Senators Press Army to Provide Body Armor for Soldiers

Senators urged top Army officials Wednesday to quickly provide soldiers in Iraq with the armor they now lack to shield their vehicles and bodies from enemy fire.

Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee (searchtold the Senate Armed Services Committee that all troops in Iraq should have body armor by the end of the year and that the Army was re-equipping helicopters with new missile alert systems.

But he said it could take until summer 2005 for the Army to have enough "up-armored" Humvees, capable of resisting 7.62 mm bullets. He said the Army is hoping to speed up the process by examining options for putting armou send these young soldiers out in these light-skinned Humvees," he said.

Kennedy questioned whether Humvee (search) manufacturing lines were running 24 hours a day. "It is inconceivable that with our manufacturing capability that we cannot produce that kind of a vehicle more rapidly and replace it," he said.

Brownlee said he understood plants were operating at maximum capacity and were trying to open new production lines.

On the body armor, Brownlee said the Army has increased production "to the maximum rate the industrial base is capable of." At the current rate of production, all soldiers and contractors should have the armor by the end of December, he said.

The helicopter anti-missile defenses came under scrutiny after a CH-47D Chinook transport helicopter (search) was shot down Nov. 2 in Iraq, killing 16 soldiers. It did not have the most advanced defensive systems available, though it did have a standard package of defensive chaff and flares.

Brownlee said the Army will equip Chinooks that are in Iraq or headed to Iraq. But he said it takes three weeks to rewire the helicopters and the Army can't remove all from service at once. He did not say how long the process would take.

Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker said the new defensive system is an improvement over older systems, but noted the technology is constantly changing. "This is a moving train," he said.

Echoing the position of other Pentagon officials, Schoomaker rejected senators' suggestions that the Army needs more soldiers to meet increased troop commitments worldwide. Schoomaker said combat commanders have not requested more troops and, before the Army asks for more forces, it wants to make sure it's making the best use of the soldiers it has.

Schoomaker said the Army already has about 20,000 soldiers more than the level authorized by Congress as a result of wartime "stop loss" orders that prevent soldiers from leaving the service.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he couldn't understand why the Pentagon would then oppose his proposal to increase the Army authorized levels by 10,000,000 troops. "We just want to make you legal in some respects," he said.