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WASHINGTON - Utah's senators voted against a proposal to provide $360 million in additional funds to up-armor trucks and Humvees in service in Iraq.
The vote on the amendment came late Wednesday, a day after The Salt Lake Tribune reported many trucks used by soldiers attached to the Utah-based 146th Transportation Company still lack the type of armor that would help vehicles withstand roadside bombs. Others rely on "hillbilly armor," pieced together from salvaged scrap heaps.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the holdup on armor is logistical rather than financial.
"The problem is not the funding; it's making sure the vehicles get to our troops," he said. "We've already voted for $4.1 billion to armor vehicles since this became an issue, and the defense bill contains an additional $390 million - the full amount requested by the military.
"I'm committed to protecting Utah's troops in Iraq, and I am continually pressing top defense officials to address the armor needs of Utah's troops," Hatch said. "We have made considerable progress, and I won't stop until all of our needs are met."
Hatch said he has contacted several senior Pentagon officials to discuss issues relating to vehicle and personal body armor.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, also voted against the funding.
Spokeswoman Mary Jane Collipriest said Bennett believes the Defense bill contains adequate funding for armored-vehicle production.
"With these funds, we reach the maximum output capacity of U.S. plants manufacturing up-armor for vehicles. As the work continues and more capacity becomes available, Sen. Bennett will also support additional funds to meet the pace of production," Collipriest said.
During debate on the floor Wednesday night, the amendment's sponsor, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said the additional $360 million "ensures that our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will have the equipment they need to accomplish their mission while keeping them out of harm's way."
He said the Defense Department has consistently underestimated the need for armored vehicles and are "no longer entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Regrettably, Walter Reed Army Hospital and other military hospitals are filled with the consequences of these errors."
John Pike, a defense expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org, said the Pentagon has not been forthcoming with figures on its efforts to up-armor its vehicles, but armoring trucks and installing bulletproof glass in vehicles has been an ongoing problem.
"It would seem to me that the type of money that Senator Bayh had been talking about would go a long way toward fixing the problem. They are attaching the ballistic protection to the trucks, but they've got no glass for them," Pike said.
If officials say "they're already running at maximum capacity my advice would be that they need to increase their capacity."
Thirteen Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia, voted for the increased funding, along with all but one of the Senate's Democrats. The amendment failed, 53-46, because of a rule requiring 60 votes on budget matters.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate's defense appropriations subcommittee, said there already is money in the bill to keep the up-armoring of vehicles moving at its maximum capacity.
"We have done everything we can," Stevens said. "If we can find additional capacity, we have another supplemental coming in the spring, we will join the senator in urging more money. But we have used every dollar we can for up-armoring in the plants and in facilities."
Eryth Zecher, company commander of the 146th, told a Tribune reporter in Iraq that she has been told her unit's vehicles should have armor installed by the end of October. In the meantime, she and her command staff are trying to avoid sending the vehicles with inferior armor on missions and, when they go, send them where roadside bombs are less likely.
"You hate to tell your soldiers that you have to make a choice concerning their safety, but that's what we've had to do," Zecher said.
Democrats wasted no time assailing the Republican majority for opposing increased funding.
"These votes are no-brainers," said Phil Singer, spokesman with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign. "When Americans volunteer for the military and put themselves in harm's way for our nation they deserve the very best from the government and when senators vote against efforts to make sure our military has the equipment it needs."