Rumsfeld under fire for 'hillbilly armour' used to defend army

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The Independent US

The row over America's failure to send enough military vehicles to Iraq took a new twist yesterday when the company that manufactures them said it could deliver 1,200 more a year, but has had no request from the Pentagon.

The row over America's failure to send enough military vehicles to Iraq took a new twist yesterday when the company that manufactures them said it could deliver 1,200 more a year, but has had no request from the Pentagon.

Two days earlier, Donald Rumsfeld, was bluntly confronted by an Iraq-bound National Guardsman at what was meant to be a pep rally with the Defence Secretary at a US staging base in Kuwait. Instead, Mr Rumsfeld was hit by a barrage of pointed questions, first about the extended tours of duty driving down the morale of service personnel in Iraq, then over the lack of properly armoured Humvees to protect them from the roadside bombs that are the insurgents' weapon of choice.

"We don't have proper vehicles," said Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee Nation Guard, who claimed he and his men were forced to rummage in landfills for metal scrap and ballistic glass to use as makeshift shielding, known by soldiers in Iraq as "hillbilly armour".

Mr Rumsfeld, insisting everything possible was being done, and said: "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want." That forthright response only made matters worse. Senior Demo-crats, led by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, said the episode only proved the Pentagon's incompetence, and the refusal of Mr Rumsfeld and his colleagues to face reality.

Actually, Specialist Wilson's question was indirectly planted by an enterprising journalist. But that has not stopped him become a minor folk hero back home in Tennessee and among his comrades in Kuwait, who applauded him long and loud when he challenged the Defence Secretary in a fashion that rarely happens in Washington.

Nor will the controversy disappear quickly. Hours after President George Bush reiterated that soldiers in Iraq would get everything they needed, Congress released a report showing that only 6,000 of the near-20,000 Humvees in service in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait were fully protected.

The House Armed Services Committee said most of the transport trucks that carried fuel, food and ammunition to dangerous parts of Iraq were unarmoured. That shortcoming has been seized on the guerrillas who have killed more than 1,000 US soldiers and marines since Mr Bush prematurely declared an end to the conflict in May, 2003. Thousands more have been maimed and wounded.

A spokesman for Armor Holdings, which makes the fully protected Humvees, said: "We have always said, 'Tell us how much you want and we'll build them'." The company had even proposed setting up new assembly lines to produce more, he added. Armor Holdings makes 450 such vehicles a month, but the spokesman said they could easily turn out 550. The cost of an extra 100 Humvees a month, it adds, would be $150m (£78m) a year. The Pentagon's budget for fiscal 2005 is $400bn, with $150bn of extra spending for Iraq.

But the wider complaint is that the Pentagon has still not fully adjusted to the changed nature of the war in Iraq. Mr Rumsfeld insisted the military was "breaking its neck" to get enough fully armoured vehicles, and that "it's a matter of physics, not money".

But critics say the problem runs deeper, the latest manifestation of a mindset that began before the war when the Pentagon's civilian leadership refused to heed military commanders who said "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed. The present US force is 138,000, soon to be 150,000.

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