U.S. Army Tropic Regions Test Center puts MRAP through its paces
March 27, 2012
By Mr Mark Schauer (ATEC)
During the worst years of the Iraqi insurgency, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle was developed to protect American Soldiers from the destructive power of roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs). U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) played an extensive role in the rapid initiative to field these life-protecting vehicles, conducting punishing durability testing on virtually all of its variants. The proving ground, located in the desert of southwestern Arizona, has terrain and climate that closely matches those of Iraq, which made it ideal for testing the vehicles under realistic conditions. With the vehicle having proved its mettle and tenacity both here and in theater, the MRAP was tested at YPG's Cold Region Test Center at Fort Greeley, Alaska in the winter of 2010-11, leaving tropics as the last climate in which it had never been put through its paces.
"As operations in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, the armed forces are becoming more focused on the need to test equipment in arctic and tropical environments," said Ernest Hugh, director of U.S. Army Tropic Regions Test Center (TRTC), a subordinate command of YPG.
Unlike the other test centers, however, TRTC owns no land and must rely on the permission of host nations to conduct evaluations. Though this is obtained with relative ease thanks to TRTC's strong rapport with the American embassies in the foreign nations in which it conducts tests, there are still the challenges of finding and improving a suitable test site, transporting equipment to it, and housing personnel for multi-month missions far from home.
When TRTC conducted its first test in the nation of Suriname in 2008, it took the efforts of hundreds of people and scores of local contractors to make it a success.
"During the first test, we were completely new to the country," said Julio Zambrano, test officer on the MRAP test. "We didn't know the culture or the normal way of operating. It was a groundbreaking experience with lots of lessons on what to do and what not to do."
Though the Stryker test was completed five weeks ahead of schedule, the 20-person crew experienced a great many hardships. The test took place near Moengo, a town of about 7,000 people, and though the crew's housing was upscale by local standards, it was substandard to typical American expectations. The crew was also isolated: the capital city of Paramaribo was 60 miles away and accessible only by unimproved roads, meaning they only travelled there one day per month. Additionally, throughout the test there were constant concerns from local citizens about the scope and duration of the testing, which required a great deal of deft diplomacy on the part of the testers.
When the MRAP project manager expressed interest in conducting a similar durability test in Suriname in 2011, TRTC officials were determined to maximize convenience and minimize costs.
"We went into this test with a whole new philosophy," said Terry Barton, TRTC's site manager in Suriname. "We can get the contractor to do things with fewer people and much cheaper than the first test. We've learned a lot and come a long way in our knowledge of how to work in Suriname."
Though the MRAP test required a long test course like the Stryker evaluation, TRTC officials were keen to find a more centrally-located facility. After significant inquiries, TRTC officials found a promising site near the village of Afobaka that addressed many of the shortcomings of their prior one. Connected to Paramaribo by a paved and well-maintained highway and close to an airstrip and several other small towns, the site would be easily accessible for personnel and supplies, as well as emergency vehicles in case of an accident. The dirt road course itself snaked through 19 miles of uneven jungle terrain, perfect for putting a combat vehicle through its paces under extreme conditions.
Confident that they had a suitable site, TRTC's senior leaders began to approach officials from the United States embassy in Suriname for assistance in gaining the necessary permissions from the Surinamese government. TRTC officials gave detailed briefings to the commander of the U.S. Military Liaison Office within the embassy, who, in turn, briefed Suriname's national security advisor and Ministry of Defense. The test was ultimately approved at the highest levels of the Surinamese government.
"You develop it piece by piece," said Barton. "Once you have the track and the approvals, then you have to make provisions for a camp for the workers."
Though more accessible than its predecessor, making the new test site ready for business was far from a turnkey operation. The most pressing matter was preparing the test course itself.
"In Yuma and Alaska, the tracks are already established," said Zambrano. "For this test, we start with nothing and have to get authorizations from local governments, petition for radio frequencies, and a lot of other things that are taken for granted at YTC and CRTC. It takes a lot of effort and coordination."
Unlike the Moengo test site, the 19-miles of existing roads through the jungle near Afobaka were designed to accommodate logging trucks, which are light relative to the extremely heavy vehicles used to support bauxite mining. Thus, bridges spanning the several streams across the road had to be strengthened to safely bear the weight of the beefiest MRAP variant, which weighs in at over 30,000 pounds. This retrofitting was performed by the land's owner under TRTC supervision, and was accomplished through the ingenious method of placing an open Connex trailer in the stream bed, then using massive backhoes to pile dirt and extremely thick timbers atop it.
As these repairs were being accomplished, the test courses had to be staked and mapped, and topographical maps produced. The test site needed security fencing and lighting, as well as a concrete pad and shade structure to accommodate maintenance and storage of the test vehicles. Cutting-edge prefabricated trailers were erected to house the 20 personnel that would be at the site for the duration of the test, small cabins with single rooms of about 10 feet by 10 feet, each having a window and sliding glass door. The doorways opened onto wooden decks that served as a communal outdoor dining area outfitted with sinks, refrigerators, and other kitchen appliances brought by test personnel. There were five such cabins constructed, each taking about three weeks to complete. Due to Suriname's history as a Dutch colony, the construction codes are European-based, but the TRTC crew had experience with them from the 2008 test.
