It was a ferocious bomb, two 122mm-artillery shells wired together and detonated from afar by an insurgent north of Baghdad.
A Humvee carrying Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers had no chance against the improvised explosive hidden on the shoulder of the road, even though the vehicle was protected with added-on armor.
The deaths Saturday of Army Sgt. Brahim Jeffcoat, 25, and Spc. Kurk Kraut, 43, added to a tragic trend in the Iraq war. A growing proportion of U.S. troops are dying in Humvees in Iraq, even as more of the vehicles are protected by extra armor.
At the start of the year, about one in five soldier deaths was associated with the utilitarian vehicle. In the spring, that death toll began to rise and reached nearly one in two this summer, according to a Scripps Howard News Service casualty database.
In June, for instance, Humvees were involved in at least 37 of the 78 deaths. In July, the Humvee toll was 27 of 51 fatalities.
The count includes combat attacks on troops in the vehicles, as well as several fatal accidents. In all, from the war’s start in 2003 through the end of July, at least 528 troops of the overall 1,783 dead have been associated with Humvees.
The U.S. military, which has scrambled to add armored protection and bulletproof glass to the 10,000-plus Humvee fleet in Iraq, attributes the growing toll to the use by insurgents of progressively larger, better-targeted and more lethal bombs. The attack on the Pennsylvania soldiers is an example.
Where once the explosives were compact enough to be packed in soft-drink cans or even small animal carcasses, they now commonly consist of large artillery and mortar shells scavenged from the enormous Iraqi-army munitions stashes that Saddam Hussein’s regime stockpiled across Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday that more sophisticated bombs are also being smuggled across Iraq’s border with Iran. Some are called “shaped charges” because they are constructed to send the entire force of the blast in one direction, thus causing significantly more damage.
The more potent explosives pack enough punch to fell even Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers _ which, unlike the Humvee _ were designed to withstand bombs.
“What we’re seeing here is … an adaptive enemy,” Brig. Gen. Donald Alston said at a press conference last week. The terrorists are “trying to adapt to that level of protection that our forces have. They have been motivated to try to find a way to get advantage.”
John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, said such battlefield back-and-forth is the nature of war, where both sides look for each other’s weak points and capitalize on them.
“That’s normal in warfare. It’s called improvisation,” Pike said.
The vulnerability of the vehicle _ used for transporting troops, protecting convoys, evacuating the wounded, and patrols _ has been the focus of sustained criticism from Capitol Hill and family members of deployed troops.
The Pentagon has gone into overdrive to “harden” the Humvees and now says every one of the vehicles that leaves the protection of U.S. bases or camps is equipped with enhanced armor. Even so, their protection is no match for the more powerful ordnance.
And the armored versions may inadvertently be contributing to an uptick in Humvee accidents. An increase in rollover mishaps, many of them fatal, has coincided with the increase in hardened Humvees hitting the street, leading to theories that the vehicles may be rendered less stable by the added weight.
That development only emphasizes the fact that Humvees are being shoehorned into a role they never were envisioned to play, Pike said. They were designed to provide transportation behind enemy lines; but there is no front line in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where guerrilla fighting prevails.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers say the increase in the Humvee-related death toll is likely to accelerate the development of new vehicles more suited to combat transportation.
“I think it is clear now to the Army and the Marine Corps that we are going to have to develop a follow-on vehicle,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)