005
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Countering the insurgency
ARMY APPROVAL FOR HEAVIER ARMOR IN IRAQ DELAYED UNTIL LAST MONTH
In late December, an Army division commander was granted 11th-hour approval to deploy more heavily armored troop carriers to Iraq after months of unsuccessfully pressing higher headquarters for permission, according to interviews with service officials and documents obtained by Inside the Pentagon.
The long-awaited nod to “up-armor” the 3rd Infantry Division’s M113 tracked personnel carriers reportedly came quietly in a closed-door Pentagon meeting just days after an Army soldier in Kuwait appealed publicly to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the armor issue. In a Dec. 8 “town hall” meeting, Tennessee National Guard Spc. Thomas Wilson complained that aging trucks and humvees lacked sufficient protection against small-arms attacks and roadside bombs.
What may have been lost in the ensuing media uproar is that Army field commanders are now concerned that even newly armored humvees do not offer enough protection against insurgent arms, and they have pressed to upgrade the older and already lightly armored M113 as a more rugged alternative. Even with the armor, humvees have been destroyed and lives lost in attacks using rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices.
The M113 — first built in 1960 and since upgraded to M113A3 configuration — carries two crew members and 11 infantry. The vehicle is typically armed with a .50-caliber machine gun.
It is unclear if Rumsfeld was aware in December of a simmering tug-of-war within the Army over whether M113 up-armoring would proceed.
Nor is it certain if the defense secretary knew that at least one ground unit commander en route to Iraq was engaged in a similar fray with Army headquarters over his bid to let cavalry troops bring along a full complement of heavy tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers — relative behemoths that are yet more impervious to insurgent attacks.
Newly deploying commanders are drawing lessons from the 1st Cavalry Division’s experience in Iraq this past year. Along with several separate brigades, the cavalry division was told to leave 75 percent or more of its heavy armor back home when it deployed, according to Army officials. These normally heavy units substituted lighter wheeled vehicles for much of their tracked armor, transforming into what the Army terms a “partially motorized” capability.
While quicker and, in some cases, better able to navigate urban terrain than heavy tanks, the humvees and lightly armored troop carriers have proved highly vulnerable to insurgent attacks. When the conflict in the so-called Sunni Triangle became considerably more bloody last April, U.S. Central Command chief Army Gen. John Abizaid appealed to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker to augment the 1st Cavalry Division with more heavy armor, sources said.
Other units have echoed that call.
“Historical data and recent field reports from the 1st Armored Division and 1st Infantry Division prove that add-on armor helps defeat enemy direct and indirect fires,” according to a recent memorandum written by the 3rd Infantry Division commander, Maj. Gen. William Webster.
Webster had initially requested additional armor plating for his M113 troop carriers more than a year ago, according to Army officials.
Contacted this week at his Ft. Stewart, GA, home base, Webster acknowledged the longstanding question over up-armoring but rejected the notion of a controversial debate.
“I never thought there was a final ‘no’” in response to the longstanding armor request, Webster said. “I just thought it was competing” with other funding priorities at Army headquarters, he told ITP.
The division commander depicted the armor question as part of the natural ebb and flow of various military approaches, and made clear he has no quarrel with the process or its outcome.
“Throughout history, there’s a pendulum that swings between adding more armor protection and adding more maneuverability” to combat vehicles, Webster said. Given the trend toward lighter U.S. forces in Iraq since the end of “major combat” in May 2003, “the enemy saw this as a weakness and started to attack it,” he said.
Engineers may be inclined to build lighter and faster vehicles — like the wheeled Stryker now in Iraq — but “sometimes the tide of warfare forces you to do something” to bolster safety and durability, Webster said. “So we started treating every vehicle as a combat vehicle” that requires armor and weapons to fight, he said.
Though many Army commanders and troops believe that time has come, other service officials describe how Webster’s request for additional armor for his M113s had languished at Army headquarters since October 2003, a month after he took command of the “3rd ID,” as it is called. The division had just returned from its first Iraq tour, having played a key role in the Spring 2003 march to Baghdad and initial operations against a fledgling insurgency. Named a vanguard unit in an Army effort to increase the number of brigades and make them more “modular,” the 3rd ID simultaneously began preparing that fall for a January 2005 return to Iraq.
The requirement for up-armored M113s was just one of more than 50 “operational needs statements” Webster submitted at the time, a bureaucratic work-around to avoid a traditional procurement process that could have taken years to deliver, sources said.
