The first American units that entered Iraq in March 2003 did so using high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles without the armor plating that had been developed in the previous decade from lessons learned in Somalia and Bosnia.
According to Staff Sgt. William Smith, a scout and two-tour Iraq war veteran with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, the military initially favored HMMWVs for Operation Iraqi Freedom that provided speed and maneuverability over survivability.
“When I got there in January 2004, our vehicles didn’t have any armor,” explained Smith, who deployed only days after his first son was born.
“The enemy was just starting to use (improved explosive devices). I was in a hummer that hit an IED, but I got out all right. My lieutenant’s vehicle got messed up quite a bit though. After that, we started putting sandbags in the floor of our vehicles and attaching pieces of scrap metal to the doors. It was really funny looking now when I think about it because our vehicles probably looked like something from the movie ‘Mad Max.’”
Smith, who has two sons and 11 years in the Army, described the ingenuity soldiers used to provide themselves with better protection from IEDs and small-arms fire.
He said he welded armor plating to the back and sides of his HMMWV and attached pieces of scrap metal to the lightweight doors, which he said only were designed to deflect small fragmentation, not stop a 7.62 mm bullet.
The Army quickly adapted to the changing needs of its soldiers, Smith explained. By late 2003, it already was providing some units with up-armor kits that could be adapted to HMMWV models currently deployed until full-factory upgraded models could be produced and shipped to Iraq.
Smith said most HMMWVs now include passive-defense systems that can jam wireless detonation signals like cell phones.
“It doesn’t always work, but nothing works all the time in combat,” Smith added.
He said the doors on HMMWVs are now armor plated and weigh 200 pounds; they have combat locks to prevent them from blowing open should the vehicle strike an IED; and they have smaller windows made of multilayered ballistic glass.
The undercarriage, which had been plated with aluminum, now is plated with steel, Smith said.
The gunner now has a protective turret, and he’s attached to a safety harness rather than a belt, which prevents him from being thrown from the vehicle.
More lessons still were to be learned, explained Smith, who said the new, much heavier HMMWVs had an added risk when they rolled over or when all the occupants were unconscious. The combat locks only could be opened from the inside, so a special handle was added on the lower part of the door. By attaching a chain or steel cable to this handle and another HMMWV, the door can be removed to gain access to the injured soldiers inside.
“The first generation of armor affected the HMMWV’s engine and suspension system, too,” noted Staff Sgt. Casey Enos, Headquarters and Headquarter Company, 1st HBCT, a three-tour Iraq war veteran who also served more than four years with the French Foreign Legion. “The Army had to replace the engine with a more powerful one and replace the suspension system with one that could support the added weight of the armor.”
“The (new) vehicle is a little sluggish getting started,” admitted Spc. David Prevo, an infantryman/driver with HHC, 1st HBCT. “Top speeds are slower and stopping distances are longer, but that’s part of what you give up in order to get better protection.”
Enos, a pathfinder-qualified infantryman, said he has confidence in the new armor, having survived an IED blast while riding in a Stryker Fire Support Vehicle.
He also said he likes the armored HMMWV’s ability to get around the canals and into the back alleys and side roads in Iraq, where heavier armored vehicles like the Stryker and Bradley Fighting Vehicle cannot go.
The balance of speed and maneuverability versus survivability is something the Army will continue testing and improving, Enos said.