View Full Version : Bomb-resistant truck effort in overdrive

01-19-08, 06:51 AM
Bomb-resistant truck effort in overdrive

By RICHARD LARDNER, Associated Press Writer
Fri Jan 18, 3:13 PM ET

A multibillion-dollar effort to produce bomb-resistant vehicles for U.S. troops in Iraq is moving "as fast as humanly possible," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday, after a visit to the military facilities playing a key role in the program.

The project to build thousands of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles — known as "MRAPs" — ought to be a case study for a Harvard Business School class on how to move a major manufacturing project from a concept to reality, Gates said.

"For all of the talk about how Washington can't get anything done, this is an amazing example of Republicans, Democrats, the executive branch, the Congress, manufacturers, government bureaucrats, everybody pitching in and doing the right thing," he told reporters during the flight back to Washington.

Demand for the vehicles remains strong, Gates said, as improvised explosive devices remain a significant threat in Iraq.

"For the first half of January, there were about as many IEDs as there were in all of December," he said.

Congress has provided $22.4 billion for as many as 15,000 of the vehicles, which weigh between 19 and 40 tons.

Lawmakers have complained that the consortium of military agencies and private companies has been moving too slowly to field the lifesaving MRAPs.

Gates, who declared the speedy purchase of MRAPs the Pentagon's top acquisition priority last May, received briefings from the officers and civilian executives at a Navy facility where sensitive electronic gear and gun turrets are installed on the heavy trucks built by defense contractors.

The defense secretary also met with officers at Charleston Air Force Base, where large airlifters fly MRAPs to the Middle East. MRAPs cost between $500,000 and $1 million, depending on their size and how they are equipped.

Gates made the visit, about three hours, to get a firsthand look at how the MRAPs move through the manufacturing chain.

The vehicles have a V-shaped hull and sit about 36 inches off the ground. When a bomb explodes, its elevated geometry pushes the explosion out and away.

By comparison, a Humvee, which has a flat bottom and rides much lower, traps the blast and shoves it up toward the crew.

The Navy warfare center installs satellite radios, a tool to track friendly forces, and devices to jam the signals that trigger roadside bombs. The companies building the MRAPs don't have the capacity or personnel to install such sensitive gear, according to defense officials.

The center, known as the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, was criticized during a November hearing. The facility was not properly organized to do the work and was not turning out the trucks fast enough, critics said at the time.

Another problem: the four military branches each wanted unique gear installed on the vehicles. The Army and Marine Corps, for example, have insisted on different intercom systems and different jammers. The result is a greater variety of vehicles - nearly two dozen - and more time is needed to complete them.

Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the Navy and Marine Corps, said there's still too much custom work being done.

"We need mass production," Taylor said Thursday in a telephone interview. "We need more commonality."

John Young, the Pentagon's top acquisition official, said the program has made great strides in the past few months. More than 3,300 vehicles have been produced and 1,500 of those are in the hands of warfighters. Almost all the fielded vehicles are in Iraq.

In July, MRAPs arriving at the Navy center from the manufacturer had an average of six defects per vehicle that had to be repaired, said Young, who was traveling with Gates. The vehicles now being delivered by manufacturers have fewer than one defect, he said.

"Quality has dramatically improved," Young said.

The Navy center now is outfitting 50 or more vehicles a day, he added, up from 20 two months ago. To handle the rush of MRAPs needing electronic equipment, the Defense Department has opened a second plant in Orangeburg, S.C., about 60 miles northwest of Charleston.

Force Protection Inc., located outside Charleston, and other defense contractors, including BAE Systems in York, Pa., and Navistar International in Warrenville, Ill., have reached a collective output of more than 1,000 MRAPs a month. The Pentagon has ordered nearly 12,000 MRAPs from these companies.

While the MRAPs offer far more protection than Humvees, their bulk is a liability. It's difficult to chase the enemy down narrow roads, over unstable bridges, or across rough terrain in such a large vehicle. For those reasons, along with the improved security environment in western Iraq, the Marine Corps will buy just 2,300 of the vehicles instead of the 3,700 it initially planned. The cut will save the Marines $1.7 billion.

The Army still wants 10,000 MRAPs, but like the Marine Corps plans to keep its more mobile Humvees. The Navy, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command are also buying the vehicles, although in much smaller numbers.

Gates downplayed the cut by the Marine Corps. Battlefield commanders will determine how many vehicles they need, he said, and the Defense Department will not force them to buy more than they want.

"We want to meet their need," he said.