“We’re at war — let’s do what we need to do,” Webster said when asked about the approach.
Initially, the 3rd ID flagged other requirements as more critical than the M113 up-armor effort, sources said. The division was requesting hundreds more radios, machine guns and trucks with the first priority being “to shoot, move and communicate” when they returned to Iraq, said one Army insider.
But field commanders became increasingly uneasy last summer as casualties mounted in Iraq from ever more sophisticated insurgent tactics. M113s in Iraq were becoming vulnerable to roadside bombs and mines, Army officials say. Its light armor can stop pistol and rifle fire and shrapnel, “but that’s it,” said one.
The 3rd ID commander began pushing in earnest last August to up-armor his personnel carriers, according to sources and documents. His quest met considerable opposition at Army headquarters and at the service’s Forces Command, where senior deputies argued the M113’s existing light armor allowed it agility in urban terrain, and said it should be sufficient against an insurgency that lacks traditional armor of its own, sources said.
The three-quarter-ton armor that gets plated onto the humvees, for example, limits its carrying ability and puts additional strain on the transmission, according to service officials.
In weighing the M113 request, senior headquarters also cited cost considerations and the view — prevalent on Capitol Hill — that unarmored trucks and humvees should get first priority for armor plating, these sources said.
In mid-October, Webster officially requested that Army headquarters in Washington approve a $20 million armor upgrade for about 450 M113 troop carriers, as well as for M1064 mortar and M577 command post platforms built on the same tracked chassis, according to service documents. The funding would also provide gun shields and armored hatches for about 750 armored vehicles, and stronger floor plating to protect the vehicles against mines.
In view of the estimated $1 billion being spent for Iraq operations each month, proponents of the up-armoring view it as a relative bargain. The
M113 — essentially a box on top of its tracked chassis — is easier to armor-plate than the humvee and can be done at one-fifth the cost, said one source.
“The division is deploying to a combat zone,” declared Webster’s October memo, obtained by ITP. “At this time, the division does not have a viable mix of active and passive add-on armor systems for its combat and combat support vehicles that will help prevent casualties and losses,” he wrote, citing “an increasing sniper, roadside bomb, improvised explosive device, mortar, rocket propelled grenade, anti-tank missile, machine gun and small arms threat in theater.”
The general went on to cite testimony from commanders in the field that “add-on armor has no adverse effects on fighting close-quarters operations.”
Webster sought “delivery of all add-on armor systems [no later than] 15 January 2005,” the letter states. “The division will be ready to conduct [armor] installation in theater at that time.”
“It seemed to stew along until December when the Army chief of staff said let’s put all those requirements for add-on armor on the table,”
one service official said.
By Dec. 15, the 3rd ID had won “informal” support from the Army headquarters “G-3” operations and plans directorate to begin up-armoring the M113 and related vehicles once they arrived in Kuwait or Iraq, another service document shows. The newly armored vehicles would remain in Iraq for other units to use after 3rd ID troops go home.
But Webster still lacked critical backing from the top ground force commander in the Middle East region, Army Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb.
Webster’s official “operational needs statement” for bolstering the troop carriers “has not been endorsed by [Whitcomb] and is not being staffed by [the Army headquarters] G-3” operations directorate, according to a mid-December service memo.
It is unclear why Whitcomb withheld approval, though one Army official says the inaction implied “nothing nefarious” in terms of lagging support for deploying troops. “Sometimes the staff recommends priorities differently than someone else might stack them up,” this official told ITP.
It was not until a late-December meeting at the Pentagon that the 3rd ID was assured Army support for getting up-armored M113s, sources said. The “can do” attitude of a new head of force development at the Army’s “G-8” programs office, Maj. Gen. Stephen Speakes, may have played a role in the shift, according to some officials.
“This crazy nonsense is because there was an unwillingness to admit three things: the Iraqi insurgency is a rebellion against the U.S.
military occupation, it was steadily worsening, and U.S. soldiers were at serious risk in wheeled vehicles,” says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, a former armored cavalry officer who led troops in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. At the same time, says Macgregor, it was thought that recognizing a need for heavier armor could threaten support for the new Stryker light wheeled vehicle.
