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Another Casualty of the Surge

MRAP madness dies down.

11:00 PM, Dec 11, 2007 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle is loaded onto a
C-5 Galaxy aircraft Aug. 16 at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C.

IT WAS THE CAUSE du jour for the 110th Congress; a silver bullet that would save lives in an increasingly unpopular war, make even the most superfluous lawmaker look like they were on top of defense issues, and bolster the military credentials of any Pentagon-hostile Capitol Hill denizen.

It even had a catchy acronym: MRAP.

The so-called "Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected" vehicle became the latest symbol of the Bush administration's callous treatment of men and women in uniform--it was the new "body armor shortage" issue. And the "V-shaped hull" behemoths were easy to latch onto for lawmakers looking for a hardened steel club to batter the White House's handling of the war and equipping of America's troops.

"This is outrageous and another example of this Administration's gross mismanagement of this war. Our troops are being killed and these vehicles save lives. No more delays; no more excuses," Democratic presidential candidate and outspoken MRAP advocate Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said in an August 24 statement.

Most people didn't realize that MRAP vehicles were already in the Iraqi theater--used primarily by explosive ordnance disposal units that cruised the main supply routes for roadside bombs. When the issue exploded into the political debate, however, Congress flooded the Pentagon with money and mandates to outfit nearly every patrol with the IED-hardened vehicle--with some calling for a one-for-one replacement of up-armored Humvees.

A new defense secretary fresh out of confirmation hearings and eager to make nice with a Democratic Congress acceded to lawmakers' demands and launched a crash program to get as many MRAPs to the field as industry and logistics could bear.

But if anyone spoke for caution in this plan (and I was one of them), they were quickly shouted down as chicken hawks--dismissed as ignorant of the risks and deadly violence of plying Iraq's bomb-strewn roads.

But now the game has changed. Finally sober minds are beginning to prevail and the services are finding the courage to push back. Let's say the surge gave them the "breathing room" to take a moment to really examine whether these vehicles fit their battle plans or were, as one defense researcher termed them, just a "million dollar Kleenex."

To be sure, MRAPs have their place in a counterinsurgency. The Marine Corps was blamed early this year for taking too long to purchase their MRAPs. But the head of the Corps' Systems Command, which buys all Marine gear, rightly called the MRAP a "boutique vehicle"--one that had very specific uses but could not be employed in place of Humvees in all cases.

In October, the first fissures emerged in the MRAP debate when Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson revealed Marine commanders in Iraq were asking Pentagon leaders to slow down their shipment of the vehicles to Iraq. The vehicles come in three different sizes--from 10 to 25 tons--and even the smallest versions are too heavy for some bridges and roads and too wide for village streets. Nevertheless, the Pentagon, at the behest of Congress, began to flood the zone with orders, shipping the vehicles almost as soon as they came off the line.

"I would say 'relax.' We don't know how we're going to use them, nobody does," Nicholson told me. "And anyone who says 'this is exactly how many we need and this is exactly how we're going to use them' is not being truthful."

Nicholson was speaking for Marine commanders, but it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to figure his sentiment was shared by Army leaders in Iraq as well.

Many also wondered how the large, intimidating vehicles would work in a counterinsurgency campaign that emphasized interaction with the population and a "hearts-and-minds" approach. Not to mention that if the surge strategy worked, the IED risk to troops would drop and billions would have been spent on a vehicle that had outlived its usefulness.

"Our concern is there seems to be this rush to judgment on spending a fairly large amount of money on a program that hadn't been planned for and not much discussion about how you actually plan to operationalize this and incorporate it into the force," said Dakota Wood, former Marine transport officer and co-author of the CSBA analysis report "Of MRAPs and IEDs: Force Protection in Complex Irregular Operations."

Unfortunately, any reasonable approach to fielding these vehicles was shouted down by war opponents.