If the old Homestead mill were producing as much armor plate as it once did, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wouldn't have had to answer to a National Guard member who questioned the shortage of armor for Humvees. And armor-plate mills in eastern Pennsylvania are still ahead of schedule, says a company rep.
On Dec. 8, Specialist Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard in Iraq surprised Rumsfeld (but not a reporter who planted the question) by demanding to know "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles, and why don't we have those resources readily available to us?"
After stammering a bit, Rumsfeld placed the blame on "physics": "It isn't a matter of money. ... It's a matter of production and capability of doing it."
Not so, said Armor Holdings, of Jacksonville, Fla., the next day. Its subdivision, the O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt factory in Cincinnati, manufactures armored Humvees and add-on armor kits and could produce up to 100 more armored vehicles per month. According to Time Magazine, of the 19,389 Humvees in Iraq, 5,910 are fully armored, 9,134 have been retrofitted with bolt-on armor, while 4,345 are still unarmored. An unarmored Humvee - with canvas doors, plastic windows and a sheet-metal frame - is very vulnerable.
An Army spokesperson told the Detroit Free Press the same day that six-to-12-week delays were possible on some steel orders.
If that's true of some steel shipments, it's not true of the armor plate made by the International Steel Group at its eastern Pennsylvania mills, according to ISG spokesman Chuck Glazer. ISG is the largest domestic supplier of armor plate and one of O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt's suppliers. The company is actually running ahead of schedule at its Coatesville and Conshohocken plants. Both mills are former Bethlehem Steel operations, whose assets were purchased (along with LTV and Weirton Steel companies) by ISG when those firms were in bankruptcy.
"We're shipping about 1,200 plates a month to them and we're two months ahead," Glazer says. A shipment of 2,100 plates due Jan. 8 has already been delivered. Although ISG is already making four times as much armor plate - 35,000 tons - this year as last, Glazer says their mills have the capacity to do more: "We've made a policy of pushing aside commercial orders to do armor plate. We're not part of the problem, we're part of the solution."
In armor plate, these former Bethlehem mills once had a formidable rival: U.S. Steel. For almost 70 years, until it closed more than a decade ago, the major armor plate producer to rival Bethlehem was the Homestead Works.
According to Mike Stout, the plant's grievance chairman for the United Steelworkers of America, armor was produced at Homestead's 160-inch rolling mill: "We had huge, ongoing contracts with the Army, the Navy, the Air Force." Although ISG has kept some parts of the old steel industry going, manufacturing in America clearly isn't as plentiful as before. As Stout says, "If we entered into a serious war, we'd be in real trouble."