Fighting the Iraq war - on the Texas plains

Working double and triple shifts, companies are struggling to churn out supply vehicles and put an end to 'hillbilly armor.'

Set among the cattle ranches and grassy plains of Sealy, Texas, founded in 1902 by a blacksmith and a carriage maker, stands an outpost of Stewart & Stevenson: a giant facility that's helping to fight a war 10,000 miles away. Here, talk of insurgents and the lack of a defined enemy takes a back seat to the rapid installation of machine-gun mounts and inches-thick bulletproof glass.

It's an unseen part of the war in Iraq, one that is as vital to bringing soldiers home safely as the barricades on Baghdad streets. The workers here know their solemn duty: constructing armored cabs designed to withstand attacks from small-arms fire, artillery airbursts, land mines, and other explosive devices - equipment that's a far cry from the "hillbilly armor" described by American soldiers.

Not long after President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq, the truck makers at Stewart & Stevenson began seeing their supply vehicles sent back riddled with bullet holes and torn up from mine blasts.

These were not the usual repairs to returning trucks. In fact, the company hadn't seen this kind of damage in its 63 years of contracting with the US military.

But when it became clear that Iraqi insurgents were firing at anything that moved, including soft-shelled supply vehicles, a startled Stewart & Stevenson began designing a cab that would protect its occupants.

A year later, the Houston-based company, which does nearly 40 percent of its business with the Defense Department, shipped the first batch of armored cabs to Iraq - just as a national guardsman made safety a front-page issue with a question posed to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December: "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?"

Now, producing enough material to replace its unprotected cabs has become a top priority for the military - and is testing the limits of Stewart & Stevenson, which has had to bring in welders from as far away as Norfolk, Va. Inside the 500,000 square foot facility, among the smell of paint fumes and diesel, giant trucks move along conveyor systems. After the incident with Mr. Rumsfeld, the company was asked to triple its production.

"They want everything they can get as fast as they can get it," says Dennis Dellinger, president of the company's tactical vehicle systems.

Stewart & Stevenson is not alone. Companies that make the Humvee and other light tactical vehicles are hastily adding second and third shifts, extra assembly lines, and as many employees as they can train.

"The reason for this sudden surge in demand for armored vehicles is that the Army simply didn't anticipate the intensity or duration of unconventional warfare in Iraq," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "Whether consciously or unconsciously, the Army planned its vehicle fleet for a world in which the front lines are well defined and people in the rear didn't need to worry about being attacked."

He says that when the US emerged from fighting in Vietnam, it put the idea of counter insurgency behind it and re-postured itself for fighting on the plains of central Europe. Some even began to speculate that the whole nature of war was changing when precision air strikes proved so successful in the 1990s.

"So when the Army got to places like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, it found that the lack of protection on its tactical vehicles was an Achilles' heel," says Dr. Thompson. "What we have discovered since 9/11 is that our adversaries will adapt to any weakness in our forces."

Even today, the military's medium tactical vehicles - produced exclusively by Stewart & Stevenson - have no ballistic requirements. Of the company's 4,800 trucks in Iraq right now, only 500 have add-on armored plate and 200 are equipped with the new armored cabs.

When Stewart & Stevenson first introduced its family of medium tactical vehicles in 1991, "they were not designed to go into the middle of the fight," says David Lombardi, director of marketing at the company. "In the old days, they didn't shoot at these things. But this is a new deal; they are shooting at everybody over there. So we had to adapt."

Even before the Army requested it, the company began work on an entirely new armored design for its cab, which fits directly into the space of the standard cab. Unlike the Humvee, Stewart & Stevenson decided against bolting additional armor onto its cab for fear of changing the carrying capacity, overloading the front axel, and slowing down the vehicle.

And as fighting intensified and more supply vehicles became targets, the company increased the hardness and thickness of the steel, "so that the truck could handle a higher threat," says Mr. Dellinger.

So far, he has hired roughly 100 new employees to triple production from five to 15 armored cabs a day. But the biggest challenge is finding enough ballistic fiber, glass, and steel. "Suppliers can't keep up with the pace," he says. "There is lots of competition right now for armoring vests, helmets, Humvees. Everyone wants a piece of the pie."

Indeed, Stewart & Stevenson could have produced more cabs and earlier, but preference was given to armoring the frontline Humvees. In December, the Defense Department announced it was ordering 100 more up-armored Humvees a month from its main supplier, O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt in West Chester, Ohio.

Outside the Sealy facility on a warm, windswept day, soft-shelled supply trucks back from Iraq await repair. Some have front-end damage. Others have fallen off trains. All are coated, inside and out, in desert dust.

While most are back for routine repairs, one has scrap metal tacked to the driver's side window by soldiers in the field and another has large shrapnel holes through the driver's side door and roof.

"If someone wasn't severely hurt in this one, it would be a miracle," says Mr. Lombardi, surveying the shrapnel damage in dismay. "We hate seeing stuff like this. But that's what we're up against."

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