The Army is working to fill a shortfall in Iraq of thousands of advanced Humvee armor kits designed to reduce U.S. troop deaths from roadside bombs -- including a rising threat from particularly lethal weapons linked to Iran and known as "explosively formed penetrators" (EFP) -- that are now inflicting 70 percent of the American casualties in the country, according to U.S. military and civilian officials.
The additional protection is needed for thousands of U.S. reinforcement troops flowing into Baghdad, where these devastating weapons -- used primarily by Shiite fighters -- are particularly prevalent, the officials said.
U.S. Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan lack more than 4,000 of the latest Humvee armor kit, known as FRAG Kit 5, according to U.S. officials. The Army has ramped up production of the armor, giving priority to troops in Baghdad, but the upgrade is not scheduled to be completed until this summer, Army officials said. That is well into the timeline for major operations launched last week to quell violence by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, which the U.S. military now views as the top security threat in Iraq.
"Those who need FRAG Kit 5 are receiving FRAG Kit 5 based upon theater requirements and priorities," said Army Brig. Gen. Charles Anderson, director of force development for the Army deputy chief of staff. The Army is supplying the life-saving kits "as quickly as we can," he said in an interview and in written responses. "Kits are being flown to theater."
The Army declined to disclose details on the number of kits installed and where the shortages exist.
The Army began the Iraq war with an estimated $56 billion equipment shortage and has struggled to keep up with demands for new armor to protect against increasingly deadly bombs. In the case of FRAG Kit 5, the Army quickly produced a bolt-on version in limited quantities, while the permanent version has taken longer than expected to develop, test, produce and install. Meanwhile, the unexpected deployment of five additional Army brigades into Baghdad has created an urgent need for 2,000 Humvees with the new armor.
Like ‘a spear’
Shiite forces in recent months have stepped up their targeting of U.S. soldiers in Baghdad with sophisticated EFPs, described by one official as like "a spear that rips right through the vehicle."
The penetrator, a heavy, metal projectile, is propelled by an explosive and strikes with enough speed and power to shatter the relatively brittle, "high hard" steel of up-armored Humvees, creating what experts call "behind armor debris (BAD)" -- essentially, turning pieces of the vehicle into shrapnel. The new armor kit is designed with more flexible materials that slow down the projectile and contain the debris, limiting the damage to that caused directly by the EFP.
However, there is no guarantee that even the latest armor -- which reinforces the doors -- can prevent deaths from EFPs, defense officials have emphasized, and U.S. troops in Humvees outfitted with the new kit have been killed by EFPs.
The Pentagon does not release overall data on EFP strikes or their effectiveness, to prevent such information from being exploited by attackers. But reports from the military and family members on specific attacks indicate that since November, at least 11 U.S. soldiers and an interpreter have died in EFP strikes, all but one of them in Baghdad.
"In November, there was all of a sudden a ridiculous surge in EFP activity. People were getting killed left and right," said one military officer who served recently in Iraq. While other roadside bombs often cause no casualties, EFPs "make everyone nervous," he said. "It's a catastrophic weapon."
Senior U.S military officials in Baghdad held a briefing yesterday in which they presented evidence of apparent Iranian involvement in supplying EFP technology and components to fighters in Iraq.
The total number of roadside bombs laid in Iraq doubled in the past year, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress last week.
"You add that, then, to the new explosively formed projectiles, which are a much more deadly form that are coming into Iraq from Iran, and the combination has maintained the level of casualties," Pace said, despite advances in U.S. protective gear, tactics and targeting of bomb networks. Pace recently said two Iranians had been detained in raids on the networks.
EFP attacks are a small percentage of the roughly 1,200 attacks against U.S. forces each month involving roadside bombs, according to the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization. About half the roadside bombs in Iraq are found and disabled, and only 20 percent cause U.S. casualties. But EFPs "are far more lethal," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said recently, adding, "They can take out an Abrams tank."
U.S. commanders have voiced frustration recently at the ability of enemy fighters in Iraq to change tactics to defeat U.S. protective gear. "Equipment that was, we thought, pretty effective in protecting our troops just a matter of months ago is now being in fact challenged by some of the techniques and devices over there," Adm. William J. Fallon, the new U.S. commander for the Middle East, said last month.
Fewer than half the Army's roughly 14,500 up-armored Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan have been outfitted with the bolt-on version of FRAG Kit 5. Thousands of the permanent kits have been flown to Iraq and are being installed at 11 locations around the country, officials said. Over the next six months, the Army plans to produce 5,000 more Humvees with the permanent kits already installed, Anderson said.
Overall, Army equipment backlogs had grown so severe, Anderson said, such a troop increase would not have been possible last year. He said the Army is in a far better position now, thanks to an infusion of $17 billion last year to replace and repair equipment.
Still, Pace said last week that U.S. troops will face a gap of up-armored Humvees and other armored vehicles that will not be closed until July, and according to the Pentagon, commanders will be required to share 500 up-armored vehicles. But the Army said it is not short of up-armored Humvees in Iraq.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.