“There’s often conflict within a service — as well as between civilian leaders and a service or command — over proper strategy and tactics that will support a policy,” says civil-military relations expert Richard Kohn of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In the brief interview this week, Webster insisted he had Army chief Schoomaker’s support for keeping his brigades heavy, despite the service leader’s emphasis on building more mobile and agile ground forces. As the two worked together early last year to make 3rd ID brigades more modular — able to be deployed in smaller and potentially more independent packages — they also decided to “make them more capable,” Webster said. The division commander saw his request to up-armor the M113s in that context, he said.
One retired Army officer said Schoomaker decided just last week to up-armor all the M113s now in Iraq, which number approximately 1,500.
But coming on the eve of the 3rd ID’s deployment to Iraq, the late-breaking approval has not allowed even the first of the division’s M113s to be up-armored, Army officials say. As of this week, 7,500 troops from the division are already in-theater and awaiting equipment. Before deploying, 3rd ID maintenance personnel acquired the specifications for the M113 armor appliqué and drilled holes in the vehicles to speed the process, once the armor becomes available, sources said.
The current outlook is for the first plates to be ready for the M113s in early February, according to these sources.
Meanwhile, in what appears to be a parallel debate within the Army, the commander of an armored cavalry unit unrelated to the 3rd ID also received permission in late December to bring heavy armor to Iraq early this year after months of uncertainty, Army sources report.
“We will go with, I think, our full capability. The whole regiment will go,” 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment Commander Col. H.R. McMaster told ITP in a Jan. 7 interview at his Ft. Carson, CO, home base. The brigade-size unit’s arsenal of heavy armor includes 123 M1A2 tanks and 125 M3A2 Bradley armored fighting vehicles.
The so-called “3rd ACR” will return to Iraq next month after completing a yearlong deployment there last spring.
“What’s important in any tactical situation, in any environment, is to have combined arms capabilities that are relevant to that particular environment,” McMaster said. “What armored protection gives you is the ability to achieve ‘overmatch’ in local areas,” but it must be used with foot soldiers in population areas to achieve the right balance, he said. The Army term “overmatch” refers to an ability to outgun an adversary.
The question of how much armor is appropriate in Iraq “is a matter of constant debate,” the cavalry leader said.
McMaster denied there had been friction specifically over the armor request for his troops’ impending deployment.
“It wasn’t a real debate, I don’t think,” he said. “I concur completely with the decision to bring everything. I think that was a great decision.”
But other Army sources say the 3rd ACR leader had to fight Army headquarters for months to get permission to take all the unit’s tanks and Bradleys to Iraq. McMaster initially had been told he could take just one-third of his heavy armor, according to one retired service official.
Over the past year and a half, Webster’s 3rd ID also was drawn into the Army debate over how many tanks and Bradleys it would be allowed to operate in Iraq, according to some sources. About 12 to 18 months ago, Army officers sparred over whether deployed divisions would need half, one-third or even just a quarter of their heavy armor, said one service officer. Some Army leaders thought that, given the nature of operations in Iraq, perhaps just one company out of three or four in a battalion would need its armor, this source said.
“Nobody wants to stand up and say we were wrong” that heavy armor could be reduced in Iraq, says Macgregor. “We should objectively assess the conditions and respond with the equipment mix and troop mix that is right.”
Kohn, the historian specializing in civil-military relations, says senior military officers are regularly caught between pressures from subordinates to change tactics or equipment and competing pressures from civilian leaders, who set policies and are frequently more mindful of political complexities.
“What we are talking about is often an extraordinarily difficult position, but it is an age-old challenge of the military profession,” he told ITP this week.
At the same time, “there are indications that the Army has shut down frank exchanges internally lest they anger Rumsfeld and his top people,”
Kohn said. “This is unfortunate and potentially disastrous, but is the natural outgrowth of a broken civil-military relationship.”
Inside the Army, there is a different view.
The Army leadership is trying to do what is right for the most soldiers, in accordance with what the commander in [the] theater wants and needs, while being a good manager of taxpayer funds,” one service officer told ITP this week.
Army officials say that even if the 3rd ID’s up-armored M113s remain unavailable when the division moves into Iraq over the next couple months, troops will still be able to carry out their missions because they have other armored vehicles they can use. The soldiers will fall in on thousands of pieces of equipment, including heavy tanks, the 1st Cavalry Division will leave behind, officials say.
But Webster says he is drawing a hard line on his division’s use of less protected vehicles, like unarmored humvees, that until recently have been a mainstay of U.S. operations in Iraq.
My troops “won’t drive out of the FOB [forward operating base in Iraq] in an unarmored vehicle,” Webster told ITP. “We just won’t.”
—Elaine M. Grossman