(by Yochi J. Dreazen, WSJ.com) ABERDEEN, Md. — … At the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a sprawling military testing facility north of Baltimore, engineers … are testing bomb-resistant trucks that have been outfitted with new suspension systems designed for Afghanistan’s unpaved roads and rocky mountain passes.
On a recent visit, military contractor Mark Jackson maneuvered one of the trucks down a steep hill. The truck’s cabin shook violently, but the vehicle — a “mine-resistant ambush protected” truck, or MRAP — made it to the bottom without any problems. “You’d never even have tried that with an old MRAP,” Mr. Jackson said inside the truck. “It wouldn’t have made it even halfway down the hill.”
The work at Aberdeen reflects the military’s growing realization that the current versions of the $1 million trucks don’t work in Afghanistan. The MRAPs are a good fit for Iraq, which has well-developed roads and highways, but the vehicles are so wide and heavy that their axles literally snap in half in Afghanistan.
“The MRAPs were bought for Iraq,” said Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan, who is leading the effort to install the new suspension systems. “They weren’t bought with any vision of needing to handle the rough terrain that’s common in Afghanistan.”
The problems with the $28.2 billion MRAP fleet highlight the challenges facing the military as it shifts its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan.
For the past six years, the bulk of the military’s training and equipping efforts have been devoted to Iraq, while Afghanistan was relegated to the back-burner. The U.S. bought vehicles, body armor and other equipment designed for Iraq’s urban war zones. It sent soldiers and Marines to desert training grounds that simulated Iraq’s temperatures and topography, and had Iraqi-Americans pretend to be imams and tribal leaders in extensive role-playing sessions.
Pentagon officials began ordering MRAPs to protect U.S. soldiers in Iraq in response to the mounting casualty toll from roadside bombs there. The military, still stung by criticism that it had failed to supply troops with adequate body armor early in the war, moved to deploy the vehicles quickly.
The military eventually purchased nearly 16,000 MRAPs, in what would become the Pentagon’s largest wartime buying effort since World War II.
Today, the Pentagon is scrambling to reconfigure itself for a very different kind of war. Military officials are experimenting with new, lightweight body armor to aid troops faced with trekking through Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. It also is moving ahead with plans for a $2 billion fleet of armored off-road vehicles that are being specially designed for Afghanistan. The military hopes to award the first contracts for the next-generation vehicles this summer.
In the meantime, the military wants to retrofit nearly all 1,000 MRAPs being used in Afghanistan, at a cost of about $100,000 per vehicle. The Pentagon’s cumbersome bureaucracy, and a complicated ramp-up for manufacturers, has slowed the effort — to date, only five trucks have received the new suspension system.
MRAPs were developed in South Africa in the 1970s and have been used by armed forces around the world for decades. The enormous trucks sit high off the ground and are designed to come apart in an explosion, dissipating the force of the blast. An MRAP had a cameo in the 2007 “Transformers” movie as an evil robot named Bonecrusher.
Military officials first began receiving reports of problems with the MRAPs in late 2007, shortly after sending some of the trucks to Afghanistan. Troops in the field said the trucks were regularly breaking down when they went off-road or along one of the country’s dirt paths.
U.S. officials realized that the problem stemmed from the MRAP’s basic design. Both sets of wheels on the trucks were connected to a single axle, preventing the tires from moving independently in response to uneven terrain. When the trucks went off road, the axles often snapped.
“The axles began failing at an alarming rate,” said Kim Yarboro, a civilian program manager overseeing the Marine MRAP effort. “We’d normally only need to replace one or two per year, but we suddenly had 20 or 30 down for an axle at a time.”
Working with contractors like Force Protection Inc., military engineers experimented with independent suspension systems, which allow each wheel to move on its own to better absorb shock. In an early test, a vehicle that that had been outfitted with the new axles reacted badly in a controlled explosion. The engineers solved the problem by installing additional shielding on the bottom of the trucks.
“It’s not going to be as maneuverable as a Humvee or other vehicles that are designed to go off-road,” Gen. Brogan said. “But it will be able to take a lot more abuse.”
Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. What is an MRAP?
2. Why is the U.S. military remaking the MRAP?
3. What has been the focus of the military’s training and equipping efforts for the past six years?
4. For what purpose were the MRAPs ordered for use in Iraq?
5. a) How many MRAPs did the military buy?
b) How much does each vehicle cost?
6. How much will it cost in total to retrofit the almost one thousand MRAPs being used in Afghanistan?
7. In an effort to lower government spending, President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have proposed cutting some funding to the military.
Do you think that any military spending should be cut at this time? Explain your answer.
View information on the MRAP from contractor Force Protection Inc.’s website at forceprotection.net/models/cougar.
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