WASHINGTON — In an effort to avoid the roadside bomb attacks that have killed or wounded 100 American troops each month, U.S. commanders in Iraq have begun ferrying cargo into Iraq by air rather than in truck caravans, the Air Force's top officer said today.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper traveled to Baghdad last month to ask what was being done to replace the cargo convoys — which face daily attacks by insurgents — with airplanes.
The answer, he said: Not much.
"Quite frankly, I wasn't satisfied with the answer," Jumper told reporters at a defense writers' breakfast. "There wasn't that kind of conversation going on."
To supply the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, U.S. forces send about 3,000 vehicles in some 215 convoys on the nation's perilous roads each day. Over the past month, the Air Force has offered enough extra air freight capacity to take 180 American troops off the road each day. Air freighters are now carrying 450 tons of cargo previously carried in convoys and plans to replace up to 1,600 tons, Air Force officials said.
Commanders made the change after Jumper arrived in Iraq last month and "had a little fit" over the issue, the general said. There, he met with Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker and Gen. George Casey, the top commander on the ground in Iraq.
Air Force and ground commanders had failed to cooperate effectively on ways to safeguard freight, Jumper said. Ground commanders were focused on convoys and needed an outsider to pose some basic questions about how to better protect the troops accompanying American cargo shipments amid a bloody guerrilla war, he added.
"I was not happy with the communication I saw between the air components and the land components about convoy operations," Jumper said. "We have 64 airplanes and they're staying busy. But the question is: Could they be busier? And is 64 enough?"
The problem of roadside bombs highlights the failure of the Pentagon to anticipate a broad insurgency campaign, although such non-traditional tactics have been used for years by Palestinians in Israel and in the early 1990s in Somalia, analysts said. The shift to air traffic has followed a yearlong campaign by insurgents to explode roadside bombs beneath U.S. military vehicles.
"Almost every problem in Iraq you can attribute back to the fact that the administration and the most vocal opponents for war had a set of planning assumptions that were very optimistic, and no fallback position if the scenario that they envisioned didn't materialize," said Charles Pena, military analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.
The altered tactics could later be accompanied by other potential changes. Among them is bottling and purifying water in Iraq rather than loading it aboard trucks from Kuwait, accounting for 30% of all U.S. cargo ferried across Iraq's perilous roadways.
Roadside bombs, or IEDS (improvised explosive devices) in military parlance, have been the most lethal of any insurgent weapon faced by American troops in Iraq. About 20 such explosives have exploded along the main highway from Baghdad International Airport to the capital over the past month.
The day after his unit arrived in Baghdad's Sadr City slum during heavy fighting on Sept. 15, Lt. Col. David Batchelor's heavily armored convoy of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles rolled over 22 of them.
American soldiers' concerns over road safety have grown so intense that 23 Army reservists on Oct. 13 refused to transport supplies from the Tallil air base near Nasariya to Taji, north of Baghdad, saying their vehicles lacked armor and were in poor condition. Army officials opted not to court martial the troops, but to levy less severe penalties instead, such as extra duties or reductions in rank.
The rise of the insurgents' tactic forced the U.S. military to scramble to add armor and bulletproof glass to their lightly armored Humvees late last year, and U.S. forces have yet to catch up. Meanwhile, some Humvees without the added armor continue to travel Iraq's roads.
During a recent trip through the Tamim neighborhood outside the bloody insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, two of six Humvees driven by U.S. National Guard soldiers lacked the added armor.
Gunners wheeled about in turrets with only a front shield, their backs exposed. The turrets of Humvees assigned to regular Army troops in Baghdad are heavily fortified.
That same day, the unit's commander, Col. Gary S. Patton, rolled over his seventh IED in an incident that injured two soldiers. Patton was unharmed.
Such incidents could be avoided by using airlifts to avoid Iraq's most dangerous roads, Jumper said. Some routes have already been changed, he said. U.S. military planners also try to keep insurgents guessing by alternating routes and travel times. Pentagon officials say the number of landing sites would likely expand now.
"So rather than run, you know, thousands of trucks up and down the main supply routes, if you could put it in by air, that would decrease those number of convoys that go up and down," Brig. Gen. David Rodriquez, deputy director of operations for regional operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in a Pentagon briefing.
The Air Force has also begun airlifting newly armored Humvees from Kuwait to Baghdad to avoid the three- to four-day drive. More could be done with increased use of the Air Force's aging C-130 cargo planes, which can land on a roadway the length of a football field, Jumper added.
"Essentially my charter to our airlift guys was that if the trucks pull off the road and upload stuff, an airplane can land on that road and offload stuff," said Jumper, a pilot who landed C-7 cargo planes in combat zones during the war in Vietnam.
Jumper acknowledged that increased air traffic exposes planes to surface-to-air missiles.
"There'll be increased SAM threats to C-130s, but we've also got 100 casualties a month in convoys," he said.