WASHINGTON — The Pentagon wants to replace the Humvee, which is carrying as much armor as possible on current models but is still getting blown up by increasingly powerful roadside bombs in Iraq.
U.S. troops there have begun using 31 larger, heavily armored, 5-ton "gun trucks" to escort troop convoys, a primary Humvee mission. But the military still needs a light utility vehicle that is less vulnerable to makeshift land mines than is the Humvee, Pentagon officials and lawmakers said Thursday.
"The Humvee is basically a big jeep," Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing Thursday. "We've tried to load them up with enough armor," he said. But "you can only do so much to a Humvee."
Nevertheless, Pentagon officials say the well-known military vehicle -- which was introduced in 1985 and is now driven in toned-down civilian form by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and thousands of other motorists -- is unlikely to be retired in the foreseeable future.
"We've got a lot of Humvees in the near term that I think we're going to use until they die," said Brig. Gen. William D. Catto, commanding general of the Marine Corps Systems Command.
The effort to build a hardier multiuse vehicle stems from the adaptability of insurgents who have changed their tactics in response to each defense crafted by Pentagon planners. Over the last two years, Iraqi insurgents have made roadside bombs their primary weapon. Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Staff, said the explosives are causing 70% of U.S. casualties in Iraq.
When U.S. troops found ways to spot the bombs' wires, insurgents turned to small-arms fire and wireless devices triggered by cellphones. When soldiers increased the use of "jammers" to block the remote-control signals, insurgents sought new ways to use hard-wired bombs.
As the Americans accelerated countermeasures, Pentagon officials said, the insurgents increased the size of the bombs. Guerrilla attacks have twice blown up Bradley fighting vehicles, which are more heavily armored than Humvees. In an incident April 28, four U.S. soldiers in a 19-ton Stryker armored combat vehicle were killed by a roadside bomb in northwestern Iraq.
To protect themselves, troops in Iraq at first welded improvised armor onto the thin-skinned Humvees. The Army and Marines then sent in kits of armor to ring the vehicles' sides. But this additional armor was too heavy to use on the Humvees' floors and roofs.
The Pentagon next began shipping factory-made armored Humvees, in which a box of reinforced steel surrounds the passenger cabin and a beefier engine and cooling system compensate for the added weight.
Now, more than a year and a half after insurgents' use of roadside bombs became widespread, nearly all Humvees that travel beyond their bases in Iraq are armored, Defense Department officials say.
In addition, an even more heavily armored version of the Humvee is planned for Iraq, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson said.
Some lawmakers voiced frustration with how long it has taken to armor the vehicles.
"We started the occupation of Iraq without a post-combat plan and without the right equipment for the fight. Furthermore, we were too slow to react when it became clear that post-combat operations would be just as dangerous as the combat phase," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.).
"We should have provided sufficient force-protection equipment to our troops before they started coming under regular attack in Iraq, and we should have made the decision to armor all of our vehicles early on," he said.
Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, defended the Pentagon's response to the insurgents' tactics. "We had a plan. We executed that plan.... Perhaps it was not on the national level thoroughly thought through," Mattis said.
"Sir," he added, "life is one darned thing after another. I think that we have accomplished a lot."
Among the competitors for a contract to build the Humvee successor in the fiscal year beginning in September is AM General, which makes the current model; Stewart & Stevenson Services Inc.; and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Oshkosh Truck Corp. and Stewart & Stevenson are among the contractors bidding to produce a second vehicle, a medium-weight truck larger than a Humvee, to be made during the same period.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered the Army to buy as many as 10,000 new jammers the Navy has developed to thwart roadside bombs, Bloomberg news service reported Thursday. He invoked a new law Monday allowing him to bypass the Pentagon acquisition process.