By Renae Merle and Ann Scott Tyson
Standing by a vehicle touted by the military as one of its most effective defenses against roadside bombs, Marine Staff Sgt. Tim Kessler couldn't help but sound pleased. Operating the so-called mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles in and around the western Iraqi city of Fallujah, two Marines in his mine-clearing unit have been wounded, but none has been killed. During one recent mission, the entire front of a vehicle was blown off, but the only injury suffered by a crew member was a broken heel.
For a unit that's hit by a roadside bomb every other day, those results are significant. "In certain situations, these will hold up a lot better than a tank," Kessler said earlier this year at a military camp outside Fallujah.
The experience of Kessler's unit and others like it has made these specialized vehicles -- known as MRAPs -- a favorite not only among troops in Iraq but among policymakers in Washington. Last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said "we're doing everything we possibly can" to speed the flow of MRAPs to Iraq. "For every month we delay," Gates said, "scores of young Americans are going to die."
Yesterday, the Pentagon said it had given the Army the go-ahead to purchase as many as 17,700 MRAPs -- more than three times the Army's earlier authorization -- through the end of next year.
Earlier this year, the Marine Corps decided it needed 3,700 MRAPs. Marine officials have said they want to increase the number of MRAP vehicles in Iraq's Anbar province, where Fallujah is situated, from the current 100 to 525 by the end of the year and eventually use them to replace the ubiquitous Humvee on all off-base operations.
The obvious appeal of the MRAP stems from its design. Though more than a half-dozen companies are producing test versions that differ in some regards, they all share two main features: a raised chassis and V-shaped hull meant to deflect the impact of roadside bombs -- the biggest killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Yet the MRAP is not invincible. Some have been destroyed by roadside bombs -- including the latest threat on Iraqi roads, explosively formed projectiles -- and U.S. troops have died in them. The Marine Corps says it has not lost anyone in an MRAP, but some Army soldiers have been killed in MRAP vehicles known as RG-31s that were hit by roadside bombs, according to Pentagon casualty reports. Military officials would not give detailed statistics.
"There is probably no such thing as absolute protection or any perfect defeat vehicle," said Lt. Col. William Wiggins, an Army spokesman. "Any weapon can malfunction and be defeated on the battlefield. However, our ongoing task is to continuously assess the threat and capabilities, how to maximize ours and defeat theirs. When we evaluate a vehicle for a particular mission, we consider its level of protection, performance and payload, and the MRAP provides us increased capabilities in those areas."
Gates, too, acknowledged that the MRAP vehicles, while far safer than Humvees, cannot withstand strikes by very large or sophisticated road bombs. "There is no fail-safe. These large IEDs can destroy an Abrams tank," he said. "But I think the experience of the Marines in Anbar suggests that the MRAP, and particularly with the V-shaped hull, does provide significantly enhanced protection for the soldiers and Marines inside."
Military personnel have also noted that MRAPs, which cost about $1 million each, are difficult to maneuver on narrow streets in dense urban areas -- the sort of terrain common in Baghdad, Fallujah, Baqubah and many other Iraqi cities. In addition, the vehicles are likely to be too heavy to be brought back to the United States and not likely to be useful for normal duties on military bases, said Dean Lockwood, a weapons systems analyst for Forecast International, a research firm.
The success of the vehicles has drawn praise from Congress, which added $4 billion to this year's defense authorization bill for the MRAP program, up from the $400 million the Pentagon had requested. And as Congress presses the Pentagon to speed deployment of the vehicles and defense contractors prepare for large orders, the rush has created a potential $20 billion program that could become one of the Pentagon's largest.
But the current rush has been accompanied by criticism that the Pentagon was slow in adopting the technology. A Marine Corps official in Iraq requested more than 1,000 of the vehicles in 2005, but the program was not launched for another year, said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate. The "request got buried for over a year," Biden said. "Imagine if we had started building them in '05? How many lives could we have saved?"
The Marine Corps disputes the charge that it ignored the request. At the time, the vehicle's manufacturers were not capable of producing a large number quickly, said Maj. Jay Delarosa, a Marine Corps spokesman. The Marine Corps opted to buy thousands more of a new version of the armored Humvee, the M1114, instead. At the time, the M1114 was considered the "gold standard" and the MRAP was not as well defined, he said.
"Since the threat has become more lethal, the MRAP . . . defined as we know it in 2007 terms, should be considered as the platinum standard," Delarosa said.
The Marine Corps has issued more than $1 billion in orders for the vehicle, including more than $450 million in contracts awarded last week to International Military and Government, Force Protection Industries and Rockville-based BAE Systems. When the vehicles will begin to arrive in Iraq in large numbers depends on how quickly the industry can ramp up, Delarosa said.
A Defense Contract Management Agency report recently found that contractors might have trouble obtaining thin-gauge armor steel plate, tires, axles and other crucial components, according to a Pentagon statement. Only few plants in North America are capable of making the 3/8 -inch steel needed for the vehicles, the statement said. In an effort to accelerate MRAP production to 1,200 vehicles a month, the Pentagon gave the program a "DX" rating, giving manufacturers special preference in getting access to raw materials.
BAE has received orders for 94 vehicles, which it expects to deliver this summer. But its version of the vehicle requires four to five tons of steel each. The steel usually must be ordered six months in advance, making it difficult to produce them quickly without significant planning, said Matt Riddle, vice president of survivability systems at BAE.
"You want 1,000 vehicles a month, but that's 4,000 tons of steel. The question is, do you have enough industrial capacity?" Riddle said.
Tyson reported from Fallujah.