WASHINGTON — U.S. commanders in Iraq have begun transporting more supplies to the country by aircraft in an effort to evade the roadside bomb attacks that have been killing or wounding about 100 American troops each month, the Air Force's top officer said Tuesday.
Scrambling for other ways to avoid the attacks, the military is also looking into the possibility of bottling and purifying water in Iraq rather than transporting it by truck from Kuwait. Water accounts for 30% of U.S. cargo ferried over Iraq's perilous roadways, officials said.
U.S. forces have been sending about 3,000 vehicles in about 215 convoys in Iraq each day. The vulnerability of trucks, Humvees and other U.S. equipment to roadside bombs has become a major issue amid complaints by troops that the military has been slow to reinforce the vehicles with protective armor.
In the last month, the Air Force has offered extra air freight capacity to take 180 American troops off the road each day, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper said. Air freighters are now carrying 450 tons of cargo previously carried in convoys, a 30% increase, with a goal of taking on as much as 1,600 tons, Air Force officials said.
Jumper said the changes followed a recent visit he made to Iraq, where he concluded that Air Force and ground commanders had failed to cooperate effectively on ways to safeguard freight.
"I was not happy with the communication I saw between the air components and the land components about convoy operations," Jumper said. "We have 64 airplanes and they're staying busy. But the question is: Could they be busier? And is 64 enough?"
Roadside bombs pose the most lethal threat to American troops in Iraq. About 20 such explosives have erupted in the last month along the main highway from Baghdad's international airport to the capital.
The dangers prompted 23 Army reservists to refuse on Oct. 13 to transport supplies from the Tallil air base near Nasiriya to Taji, north of Baghdad, saying their vehicles lacked armor and were in poor condition. Army officials opted not to court-martial them for refusing orders, imposing minor penalties instead.
Many attacks could be avoided by using aircraft to transport cargo that otherwise would have to be moved along Iraq's most dangerous roads, Jumper said.
Some land routes have already been changed, he said. U.S. military planners also try to keep insurgents guessing by alternating routes and travel times. The Air Force has also begun airlifting newly armored Humvees from Kuwait to Baghdad to avoid the dangerous three- to four-day drive.
Pentagon officials said the number of landing sites for cargo planes probably would expand.
More freight could be diverted with increased use of aging C-130 cargo planes, which are capable of landing on many of the roads that trucks use to make deliveries to troops, Jumper said.
He acknowledged that increased air traffic had its own hazards. "There'll be increased [surface-to-air missile] threats to C-130s, but we've also got 100 casualties a month in convoys."