Sending Americans to War in Unsafe Equipment

For 32 years, the Marine Corps has moved tens of thousands of men in Amphibious Assault Vehicles of the sort blown up Wednesday by insurgents in Iraq, leaving 14 Americans and one Iraqi dead.

Called “amtracks” or “hogs” by those who ride them, the vehicles are armored troop carriers that were designed to deliver combat-ready Marines fast from a ship to shore, through even rough water and surf.

From there, the AAVP7A1s _ the official name used by the Marine Corps _ can speed as fast as 45 mph on land, borne on tank-like tracks instead of wheels. They can carry 21 combat-equipped troops, along with a crew of three.

“It’s a significant piece of gear. It’s very useful,” Marine spokesman Maj. Douglas Powell said Wednesday. The corps has about 1,300 of the $2.2 million vehicles, which, from the inside, resemble a big steel box with benches but no windows.

But though it is reinforced with steel and Kevlar armor, it was not conceived to survive the increasingly potent improvised bombs the enemy in Iraq is assembling these days, Powell and other experts said.

“It’s not designed to withstand things such as artillery shells, which they’re using now in (roadside bombs),” Powell said.

Much like the ubiquitous Humvee, another vehicle not designed for the guerrilla-war duty it is used for in Iraq, the amphibious crafts have drawn some criticism for leaving troops too vulnerable.

Wednesday’s attack, which occurred outside Haditha near Iraq’s border with Syria, was at least the second to fell Marines in one of the vehicles. On May 11, five perished when their amtrack hit a roadside bomb in Karabilah, Iraq.

But Powell and John Pike, a military analyst at, said even the far-better-protected Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles have not been immune to the destructive force of insurgent bombs and armor-piercing rounds.

“A Bradley wouldn’t have done any better,” Pike said, referring to Wednesday’s deadly attack.

Even so, the Marines are awaiting a next-generation amphibious craft designed to be safer and faster. Called the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, it will carry about the same number of troops but will travel about three times as fast in water and will be decked out with more lethal weapons and high-tech communications.

New inside will be individual padded seats equipped with mine-blast protection, seat belts and air-conditioning, according to Marine Corps specifications. Enhanced armor will be installed, along with protections against biological and chemical weapons attacks.

“The EFV design mitigates the damage caused by (roadside bombs) and (rocket-propelled grenade) threats similar to those encountered by U.S. forces in Iraq,” an official Marine description says.

Marine budget figures show that the service will spend about $2.6 billion from this year through 2009 on further development as well as the purchase of 186 vehicles. Ultimately, the Marines want to buy a fleet of 1,013.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)