WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA -- Camels may be the traditional "ships of the desert," but if you're more interested in scooting than cruising, U.S. armed forces recommend the "Humvee."
This curious vehicle, one part pick-up truck, one part dune buggy, is the modern-day, all-purpose, all-terrain, four-wheel-drive successor to the beloved jeep. The Humvee is one of the success stories of the U.S. deployment in Saudi Arabia, a piece of military hardware that doesn't break down, overheat, misfire or blow up and costs only $26,707. Add-ons, like air conditioning, radio, M-60 machine gun or TOW anti-tank missile can run you a little extra.
But where a jeep was cute and cuddly, a Humvee is squat and ugly, as if Steven Spielberg had taken one of his imperial walking tanks out of "Star Wars" and chopped it off at the knees. And while jeeps ran on gas, Humvees do diesel. Jeeps had four on the floor, while Humvees have automatic transmissions, power steering and power brakes. Jeeps were easy to work on, said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Raul Perez, "but you could flip 'em just by making a simple turn." Humvees, with the shoulders and chest of a bull mastiff, don't flip.
Perhaps the biggest advantage that the jeep had was its name, which rhymed with beep and sounded just like what it was. When the time came to replace jeeps, the military bureaucracy, which never saw a syllable it couldn't tie into knots, created the "High-Mobility, Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle." As Casey Stengel said, "you could look it up." I did.
This was shortened to HMMWV, about as pleasant to the ear as cat claws on a blackboard. Fortunately, the American soldier soon came up with a translation palatable to human beings. Hence Humvee, or, more familiarly, "hummer."
But there is no water-cooled, V-8, 150-horsepower, 6.2-liter diesel engine on Earth that hums. The sound of a healthy Humvee could be diplomatically described as "robust."
Perez, a 41-year-old mechanic from El Paso, Texas, runs the Air Force motor pool at a large air base in eastern Saudi Arabia. Before operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, his Humvee experience was limited. Now, like the rest of the mechanics in his shop, he can identify the most common Humvee problems "just by listening to them."
"A horrible rattle means the alternator bracket is busted," Perez said. "Whining and squealing means they've blown out the steering pump."
Like many mechanics, Perez blames most Humvee problems on what he delicately describes as "operator care," but the faulty alternator brackets have been noted by Humvee mechanics throughout Saudi Arabia. Perez stopped the rattling by replacing the holding screws with metric ones "giving us a closer fit."
The steering pump has him somewhat puzzled, but he suspects that the combination of power steering, a small steering wheel and a long (130-inch) wheelbase, encourages drivers to "throw the vehicle all over the place," causing leaks to develop in the steering column. Rather than add hydraulic fluid, operators continue driving until the pump runs dry and stops. "They always say, 'I don't know what happened, it just quit on me. I heard a loud bang.' "
All of this, however, is not to say the Humvee is breakdown-prone. In fact, says Perez, quite the opposite. He takes care of 75 to 100 Humvees and has only had to replace one engine and rebuild two transmissions in the five months since the U.S. deployment here began. Other mechanics are equally enthusiastic.
"Humvees are almost maintenance-free," said Army Warrant Officer Eddie Royal, 41, a battalion maintenance chief with the 82nd Airborne Division. "We run them up to 60 mph, do program maintenance on them every six months or 6,000 miles. It's a very durable vehicle."
And versatile. The basic Humvee, built by AM General, weighs 7,700 pounds with an aluminum chassis, Kevlar body and removable doors. There are 15 showroom models, including everything from "cargo-troop carrier" (canvas top, seats in back), to "armament carrier, armored winch" (Kevlar hatchback, rigged for a machine gun or grenade launcher) to "ambulance 4x4" (cross painted on the side.
But this doesn't begin to describe the purposes to which Humvees are put. In one recent informal survey along a stretch of highway in northeastern Saudi Arabia, one observer spotted Humvees carrying radios, inner tubes, duffel bags and human beings. One Humvee was mounted with air-conditioned modules, like a camper. Another displayed a large timer for a footrace. A third was covered with camouflage netting and had rolled-up rugs and cloth mats strapped to the top of the cab.
And besides simple transport, soldiers use Humvees as roving security vehicles, as mobile guard posts and as command communications centers. Six of them rigged with TOW missiles constitute a Marine Combined Anti-Tank, or CAT, team. Snuffling in the sand dunes like angry cockroaches, CAT Humvees can wait for an enemy tank to appear in the distance, blast it with a missile and then drive off into the desert at 45 mph. "Think of us as mechanized snipers," said TOW operator Lance Corporal Todd Hanks, 22, of Oklahoma City.