Up In Arms Over Armor

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is wrong – again. We have the Army we want. We just want the Army we have to get what it needs.

Twenty-one months after the Iraq invasion and six weeks before national elections that we know won’t be perfect and we hope will be good enough, a clearly flummoxed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked a blunt question about armor by an intrepid Tennessee National Guardsman. Some vehicles, particularly older equipment owned by National Guard units, have improvised armor protection involving scrap metal that still leaves soldiers highly vulnerable to the effects of improvised explosive devices or IEDs. The Pentagon, which failed to anticipate the intensity and duration of the insurgency in Iraq, continues to have difficulty supplying improved armor protection for vehicles that were not designed for urban combat.

The problem is, according to the secretary, “essentially a matter of physics. It isn’t a matter of money. It isn’t a matter on the part of the Army of desire. It’s a matter of production and capability of doing it.” Unfortunately, his statement was not correct. He misled the troops.

The secretary majored in politics at Princeton, not physics. Armor Holdings of Jacksonville, Florida, the defense contractor that manufactures armor plates for new, heavier “up-armored” Humvees and retrofits existing lighter versions, took on the secretary publicly after his Kuwait remarks were widely reported. While production was increased last year when the problem first surfaced, Armor Holdings made clear that they had additional capacity the Army had not yet tapped. Eureka! Wednesday, the secretary (mis)speaks. Thursday, Specialist Thomas Wilson’s poll numbers are off the charts. Friday, the Army requests that armor production for 450 vehicles be increased to 550 as soon as possible.

And, if the Army could have asked for more armor kits earlier, why didn’t it? Well, resources. It’s hard to believe that an organization that receives $416 billion has a problem with resources, but given the strange way in which we fund our wars – through a series of supplemental funding requests that are largely outside the normal budgeting process – cash flow is always a potential issue. It becomes a problem when actual operations diverge substantially from the planning assumptions, as has happened in Iraq. It becomes a crisis when the administration delays its request for more resources because it wants to pretend during an election year that it has the budget deficit under control.

Lost in this year’s great political debate about the October 2003 $87 billion supplemental for Iraq (and a small amount for Afghanistan) was the bipartisan sticker shock it created in Congress. It wasn’t that the troops didn’t need the money for military operations and reconstruction – an estimated $5.5 billion per month to support a force of about 140,000 soldiers in Iraq. But the bill created some physics of its own, attaching a potentially damaging political cost to flawed pre-war assumptions and misleading pre-war rhetoric= Suddenly, the administration that spoke with such certainty about weapons of mass destruction and liberation was shrugging its shoulders. No military plan survives its first contact with the enemy. It’s impossible to predict how much the Iraq occupation will cost, since we can’t possibly know many troops will be required for how long, though that didn’t prevent them from discrediting Larry Lindsey and General Eric Shinseki for suggesting that Iraq would require more troops and more money than the administration wanted to admit. We’ll be in Iraq as long as it takes and not a day more. And, conveniently, for much of 2004, it insisted that no additional funding was required until after the election.

But as Iraq went from bad to worse, the administration couldn’t juggle budget accounts and was forced to add a $25 billion reserve fund into the 2005 defense appropriations bill. However, given this hand-to-mouth budget environment, the military was forced to make due with available resources. As a result, a lot was done, but not enough. Now, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, the Pentagon is preparing to request up to $100 billion in supplemental funding for Iraq, about 20 percent of it to replenish and upgrade military equipment – including more money for more armor.

None of this is surprising, since Rumsfeld has never let facts interfere with what he believes about Iraq. Our troops have been in Iraq for 21 months now. They are still looking for the weapons of mass destruction that Rumsfeld knew were there. They are still battling Saddam’s dead-enders. Rumsfeld still claims that only a few bad apples are responsible for the horrible abuse committed at Abu Ghraib, even though every investigation conducted this year cited confused policies that he approved, which undercut the Geneva Conventions and our international standing. Unfortunately, Secretary Rumsfeld was right about three things. Iraq is a terrorist safe haven – now. Iraq is a terrorist training ground – now. Global terror networks are producing new recruits faster than we can confront them – now.

And the consequence for these self-fulfilling prophecies that have made us less safe as a country? While two-thirds of the cabinet was given the Trump treatment in the Boardroom, Mr. Rumsfeld is being held on as Secretary of Defense – yet another reason why the Defense Department’s stop-loss policy is a bad idea.

P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director, national defense & homeland security at the Center for American Progress. He is a retired Air Force colonel and served as a special assistant for national security affairs to President Clinton.