Thursday, February 4, 2010

MRAP can take fight off-road

WASHINGTON — The latest armored vehicles aimed at shielding troops from roadside bombs are so maneuverable off roads that they give U.S. troops an offensive advantage as they prepare for major operations against insurgents this spring, a Marine general running the vehicle program says.

The speed and maneuverability of the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles transform it "from simply a means of transportation to an offensive capability," Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan said.

There are about 300 of the all-terrain MRAPs being used in combat, Brogan said. Military leaders seek 6,000 more of the vehicles to protect troops from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Last year, the number of IEDs planted by insurgents more than doubled to nearly 8,000.

The ability to travel off-road is critical in Afghanistan. The country is about the size of Texas and has rugged terrain and few paved routes. Standard MRAP trucks, which have a high center of gravity and weigh more than 30,000 pounds, have been confined mostly to the roads that do exist.

Lack of mobility makes MRAPs and other heavier vehicles easier to target for insurgents, Brogan says. Better mobility was a key requirement for the new truck.

"This vehicle offers the ability that the baseline MRAPs didn't, namely the ability to get off-road and maneuver," Brogan said. "That makes the targeting exponentially more difficult for the bad guys."

The vehicle enables troops to stay unpredictable and confound insurgents, says Dakota Wood, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"As long as you have to travel on roads, you make yourself an easier target," Wood said. "If you broaden your options on where you can go, that's good for you."

MRAPs have proved far safer in bomb blasts in Afghanistan than any other vehicle. Troops are "tens of times" more likely to be wounded or killed in other vehicles in an IED attack, according to the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel Tuesday that IEDs are "absolutely the worst killer and maimer of our troops." He said MRAPs made "a huge difference" in limiting the carnage from IEDs.

Starting this month, 500 to 1,000 new MRAPs will begin arriving per month in Afghanistan, Gates told senators.

There are more than 70,000 U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan, and about 100,000 will be there later this year as part of the escalation ordered by President Obama. There may be the need for 4,000 more MRAPs, Brogan said. The final number will be determined by the Pentagon and combat commanders.

It takes about 14 hours for Oshkosh Defense, the truck's maker, to produce the vehicle on its assembly lines in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Brogan said. The company is about 300 trucks ahead of schedule, he said.

It's an expensive effort. The trucks cost about $1 million apiece. Demand for them requires that each is flown in by cargo jet. It costs more than $150,000 to fly each one aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo jet or $140,000 aboard a commercial flight. By spring, the Pentagon hopes to have enough of the trucks in Afghanistan to begin sending them by ship, a slower but cheaper alternative to flying, Brogan said.

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