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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Courier-Journale October 12, 2005

Honkin' Big Trucks Head to Iraq

By John Lasker

Prehistoric on the outside, Space Age on the inside.

That's how U.S. defense contractor Force Protection describes its heavily armored Buffalo and Cougar trucks, which are being rushed into service in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 120 of the vehicles will be shipped overseas by February, and about 100 are already in service.

Unlike the U.S. military's soft-skinned Humvees, Force Protection claims that its Buffalo (.pdf) and Cougar (.pdf) vehicles can withstand attacks from Iraq's infamous improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, as well as roadside bombs, gunfire and land mines. The cabins and hulls of both vehicles are layered with steel, ceramics and lightweight composites and can repel small-arms fire and shoulder-fired missiles.

Narrow, V-shaped hulls help direct blasts out and away from the vehicles. The Buffalo and Cougar are nimble for their size, and can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. They are much taller than Humvees and sit high off the ground.

The company claims the Buffalo and Cougar's IED-survivability rate is perfect. The vehicles may sustain heavy damage, but no roadside bomb attack against a Buffalo or Cougar has taken the life of a coalition solider, the company said.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, which focuses on worldwide military news, said the Buffalo and Cougar won't single-handedly defeat the Iraqi insurgency.

"You have to keep in mind there are 10,000 vehicles in Iraq that are subject to ambush," said Pike. "I wouldn’t count on the (Buffalo and Cougar) having an immediate impact because the military doesn't have the sufficient numbers to make a difference."

But Force Protection claims its "blast design technology" is winning over troops.

"The response from the field has been overwhelmingly positive," said Jeff Child, a spokesman for the company. He said the vehicles uncovered roughly 200 IEDs in and around central Iraq this past winter.

Lt. Cameron Chen, part of an ordnance-disposal unit near Fallujah, Iraq, recently wrote Force Protection about an encounter with the insurgency's most popular method of engagement.

"Two of my men in Ramadi survived an IED attack while in the Cougar," Chen wrote. "So I am a believer. All agree that it's the safest vehicle."

The Cougar, the smaller of the two vehicles, weighs about 16 tons, and is more versatile. It can be configured into a basic, 14-man troop transport (with air conditioning), or an advanced command-and-control center with wireless computers and radio-frequency jammers to disable IED detonators.

The 24-ton Buffalo is a bomb-clearing workhorse. When outfitted with an external camera, a 30-foot robotic arm and an attachment called "The Claw" that resembles a super-sized garden tool, the "troops don’t have to leave the vehicle to investigate what might be an explosive," said Child.

The inspiration for the armored trucks brings up some controversy. Vehicles closely resembling the Buffalo and Cougar were first engineered by the South African military and were used extensively to enforce apartheid.

Les Switzer, a journalism professor at the University of Houston, covered the apartheid uprisings for South African newspapers during the 1970s and '80s. He said black South Africans gave the hated vehicles a derogatory nickname: the "Saracen."

"The mere presence of a Saracen struck fear in the people," said Switzer, who wrote and edited seven books on apartheid, including South Africa's Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880s-1960s.

Following the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, Switzer said some of South Africa’s best engineers, scholars and scientists left the country.

Some found their way to Charleston, South Carolina, Force Protection's hometown, and two of the original scientists from the early days of the Saracen have been with Force Protection since the company's inception in 1997, Child said. He declined to provide their names but said the scientists did work for the South African military at one time.

Child said Force Protection has indeed adopted some fundamental design concepts from vehicles manufactured by the South African military, but has added many improvements.

And the company bristled at the South African connection. In a letter, the company said attempting to connect the technology to the apartheid regime of South Africa "is as outrageous as attempting to tie Boeing commercial aircraft to the German invention of the jet engine during World War II."


Copyright 2005, The Courier-Journal