The MRAP: Brilliant Buy, or Billions Wasted?

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TONY KARUMBA / AFP / Getty Images

Army soldiers attached to the 2nd platoon, C-Coy. 1-23 Infantry based at Zangabad foward operating base in Panjwai district are silhouetted in a dust cloud after detonating Anti Personell Obstacle Breaching System during a dawn operation at Naja-bien village on Sept. 23, 2012.

The Pentagon celebrated its Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle program at the Pentagon on Monday, but the biggest question was left hanging: did the nearly $50 billion investment in MRAPs make sense?

Vice President Joe Biden joined Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter to herald the hulking machines, built and initially flown to Afghanistan and Iraq when IEDs began killing U.S. troops in alarming numbers.

The ceremony highlighted the work of civilian and military personnel who helped procure and field the 24,000 MRAPs to U.S. and coalition forces. And signaled the end of the MRAP production line.

MRAPs with their V-shaped, blast-deflecting hulls are “one of the most important acquisitions to come off the line since World War II,” Carter said. It is, he added, the Defense Department’s most important program “in the last decade.”

MRAP-like vehicles were few and far between in 2003, limited to route clearance and explosive ordinance disposal. Over the next four years the daily number of IED attacks increased six-fold, and it became clear that up-armored High Mobility, Multi-Wheeled Vehicles (Humvees) weren’t up to the job.

In May 2007 then-defense secretary Robert Gates told top Pentagon officials that “the MRAP should be considered the highest priority Department of Defense acquisition program.” Correspondingly, MRAP production surged from 82 vehicles a month in June 2007 to 1,300 vehicles amonth in December 2007. The average MRAP costs about $1 million.

Still, the MRAPs couldn’t come fast enough. Franz Gayl, a Marine science adviser, blew the whistle on bureaucratic ineptitude, after requests for more than 1,000 MRAPs were held up for 19 months during the height of the Iraqi insurgency, according to the Government Accountability Project.

Michael J. Sullivan, a military-procurement expert at the Government Accountability Office, told the House Armed Services Committee in 2009 that the trucks were coming off the assembly line so fast that testing and fielding had a “high degree of overlap” resulting in “orders for thousands of vehicles [being] placed before operational testing.”

Despite the flawed production process, lack of testing, and bulky handling, MRAPs were praised for their ability to save lives and limbs. In 2010, USA Today reported that MRAPs cut casualties from 2000 to 2010 by 30%, perhaps saving dozens of lives each month. In 2011, the Pentagon MRAP shop estimated that MRAPs saved up to a stunning 40,000 lives — 10,000 in Iraq and 30,000 Afghanistan.

But there’s been a recent reappraisal. In July, Chris Rohlfs and Ryan Sullivan wrote in Foreign Affairs that “the heavily-protected vehicles were no more effective at reducing casualties than the medium armored vehicles.” And the MRAPs are “three times as expensive as medium protected vehicles.”

The study suggested that the “40,000 saved lives” figure was an “unreasonable” premise that assumes “if the Army used up-armored Humvees rather than MRAPs, every attack on a vehicle would have resulted in the death of everyone inside.” While it is clear MRAPs saved lives, it is absurd to assume a Humvee would lose every life it carried.  Increased MRAPs also did not prevent IED casualties from skyrocketing in 2010.

There’s also the question what becomes of the nearly 13,000 of the vehicles that remain in use in Afghanistan. “Can you imagine Franklin Roosevelt being told, `We need X number of landing craft on D-Day, but you know, once we land, we’re not going to need them all again, so why build them?’” Biden wondered Monday.

Back in 2007, General Jim Conway, then the Marine commandant, questioned the need for so many of the heavy vehicles. “Those vehicles weigh 40,000 pounds each in the larger category,” he said. “Frankly, you can’t put them in a helicopter and you can’t even put them aboard ship.” As for their use after these wars? “Wrap them in shrink wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere is about the best thing that we can describe at this point,” he said. “And as expensive as they are, that is probably not a good use of the taxpayers’ money.”

But that was five years ago, when perhaps the IED threat was seen more as a passing fad than a permanent player on the battlefield. That no longer seems to be the case. Last week, the Pentagon’s top IED killer warned that such roadside bombs will remain a persistent threat for decades to come. “The IED is the weapon of choice for threat networks because they are cheap, made from readily available off-the-shelf components, easy to construct, lethal and accurate,” said Army Lieut. General Michael Barbero, chief of the Joint IED Defeat Organization.

In which case it might make sense to have some shrink-wrapped and ready to go.