- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

ROME — A military prosecutor has opened an inquiry into purported penny-pinching in equipping armored cars in service in Afghanistan and Iraq after two exposed machine gunners died from lack of a turret or shield, officials said.

The Puma light armored car went into service with Italy’s army in 2004 and since has become a common sight in public events, such as the Armed Forces Day parade held June 2. With a top speed of 80 mph, it might seem an ideal, high-mobility vehicle for peacekeepers, except for the vulnerability of the soldier manning an externally mounted Browning 12.7 mm machine gun. The Puma as supplied to the Italian army has no turret or shield for its gunner.

“No cabriolet can be driven unless it has a system that, in case of overturning, guarantees protection to those on board,” said La Stampa newspaper of Turin. “Unfortunately, instead, Italian soldiers know what happens to the machine-gunner if a Puma somersaults.”

A convoy of three Pumas was crossing the Chahar Asyab area, south of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Sept. 26 when a roadside bomb exploded. The third Puma took the brunt of the blast and flipped over. Of the six men aboard, five survived with light injuries, but the gunner, Cpl. Maj. Giorgio Langella, was killed instantly.

On Sept. 20, a Puma on a routine patrol somersaulted while taking a curve on a road damaged by a landslide. Cpl. Maj. Giuseppe Orlando, the Puma’s 28-year-old machine-gunner, died, Defense Ministry sources said.

The Rome military prosecutor, Judge Antonio Intellisano, opened an inquiry this week into the two incidents, which recall problems with armor faced by U.S. troops in Iraq about two years ago.

“There is no specific brief about the absence of turrets, but we are examining the question,” Judge Intellisano was quoted as saying in La Stampa.

“Why has our country acquired these means of transport without providing either a turret or, at least, a bulletproof shield for the only member of the crew with his head outside the craft?” La Stampa asked.

Initially intended for use with the Italian army’s cavalry and light infantry units, the Puma is “now present in every operating theater” where Italian troops are deployed, said a source at the army’s mobility systems office.

In some deployments, such as Iraq, Italian units have sought to improve the Puma with do-it-yourself tactics. Paratroopers of the elite Folgore (lightning) regiment — the first to use the vehicle in operational conditions — cannibalized armored shields for the Puma from the older VCC-2 tracked fighting vehicle. Paratroopers from the Carabinieri paramilitary police deployed in Iraq used similar homegrown adaptations, military sources said.

Several structural improvements to the Puma in the form of turrets or shields are available on the market, including more than one kind of turret made by the Iveco-Oto Melara consortium that supplies the armored car to the Italian army.

An army official said that there were no plans to order turrets, but that specialists “are studying solutions” and “we are trying to do what we can with the resources at our disposal.”

“A remote-controlled turret has its price. It is not just a few thousand euros. We are speeding up things, but it does not depend on us. And then it is true that one is better protected with a turret, but one cannot use it in every circumstance; sometimes it is not opportune,” the source added.

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