..but U.S. commanders in iraq confirm that Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles are saving troops' lives. Major General Rick Lynch, commander of the Multi-National Division Center, recently told USA Today that his troops are facing more attacks using explosive-formed penetrators, but thanks to MRAPs, they're surviving.
"The MRAPs, in addition to increasing the survivability of our soldiers from underbelly attacks, also have improved force protection for EFP attacks as well," Lynch said. "So I've had EFPs hit my MRAPs and the soldiers inside, in general terms, are OK."
Lynch's soldiers received their first MRAPs in November and now have 323, Maj Alayne Conway, a military spokeswoman said in an e-mail. Lynch blamed Shiite extremists for the rise in EFP attacks.
Sitting higher off the ground than HUMVEEs, tanks or Bradley fighting vehicles, the MRAP's V-shaped hull is designed to deflect explosions. They're also more resistant to deeply-buried IEDs and more difficult to target with EFPs, which generate a slug of molten metal, capable of penetrating many armored vehicles.
"We've lost 140 soldiers under my command since we've been involved in this operation," Lynch said by phone from Iraq. "Many were the result of being in uparmored HUMVEEs or Bradleys or tanks. Underbelly IEDs, with significant amounts of explosive material, have been devastating. They cause catastrophic kills in those vehicles. Those same kinds of attacks against MRAPs allow my soldiers to survive. I'm convinced of that."
While no one doubts the life-saving value of MRAP vehciles, their introduction on the battlefield has required some trade-offs. Rushing them to units in Iraq and Afghanistan tied up many of the Air Force's C-17 and C-5 transport sorties, and the Pentagon even contracted with commercial airlifters from Russian and Ukraine to fly MRAPs to the war zone.
The size and weight of the vehicles (which weigh an average of 22 tons) leaves little room for other cargo. The Air Force's largest jet transport (the C-5 Galaxy) can carry only two MRAPs at a time, and that aircraft has serious reliability issues. Larger numbers of MRAPs can be transported by ship, but that process is time-consuming. A cargo vessel delivering MRAPs to the Middle East requires 20-30 days to reach its destination.
Given those realities, military planners might face tough decisions in future conflicts, trying to balance MRAP shipments against the movement of other, equally vital cargoes. Making matters worse, some of the commercial airlift options being used in Iraq might not be available during future wars. That's an important consideration, since most MRAPs are being flown to the Middle East on Russian or Ukrainian AN-124s.
There are also concerns about the vehicle's utility in future operations. As The Christian Science Monitor reported last year, some military commanders and defense analysts worry that MRAPs may become "white elephants," with limited used in future conflicts.
Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway supports the MRAP and said the program was "the right thing to do." But thinking ahead, the Corps' top general is concerned that his service's traditional missions could be hindered by the costly and heavy truck that is virtually impossible to transport easily. General Conway also believes the truck is contributing to the Corps losing its "expeditionary flavor."
"Can I give a satisfactory answer to what we're going to be doing with those things in five or 10 years? Probably not," he told an audience at the Center for a New American Security, a new think tank in Washington.
But no one disputes the MRAP's impressive record in Iraq. No Marine has been killed or seriously injured while riding in the vehicles and a Marine general told Congress that troops are "five times more likely" to be hurt in an attack on an armored HUMVEE, compared to an MRAP.
With the armored trucks saving lives--literally on a daily basis--the Pentagon will continue its effort to buy up to 15,000 MRAPs, at a cost of $22 billion. As far as getting them to future battlefields--in a timely manner and with minimal disruption of other air shipments--that challenge may prove as daunting as the roadside bombs that MRAPs are designed to defeat.
ADDENDUM: USA Today's recent account also contains a quote by a senior Army general, who claims that UAVs have significantly reduced the IED threat. General Richard Cody, the service's Vice Chief of Staff, told Congress that drones have allowed coalition forces to identify and kill "several hundred" IED emplacers.
That's a rather interesting take, considering that the former head of the Air Force's Air Combat Command said last year that UAVs had been of little use in the IED hunt. General Ron Keys (who is now retired) made the comments in a speech to a defense group in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The conflicting observations of General Cody and General Keys reflect--among other things--a continuing battle over UAVS within the military. Ground forces have been screaming for more drone support, while the Air Force claims its UAV units (and their supporting intel systems) are already maxed out.