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The State May 17, 2005

S.C. firm to supply armored vehicles

Pentagon orders 122 Cougar vehicles to protect troops

By Noelle Phillips

A Ladson-based company’s new armored vehicles will protect U.S. troops from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the company will receive nearly $90 million in the process.

The Department of Defense has hired Force Protection Inc. to build 122 Cougars, which can survive a blast from an improvised explosive device, said Michael Aldrich, Force Protection’s vice president for sales.

Force Protection must complete the first order of 71 vehicles by May 2006. The company’s 240 employees can build 20 Cougars a month, Aldrich said.

In combat, soldiers who specialize in disarming land mines and improvised explosive devices (called IEDs) will ride in the Cougars, Aldrich said. These soldiers are called on by infantry and other combat units to inspect and defuse possible explosives on the battlefield. About 10 percent of explosive devices detonate while they are being inspected by troops, according to a Defense Department report.

Marines have been using the Cougar in Iraq since October, Aldrich said. The Defense Department watched the Cougar in action and decided to buy some for the other branches of service.

The Cougar looks like a super-sized Hummer. It comes with a V-shaped hull that deflects any explosions away from the cabin. The vehicle’s steel body packs on the weight — 19 tons, or as much as 12 Toyota Camrys — but can travel 70 miles per hour on asphalt, Aldrich said.

“It quickly became known as the Humvee on steroids,” Aldrich said.

Force Protection also makes a big brother to the Cougar.

The 26-ton Buffalo looks similar but comes with a monstrous claw attached to the front. The Army Corps of Engineers uses the Buffalo to clear explosives from routes traveled by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Troops inside the Buffalo can attach steel wheels and then “trample the IEDs,” Aldrich said.

“We’ve been operating for two years now, and we’ve had one broken wrist in a Buffalo,” he said. “We’ve taken out explosives that would take out an Abrams tank.”

Force Protection’s contract is a result of the Pentagon’s efforts to protect soldiers from roadside bombs, said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense analysis Web site.

The Defense Department has been criticized for its slow pace in outfitting troops with armored vehicles.

In December 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld launched a firestorm of criticism after he answered a soldier’s question about armored vehicles by saying, “As you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want.”

Improvised explosives frequently kill Americans in Iraq. But the military says it is getting better at preventing the death and injury they cause. In the spring of 2004, every explosion caused a casualty, but today one in four explosions kills or wounds a soldier, said Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads the Pentagon’s task force on defending against the explosives.

In May 5 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Votel said developing new vehicles with armor, ballistic windows and air conditioning was one step being taken to protect soldiers.

“This protects the soldiers from small-arms fire, many types of mines and IEDs,” Votel said.

Pike said the purchase is a good move for the Army, although the service has been slow in developing armored vehicles to protect its troops. The Army’s bureaucratic size got in the way, Pike said, but it also took time to figure out how to defend against enemy tactics.

“You don’t want to run out and spend money on something you don’t need,” he said.

The contract is good news for Force Protection, which has been losing money as it prepared itself to compete for business with large defense contractors, like General Dynamics.

The S.C. company lost $10.2 million in 2004 and $5.2 million in 2003.

“It’s from trying to do business with the federal government,” Aldrich said. “You have to be big enough to get the contract.”

 


Copyright 2005, The State