Conway letter looks to stem gear complaints
Iraq returnees: 10 percent of urgent requests fulfilled
By Richard Lardner - The Associated Press
Posted : Tuesday Aug 7, 2007 6:19:09 EDT

WASHINGTON - The system for ensuring Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan receive badly needed war-fighting equipment has "not been perfect" and is being improved, the top Marine Corps general said.

Commandant Gen. James Conway sought to blunt congressional criticism over the slow delivery of mine-resistant vehicles, laser warning devices and aerial surveillance systems in a letter to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

Complaints have come from within the Corps, as well. Marines returning from Iraq several months ago estimated that of more than 100 "urgent" requests for equipment from units between February 2006 and February 2007, less than 10 percent were fulfilled.

"The Marine Corps recognizes that the current requirements and acquisition processes have not been perfect in meeting all the needs of our combat forces and we are taking steps to improve our methods," Conway told Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., in the letter dated July 30.

Conway made no mention of the internal Marine Corps dissatisfaction in his letter to Biden. While acknowledging shortcomings, he also defended decisions the Marines have made in pursuing certain equipment despite requests for alternative gear from deployed forces.

A push for more heavily armored Humvees instead of a new breed of vehicles capable of withstanding roadside blasts, the leading killer of U.S. forces in Iraq, is perhaps the most contentious example.

Equipment cannot be rapidly fielded, Conway told Biden, unless the technology is ready, private industry can build it quickly, and the military can support the gear on the battlefield.

In the case of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles - trucks with blast deflecting V-shaped hulls - Conway said the industrial capability to manufacture them did not exist in early 2005 when a senior Marine officer in Iraq filed an "urgent" request for nearly 1,200.

In May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made MRAPs the military's highest-priority acquisition program. The Marines now plan to buy thousands of the vehicles, which cost about $1 million each and have proven effective against improvised explosive devices, small arms fire and mines.

Two years ago, however, MRAPs "were not considered a practical armored vehicle option as they were not adequately tested, exhibited reliability problems, and industry could not build them fast enough," Conway wrote.

Critics say the defense industry would have created the capacity to build the vehicles if the Marine Corps and the other military branches had told manufacturers this was what they wanted. Military bureaucracy is too wedded to existing weapons systems and lacks the flexibility to meet requests from the field for new types of gear, they contend.

In a June 28 letter to Gates, Biden and Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said "delays and refusals" in response to urgent requests for equipment are probably due to "a combination of bureaucratic inertia and vested interests in established programs."

Bond is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The AP reported in May that a document from Marines just returning from Iraq - laying out a case for quicker action to get better equipment - was to be presented in March to senior officials in the Pentagon's defense research and engineering office. But the session was canceled by Marine Corps leaders because its contents were deemed too contentious.

In his letter to Biden - a similar letter was sent to Bond - Conway did not specify how the Marines' acquisition process is being adjusted to make it more responsive. However, he did indicate that the subject has his attention.

"The timeliness and importance of this effort is well understood, as Marines who work rapid acquisition issues on a daily basis are themselves war-fighters, many only recently returned from combat action in Iraq and Afghanistan," he wrote.