The test site was also outfitted with high speed satellite internet access and already boasted cell phone coverage, making it much more connected to the outside world than the prior location.
"We're able to communicate with anyone at any time," said Barton. "Suriname's telecommunications and online infrastructure has advanced quite a bit in the last few years, and at a much lower cost."
"We talk with Yuma every day by email and phone," added Zambrano. "They want to be sure we have everything we need to be successful. There are challenges that you don't have in Yuma, but we work through them."
As TRTC personnel typically based in Panama spent several days in Yuma in June training on data collection techniques specific to MRAP testing, the carpentry shop was at work rapidly installed wooden cabinets and drawers into a common Conex container. When it was completed, mechanics outfitted this portable tool room with all the items a mechanic needs to work on heavy vehicles. The drawers and cabinet doors were strapped shut, and the trailer was shipped to Suriname along with the test vehicles and other gear.
"Nothing fell," marveled Richard Shadle, heavy equipment mechanic. "Everything was exactly in place when it arrived. They did a heck of a job, and it was completed in one day."
The three MRAPs and most of the crew's gear was sent by ship from Texas, down the Gulf of Mexico, and through the Caribbean before sailing up the Suriname River to the capital city of Paramaribo. The river there is broad, but shallow, and the heavy ship needed to be unloaded within 10 hours of arrival or risk going aground. Thus when it docked at 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, TRTC personnel scrambled to send drivers to unload the vehicles, stage them on the pier, and remove the remainder of the crew's gear packed in storage containers. Once customs officials inspected the items, TRTC personnel transported them to a secure warehouse on the outskirts of the city. As soon as the test site was ready for business, TRTC-Suriname logistician Achmad Amatsahlan arranged for a police escort to accompany the convoy transferring all of the equipment, and low boy trailers were rented from local contractors to transport the three vehicles.
"One of the low boys was very old and the distance from the lowest point to the road was about one foot," said Mora. "We had to go extremely slowly over speed bumps on the highway. It was an interesting, but safe trip."
The crew also had to contend with an unexpected storm that hit at the conclusion of the journey.
"Everyone was soaked," recalled Barton. "We couldn't move. We had to stay with the vehicles."
Durability testers do their best to push a test item to its limits. As such, each of the MRAP variants under test was driven across the rugged jungle test courses at its maximum payload capacity, achieved through placing test dummies and multi-ton plates and weights inside the vehicle. By agreement amongst themselves, the three test vehicle operators spend a week driving each MRAP variant under test, and cycle through every three weeks. However, each vehicle had a dedicated data collector for the duration of the test.
"You have to know the vehicle," said Mora. "It's a good idea for a data collector to stay with the same one."
While the test is in progress, the data collector records the time and mile marker any fault occurs at, along with any comments the driver has describing the incident. Upon return to base, the data collector also obtains meteorological data like temperature and humidity from the minute the incident occurred. If the vehicle is put out of a commission and a replacement part isn't at hand, mechanics attempt to buy one over the counter at a heavy equipment dealership in Paramaribo prior to having one shipped from the United States.
Though the test course is on leased property in a rural area, a logging firm is foresting part of the land, which means large logging trucks and other support vehicles are occasionally present when testing is in progress. For safety, test engineer Rolando Ayala rides in a pickup truck serving as escort to the test vehicles. From at least a quarter of a mile in front of the convoy, Ayala radios the other drivers whenever a non-participating vehicle or person is on the track, giving them the specific mile marker and direction at which he sees them. Additionally, medic and security officer Eric Nicolaisen follows the convoy in a trailing pickup truck loaded with a well-stocked first responder's aid kit in case of an accident.
"This course isn't that bad," said Jay Bomhower, driver. "We're encountering a lot of dust because it is the dry season, but we get that in Yuma, too."
The several months of test spans both the dry and rainy seasons, and in the latter the crew has to deal with steep, muddy portions of the test track that were at times virtually impassable. Yet subjecting the vehicles to these types of conditions provided valuable insights into the vehicle's capabilities that could never be generated in a conditioning chamber.
Through the challenges, the test has been accomplished thanks to the professionalism and dedication of the YPG personnel who participated.
"The team we put together adapted very well," said Zambrano. "We know what needed to be done. I thank everyone at YPG for their support."
With two vehicle tests under their belts and a sterling relationship with the American embassy and Surinamese government, TRTC personnel are bullish about their ability to successfully and economically conduct valuable future tropical testing in Suriname for a variety of systems, from vehicles to artillery pieces. Suriname would be particularly suitable for the testing of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
"Suriname has very little air traffic and the corridor is well-defined," said Hugh. "With the proper permissions, we could definitely do unmanned aircraft testing in Suriname. UAS are perfect for jungle surveillance with the right sensors, which need to be tested in the natural environment."
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