Thursday, March 25, 2010

Humvee moves over for hulking, tough MRAP

WASHINGTON — Within weeks, the Army will buy its last Humvee — its workhorse truck since the 1980s but a "death trap" in modern warfare — and drive soldiers to war in vehicles with better armor.

The Army plans to buy about 2,600 more Humvees to fill out its requirement of about 150,000. But those vehicles will be confined primarily to bases in war zones, relief missions in safer parts of the world and on Army posts, said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, an Army spokesman.

For battlefield commanders, the Humvee is "not the vehicle of choice" for troops in combat, Maj. Gen. Thomas Spoehr said in testimony he submitted recently to Congress. "For example, commanders in Afghanistan are relying more heavily on their fleets of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles."

Commanders prefer MRAPs because troops are much more likely to survive a blast from an improvised explosive device than they are in a Humvee. Last summer, they had proved to be "tens of times safer" than other vehicles in a bomb attack, according to the Joint IED Defeat Organization. The Pentagon is rushing a new all-terrain version of the vehicle to Afghanistan that is designed for its rugged terrain. There are about 1,000 of those vehicles in Afghanistan.

"The single-biggest reason for the demise of the Humvee was that it was never designed for the level of force protection that we feel we must have," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, which receives funding from the defense industry. "America is facing a range of enemies we never thought we were going to have to deal with. They use cellphones to detonate roadside bombs."

Army and Marine Corps commanders have known of the vehicle's vulnerability since a 1994 report, following the U.S. mission to Somalia, and said that even Humvees retrofitted with armor could be a "death trap" in a blast. The Humvee's primary problem, a 2008 Pentagon inspector general's report said, was its "flat bottom, low weight, low ground clearance and aluminum body." Those factors make the Humvees vulnerable to IEDs, especially those buried in roads.

Insurgents in Iraq attacked that weakness relentlessly. The result: IED blasts became the top killer of U.S. troops.

In 2007, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made fielding MRAPs a top priority for the Pentagon. Since then, 12,000 of the trucks have been shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan. The truck's raised chassis and V-shaped hull help protect troops from bombs buried in roads.

"Commanders consistently report that MRAPs, with their V-shaped hulls and added armored protection, are saving lives and reducing casualties," Spoehr said in his testimony.

By September, the Pentagon expects to have 5,250 all-terrain MRAPs in Afghanistan, Spoehr said. The Army expects to buy its last new Humvee in April.

Humvees won't soon rust and fade away, however. The Army's still buying spare parts and refurbishing them, Cummings said. And Marine Corps Commandant James Conway said late last year that the Marines are exploring ways to retrofit them with V-shaped hulls.

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