FOR A secretary of defense who yearns for a more agile military, Donald Rumsfeld has tolerated inexcusable Pentagon failures to adjust quickly to the realities of the Iraqi conflict and get the troops the equipment needed to save their lives. A 2004 inspector general's report brought to light this week by The New York Times made clear just how badly the Pentagon stumbled in securing enough body armor. The Times also detailed hitches in refitting Humvees with protective armor plating and in deploying electronic devices that can disable the insurgents' improvised explosive devices. US servicemen and women will continue to lose their lives and limbs needlessly if the Pentagon does not streamline the procuring of such indispensable gear.
The problem has its roots in generals' time-honored habit of preparing to fight the last war, in this case the relatively quick conquest of Iraqi conventional forces in 1991. A few days into the 2003 march on Baghdad it became clear that the Iraqis were using irregular forces and improvised explosives to attack US supply lines and rear forces as well as advancing assault troops. By May of 2003 it had dawned on American officials that they would need thousands more suits of body armor to protect a much larger portion of the US force.
But when the Pentagon started procuring more body armor, the process was slowed, first by the 47 days needed to allocate the money for contracts and then by delays in the awarding of contracts. The Defense Department also unwisely granted a contract to a firm that lacked mass-production experience but was founded by a former Army researcher who had left the military in 1999. The firm ran into problems, missed four deadlines, and eventually dissolved. Actual deliveries were slowed when the vests were given no higher shipping priority than T-shirts.
The Pentagon asked the inspector general to investigate the tortoise-like process of equipping troops with body armor when officers, noting that the soldiers of allies in Iraq were getting the vests quickly, suspected they were using gear intended for US forces. The inspector general found that the fault was with US bureaucracy. The allies had tried to get the vests through the Pentagon but were told they would have to wait until all US troops were equipped. Rather than waiting, they simply placed an order directly with a Michigan supplier, who promptly filled it.
The inspector's report and the Times reporting reveal a military that might be exemplary in devising sophisticated new weapons systems but falls down in providing its troops with the most basic life-saving equipment. Congressional overseers should call Rumsfeld on the carpet and insist on basic reforms to make sure this never happens again.