tampabay.com

Tool of war trumped

With roadside bombs claiming troops at an alarming rate, a general urgently requests an armored replacement of the Humvee. Two years later, the vehicles are arriving in droves, but the enemy is already prepared.

By DAVID DECAMP
Published July 15, 2007


U.S. soldiers in Iraq will soon see shipments of specially armored trucks designed to withstand the roadside bombs that have killed more service members there than any other single cause.

This should be good news, but the truck's troubled path has tempered optimism for it.

The Marine Corps' urgent request for the first big batch of these vehicles languished in red tape for almost two years. And in that time, Iraqi insurgents, who saw a handful of the vehicles used around Baghdad, upgraded their bombs to penetrate the truck's armor.

Instead of demonstrating America's war fighting prowess, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle -- MRAP in military parlance -- illustrates how even a wealthy industrial power can struggle to wage war against a nimble and unconventional enemy.

America relies on a slow defense bureaucracy, politicians to approve spending and commercial industry to build the better MRAP. Insurgents get their hands on an explosive, go to a machine shop for changes, and trigger it with a common cell phone.

"This is one of the things that we deal with almost every day -- how much time it takes between when you establish a need and you address that need and get it in the field," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, the ranking Republican and former chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee.

A plea unfilled

The MRAP story started in February 2005.

Before Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the MRAP the Pentagon's "top priority" last month, before Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden thrust its deployment delays into the spotlight in May, a Marine brigadier general named Dennis Hejlik thought it was a good idea, too.

Damage and casualties from roadside bombs had spiked in the first month of 2005. Hejlik sent an urgent request dated Feb. 12, 2005, for 1,169 hulking MRAP vehicles, whose V-shaped bodies deflected bomb blasts better than the flat-bellied Humvee. Military officials say the MRAP reduces casualties by two-thirds to 80 percent.

"Without MRAP, personnel loss rates are likely to continue at their current rate," Hejlik wrote in his request. "Continued casualty accumulation exhibits potential to jeopardize mission success."

But relying on the Humvee's more standardized design, the Marines did not approve his request. More Humvees went into Iraq. Even with heavier armor, more Humvee casualties occurred.

Meanwhile, MRAP vehicles trickled in. In May 2005, 122 were ordered for use across the military, though most of those trucks arrived late, according a recent audit of the MRAP program.

On the ground in Iraq, the case was building for the MRAPs. By December 2006, roadside bombs had become the reason for half of U.S. deaths each month. Early that December, a renewed request cleared its last hurdle to have 1,185 MRAPs shipped to Iraq, according to a memo by Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps.

That approval opened the way for thousands more of the vehicles to be approved and slowly start shipping. At the moment, 4,935 have been approved and funded. Some are on their way now.

In an e-mail response Monday, Lt. Geraldine Carey, a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps System Command, said limited availability of MRAP vehicles before November 2006 contributed to the reliance on the Humvee.

"Since the establishment of the MRAP vehicle program in November 2006, production capability of MRAP vehicles has increased significantly," Carey said.

Political heat

But bureaucracy also choked the flow of MRAPs, as well as other equipment, to soldiers, according to documents made public in a report by the Project on Government Oversight and the Associated Press.

They uncovered a review of the military's purchase process that was done for the secretary of defense, which found that equipment requests "frequently languished" in the approval process.

As for the kind of urgent request Hejlik made, the documents said, "Process worship cripples operating forces."

Learning of the MRAP delays prompted Biden, a U.S. senator from Delaware and Democratic presidential candidate, to add $1.5-billion for the vehicles to an Iraq spending bill in May.

In June, Biden and Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., sent a letter to Secretary Gates. They cited a report by the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, to argue that if the military had been using MRAPs since 2005, "621 to 742 Americans would still be alive today and many times that number would have avoided serious injuries." Brookings says roadside bombs have accounted for about 40 percent of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq since the beginning of the war.

A day after that June 28 letter, Gates called the MRAP the top acquisition priority for the Pentagon.

"My attitude is, as long as there's a single damn troop there, if you know you can reduce by between 72 percent and 80 percent the casualty rate ... you should build them," Biden said last week during a conference call.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who is on the House Armed Services Committee, used the issue to attack the White House.

"It's been an ongoing problem -- the administration's lack of planning, lack of leadership, lack of vision," she said.

Her committee has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to get an update on the MRAP program.

Young of Indian Shores said nobody is to blame. Money was appropriated and technology was developed as quickly as possible, and Congress relied on the military's assessment.

Military experts say it's not as simple as either side tells it.

"We do have the disadvantage of a larger turning radius. We do suffer from a bureaucratic operation," said John Pike, director of the nonpartisan globalsecurity.org in Washington, an analyst of military strategy.

Trying to predict

The vehicles are large and expensive. Ramping up production and securing supplies, such as steel, takes time and must be managed, said retired Marine Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, who is a senior fellow at Washington's Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments.

In addition, the question of troop levels complicates matters.

"If you're at 150,000 people now, but you think that a year from now, the force will be half that," Wood said, "it would seem that it would be wise to not support such a large purchase, when the numbers in Iraq will be able to be smaller."

No problem for foes

In Iraq, insurgents don't rely on procurement procedures or an appropriations process or other lumbering systems.

A version of the MRAP has been on patrol in Iraq in small numbers almost from the beginning, but not for routine patrols. The insurgent bombs that penetrate the armor, called "explosively formed projectiles," began appearing in 2005.

American military leaders have blamed Iran for pushing the penetrating bombs into use.

The military reports that enemies are expected to employ them more frequently -- just as MRAPs are expected to arrive in Iraq by the thousands.

In response, Ceradyne Inc. recently announced a new vehicle called the Bull that it says protects against the projectiles. But the Pentagon must still approve this next-generation vehicle, and it is uncertain how prevalent the penetrating explosives will become, Pike said.

And anyway, America's military procurement system has been readied to start delivering MRAPs. The Pentagon is considering how to rapidly send 17,700 there. Already 7,774 MRAP vehicles have been green-lighted at a cost of $8.4.-billion, though not all of those are paid for yet. Up to 23,000 could be sent to Iraq to replace Humvees.

"There is no magic solution to this, and I think that, you know, this has been an evolving threat and it's been an evolving response," Gates said on June 29. "And we're dealing with, as you've heard us say before, a smart, agile enemy who adjusts his tactics."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6232.