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Media General News Service July 06, 2007

Anti-mine vehicle rush fuels firms, but some questions remain

Bombs 'used and proven in Iraq' bound for Afghanistan, expert says

By James W. Crawley

CHARLESTON, S.C. - In the new "Transformers" movie, a large military truck called a Buffalo morphs into the evil Bonecrusher bent on destroying the good people of Earth.

In the real world, the Buffalo is being hailed as a savior of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Buffalo is a "mine resistant, ambush protected" vehicle. It and similar vehicles known as MRAPs are able to survive the deadly improvised explosive devices -- IEDs -- that have killed more than 1,900 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon, which has several hundred MRAPs in Iraq now, announced July 2 it intends to buy a total of 23,000 for the Army, Marines and other forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vehicles will replace up-armored Humvees in the war zone.

With price tags ranging from $300,000 to $1 million each, MRAP costs may climb to $25 billion when electronics and other add-ons are included.

The military wants them -- yesterday.

"For every month we delay, scores of young Americans are going to die," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who ordered production increased and streamlined.

A handful of companies -- ranging from upstarts to decades-old conglomerates -- are racing to fill the need, bringing extra jobs and money to South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and other states.

Running two shifts, the Protected Vehicles Inc. plant in North Charleston, S.C., was a beehive of activity during a recent visit.

Above the din of a giant press that bends inch-thick steel, parts expediter Angel Moore said she gets to work an hour early to stay ahead of the work pace.

"This is my service (to the country)," she added. "I can't be over there, so I'm trying to do all I can to help."

While everyone agrees the new vehicles protect soldiers better than anything else in the motor pool, some speculate that buying thousands of MRAPs may create unforeseen problems.

Even Gates acknowledges the vehicles aren't invulnerable.

"There is no sure-fire guarantee that anything will provide absolute protection against (IEDs)," he said recently.

But, advocates from U.S. senators to retired generals say the vehicles can save lives and are worth it, no matter the cost or problems.

Improvised explosive devices -- IEDs -- are the signature weapons for insurgents in Iraq and, lately, Afghanistan. An IED fashioned from artillery shells, landmines and other explosives can destroy a Humvee, even up-armored ones, with shrapnel or by flipping it.

The MRAP's virtue is its shape and construction.

Its underbelly is "V" shaped -- deflecting blasts and shrapnel. It sits high above ground on wide-set, large tires, so explosions are less likely to flip it. "Run-flat" wheels allow it to move despite damage.

A cocoon of hardened, armored steel surrounds occupants. Steel also protects the engine, transmission and other parts of the drive train. Windows are thick and blast-resistant but provide visibility.

The V-shaped hull was developed by Rhodesian and South African armies during the 1970s to counter landmines sowed by guerillas.

The idea was championed in the United States by Garth Barrett, a former Rhodesian army officer, during the late 1990s. At Force Protection Inc., now located in Ladson, S.C., Barrett led development of the Buffalo. He left the company and began his own firm, Protected Vehicles, in North Charleston at the former naval shipyard.

The MRAP business started slowly in 2001 with the Army buying a few to clear land mines in Afghanistan.

In January, the Pentagon asked nine companies to submit prototypes for testing. Normally, the military approves a single type of vehicle to be built by a single firm. This time, the Pentagon said it would purchase any contractors' vehicles passing the tests.

Since February, the Pentagon has awarded contracts to five firms for 3,557 MRAPs, worth $1.8 billion.

Upping the request to nearly 23,000 vehicles, the Army said it would replace every Humvee in Iraq and Afghanistan with the mine-resistant trucks.

The vehicles have a good record in saving lives. Four soldiers and no Marines have died while riding in MRAPS. The Pentagon estimates that MRAPs have been hit as many as 800 times with only a handful damaged beyond repair.

The Pentagon claims MRAPs are five times harder to destroy than other military vehicles, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., independent think tank.

MRAP "holds the prospect of doing something to stem the body count," said Pike.

But, the vehicles are no panacea.

Compared to Humvees, MRAPs are unwieldy and difficult to drive off road because of their high center of gravity, size and weight

"They are incredibly survivable," said Marine 2nd Lt. George Saenz, in a video interview on the Defense Department's media Web site.

But, he added, "One of the downfalls to the vehicle is that they're so heavy, so big that they don't have any maneuverability as far as off-road capability, like a Humvee does or a 7-ton (truck) does."

MRAPs stand 8- to 13-feet high, are up to 8-feet wide and weigh as much as 15 tons.

GlobalSecurity's Pike worries that fielding 23,000 MRAPs will create fuel supply problems.

The heavy vehicles guzzle diesel fuel, getting as little as 3 miles per gallon.

Fuel already comprises 80 percent of the cargo moved by convoy on Iraq's treacherous roads, he said. MRAPs will increase that amount significantly. That would require more convoys using more troops for security and higher costs.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. William Wiggins said of the logistics, "It's not going to be easy. It will take some work."

With no standard MRAP model, mechanics and drivers must learn to fix and drive three models of different sizes made by different makers. Many parts will be unique to each model.

But, Force Protection vice president Michael Aldrich said driving an MRAP isn't too difficult.

"If you can understand R, N and D, you can drive this," he said.

Will MRAPs be able to protect soldiers in the future against an insurgency that has adapted quickly to changes in American tactics?

Protected Vehicles' Barrett said current models can accommodate add-on armor plates and have enough horsepower to carry the extra load.

Despite the ad hoc design and expedited procurement, MRAPs likely will have a long legacy in the military, said Pike.

"Whatever they buy now, they'll be stuck with for 15 years," he said.


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