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The Auto Show: A Look at the MRAP Program October 6, 2009

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Guest BlogThis is the seventh posting in a series of guest blogs that BFAD is featuring each Tuesday.  This week features Joseph Trevithick, an Associate at GlobalSecurity.org.

The Auto Show: A Look at the MRAP Program

By Joseph Trevithick

The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle program (MRAP) and its related offshoots have all focused on protecting the American warfighter.  The veritable auto show of vehicles was acquired because of an urgent need to respond to a specific set of problems, primarily the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that had appeared in Iraq and subsequently in Afghanistan.  The severity of the threat triggered a response that went outside the normal methods of defense acquisition, and led to a profusion of similar, but ultimately unrelated vehicles being brought into service.  On the surface, the program and its cost seem justified.  So why, after two years, is it now important to examine the MRAP program and its potential costs to the US taxpayer?

Firstly, MRAP has been the Department of Defense’s (DOD) highest acquisition priority since the first procurement contracts were awarded in January 2007.  Between 2007 and March 2008, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the program had cost over $27 billion.  MRAP then received more than $3 billion in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. A more complete look at the MRAP program’s history can be found at Globalsecurity.org.

All of this money has been spent on a vehicle that the U.S. military has historically resisted and has little or no clear desire to retain after ending operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  MRAP came at the cost of other vehicle programs, most notably the Future Tactical Truck Systems (FTTS), intended to offer significant improvements over then existing types of tactical wheeled vehicles, and various efforts to improve fuel efficiency.  These programs were influenced by decades of lessons learned on reducing costs and maintenance requirements by focusing on a small number of vehicle families built to common standards.  The vehicles procured under the MRAP program stood in contrast to this standardization, which has been a hallmark of the US military since 1917.

The 2009 GAO Defense Acquisitions Report, which examines selected weapon systems, stated that DOD “has yet to make decisions on the MRAP’s role in its tactical wheeled vehicle strategy.”  This is because the MRAP was not at all part of this strategy before 2003 and its future in the strategy is unclear.  MRAP type vehicles epitomize the theory that the military deployments following the end of the Cold War have, and will always be, related to peacekeeping, peace enforcement, nation building, or other similar activities.  These missions are filled with asymmetric threats and generally lack traditional front and rear areas.  This in turn requires that troops and equipment, previously expected to be in safe rear areas, must be protected to a much higher level.  To fully integrate the MRAP into any future planning strategy would be an admission of this reality.

What makes MRAP different from vehicles of the past is that it is an interim solution with costs equal to a major defense acquisition program.  This interim solution to a very specific problem in turn stalled other programs, some of which predated inauguration of the Global War on Terror and were intended to lead to a new generation of tactical military vehicles to replace aging systems dating back to the 1980s.  As a result of the MRAP program, it has become unclear when these replacement systems will finally enter service.

The most visible of these is the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), intended to replace the ubiquitous HMMWV.  The requirements for the most recent spin-off of the MRAP program, MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV), have caused some to wonder whether that might have an effect on the JLTV program.  Progress on JLTV had already been in part by MRAP.  The program dates back to 2002, when it was still part of the FTTS program.  Discussion of a companion cargo vehicle, intended to reduce the US Army’s 2 major combat truck families, the FMTV and the HEMTT, into a single common vehicle family, has since largely been dropped.

MRAP stands in stark contrast to these efforts.  As of June 2009, the US Army’s Project Manager Mine Resistant Ambush Protected was managing 27 MRAP sub-variants in six vehicle families.  Among these were two vehicles produced by Force Protection, Inc. alone, which do not even use the same engine.  At that time, only one type of MRAP vehicle had any commonality to any other vehicle family in US military service.  Just by acquiring MRAPs, the Army and Marine Corps each effectively doubled the number of tactical wheeled vehicle systems they operated.

This is a by-product of the speed at which the vehicles were fielded.  The US military had successfully tested only 32 prototype MRAPs in just two months before issuing contracts, in comparison to the test of 1,500 jeep prototypes between July 1940 and October 1941.  While obviously impressive, the World War II jeep contracts were awarded to only two companies, which both built vehicles to a single common specification.  The Most other prototypes were subsequently shipped to Britain and the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease, thus preventing potential logistics problems.  The jeeps required few if any modifications until they were replaced with an improved version a decade later.

Theoretically, there was no reason why a common MRAP could not have been procured.  Multiple contractors could have worked to produce a single family of vehicles.  With the exception of Navistar, the remaining MRAP contractors are all involved in a partnership with at least one of the other companies, and sometimes more than one.  Unfortunately, the existing defense acquisition process moves at a snail’s pace.  It was designed in the post-World War II environment, intended for peace-time procurement, not operational needs.  Had such a process been embarked upon, warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan might still be waiting for a suitable armored vehicle.  The requirements of war rarely follow the projections of peace- time military planning.

MRAP’s scale, unfortunately, meant that many of the issues of standardization quickly became apparent.  Much was spent on design changes to resolve issues not discovered in the short testing period.  At least four different types of vehicles were tested between 2007 and 2008 under an MRAP II program that sought to identify vehicles with better characteristics against Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs), which began appearing in Iraq during 2007.  Two entirely new vehicles were tested.  The MRAP II program was quietly canceled, apparently because the designs failed to meet expectations.  A crash program to add additional armor to existing types, which started around the same time as MRAP II, continued instead.

MRAPs, generally very large vehicles, were also found to be largely unsuitable for the environments experienced in Afghanistan.  Roads, where available, were generally unimproved and narrow.  The M-ATV program was started develop an MRAP type vehicle with better off-road mobility.  Only 2 of the 5 submissions were clearly related to existing MRAP types.  In the end, however, a vehicle derived from the Marine Corps standard medium truck family was selected, an indication of a desire to return to standardization.  The vehicle selected was unrelated to any of the existing MRAP types.  The M-ATV program was conducted more like a traditional defense acquisition program, with only a single vehicle selected at the end of a process that took a total of 11 months to go from the request for proposals to operational deployment.  The speed at which these vehicles were procured was still comparatively fast for a major defense acquisition, and could only have been achieved with the work already done through the original MRAP program.

Undoubtedly the MRAP program has saved lives, but this is in the context of historically low casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan. The speed at which MRAPs were developed and fielded represented an impressive response to an immediate operational need.  It is likely that at no other time in US history has a weapon system of this size been acquired and fielded in such numbers in such a short time.  Still, the resulting vehicle fleet and its lack of standardization are less than ideal.  This was a compromise to meet the urgent requirement.

The final costs and fate of MRAP will not be known until US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US military takes stock of what is left of this very diverse vehicle fleet.  It is possible that the remaining MRAPs will be stored until such time they are once again needed.  Or they could be sold or given to allies who need them.  A third option might be to select one vehicle family to focus on and improve for future contingencies.  Whatever the case may be, MRAPs are likely here to stay in one form or another.

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