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09-11-08, 08:54 AM #1
Big Wheels for Iraq’s Mean Streets
Big Wheels for Iraq’s Mean Streets
By CHRIS DIXON
ON the first day of his third deployment to Iraq, Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher Spurlock was traveling in a convoy that was helping to clear roadside bombs in Ramadi. Sergeant Spurlock was riding in an armored transport known as an MRAP, and his vehicle, a Cougar, was fourth or fifth in line.
“We were traveling, at the most, 10 miles an hour,” he said. “Then we came up to a really bad intersection. The next thing you know, I was being flipped upside down into the air. I had been sitting on the driver’s side of a six-wheeled Cougar and ended up face-down on the passenger side.”
Sergeant Spurlock’s 20-ton transport had been hammered by an improvised explosive device, better known as an I.E.D. When the sergeant and his men stumbled out, ears ringing, they were astonished to find that the smoldering truck’s massive six-wheel-drive transfer case had been blown off.
“Gears were sticking out and everything,” he said. “And there was a huge hole in the ground where the bomb was. But everyone was O.K.”
MRAPs, shorthand for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, are essentially troop carriers designed to withstand land mines. Hardly new technology, they were developed in South Africa in the 1970s. Engineers deduced that mine blasts could be directed out and away from a vehicle by elevating it and creating a V-shaped hull along its base.
Despite that military provenance, most MRAPs coming out of American factories are made with so many components from International Harvester and Mack — including drivetrains and chassis — that long-haul truckers would feel at home behind the wheel. While the United States military had a handful of these vehicles at the start of the Iraq war, their ability to protect troops from I.E.D.’s has made them vital, igniting a manufacturing frenzy.
The most widely used vehicle in Iraq is still the Humvee, but the bottom of even the most heavily armored of these is flat. This provides far more surface area for an explosive impact and allows the shock wave to ricochet from the Humvee to the ground and then back. “A bomb like that would toss a Humvee, split it and penetrate it,” Sergeant Spurlock said.
Last May, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a measure that would allow the Army to replace its armored Humvees in Iraq with MRAPs. In early October, he spoke in support of the measure by citing an I.E.D. attack on an MRAP in Ramadi. The vehicle was blown so high that it literally took down telephone wires. But all seven occupants were relatively unharmed. By the end of 2007, $22.4 billion was earmarked for the MRAP in the military spending budget, with the eventual deployment of about 15,400 vehicles.
“Gen. James T. Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, has said that you have a 300 percent better chance of surviving a blast in an MRAP vs. an up-armored Humvee,” Senator Biden said.
In January, the military reported its first death in Iraq from an attack on an MRAP, when an I.E.D. destroyed a Navistar-made vehicle, wounding three soldiers and killing one, the gunner, who had been partly exposed outside of the vehicle. A few days before the attack, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had called the vehicle “a proven lifesaver on the battlefield.”
He cited Army reports that said since last summer, there had been 12 bomb attacks, with no deaths, on the vehicles.
But Force Protection, the Charleston, S.C., company that makes the Cougar, said that over a longer time frame, from shortly after the war began in 2003 through last month, its MRAPs had been attacked with explosives about 3,200 times, resulting in the deaths of five servicemen.
Although some current and former marines are critical of relying too much on the vehicles, fearing that they might change the fast-moving nature of the force, by mid-January about 2,500 MRAPs were in Iraq, up from about 100 in June. By this June, the military expected it would have more than 6,000, the bulk in Iraq.
Cheryl Irwin, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said nine manufacturers originally competed for contracts to build the vehicles and four were chosen: the Navistar International Corporation, manufacturer of International Harvester trucks; a partnership between Force Protection and General Dynamics; and BAE Systems of Rockville, Md.
Visits to the huge, frenetic manufacturing plants of Navistar in Mississippi and Force Protection in Charleston are sobering, but also offer an impressive display of the improvisational thinking that has helped to meet dizzying production demands. As recently as last May, Navistar’s plant in West Point, Miss., was a mothballed factory that once made industrial boilers. Today, the 400,000-square-foot plant has about 900 workers. Tim Touhy, a Navistar spokesman, said the company received its first order, for 1,971 vehicles, which Navistar calls the MaxxPro, last May. Navistar’s total order is for about 4,470 MRAPs and Force Protection’s is for about 3,400.
“The whole plant is aware of the seriousness of this work,” said David Creasap, the plant operations development manager. “Many folks have children or parents over there.”
Navistar imports its blast-resistant steel hull from Plasan Sasa, an Israeli armor manufacturer. The hull is then shipped to Navistar’s plant in Garland, Tenn. There, it may share the assembly line with a cement mixer or a tractor-trailer body. Bolted to the chassis of International’s 7400 Severe Service truck, the hull is shipped to Mississippi where an Allison 4-by-4 drivetrain is bolted to a 8.7-liter, 330-horsepower six-cylinder International turbodiesel motor.
Reaching the assembly team, the four-wheel eight-passenger MaxxPro is part Blade Runner, part Smokey and the Bandit. Any trucker would recognize its cigarette lighter outlets, cruise control, wipers and gauges. But when the doors thunder closed with an ear-popping airlock hiss, it becomes obvious that this is no dump truck. A barometer monitors the interior air pressure, part of a deafening chemical/nuclear/biological air-conditioning and filtration system. Four-point harness seats swing from straps attached to the ceiling.
“When a bomb hits, the shock wave rolls up through your legs and the seat,” Mr. Creasap said. “We performed blasts with mannequins and found that putting all the seat stress at the top is the safest way to mount them.” (In the January attack that killed the gunner, the injuries included broken feet.)
When Tommy Pruitt, the communications director of Force Protection, joined the company in 2005, it was making “from one to four vehicles a month,” he said. “Now it’s a hundred plus.”
Force Protection moved into a 550,000-square-foot campus in 2006, once home to a General Electric turbine engine plant. The plant has about 500 workers.
The 4-by-4 Cougar and MaxxPro are Category I, the smallest of three MRAP classifications, while the 6-wheel, 10-passenger models are Category II. The 45,000-pound, six-seat, six-wheel Buffalo occupies Category III by itself.
During construction, the Cougar is turned upside down and bolted to a 330-horsepower Caterpillar C7 turbodiesel and an Allison four- or six-wheel-drive transaxle. Unlike the MaxxPro, the vehicle’s padded seats are mounted to the floor.
Aside from burly windshields, the front third of the Cougar looks remarkably like any International truck, from the raked hood with shark-gill-style air slots to the trademark split grille. The thickness of the ballistic glass is classified, but Sergeant Spurlock’s Cougar was once attacked by insurgents with AK-47’s. “We just pressed up against the glass and watched the rounds hit,” he said.
Outside of the Force Protection plant, a cluster of white Mack semi-trucks line the plant where the Buffalo is built. Inside, crews cannibalize the Macks for engines, transmissions, gauges and other components. Aside from its size and height (the driver sits four feet higher than he would in the Mack or in a Cougar), the most obvious feature of the Buffalo is its remote-controlled arm. This Terminator-worthy appendage uncovers and detonates roadside bombs.
Force Protection found that the most effective means of keeping troops planted to the rear seats are simple Corbeau four-point auto racing harnesses, while seats in the driver compartment are the same basic shock absorbing design you might see supporting an M.T.A. bus driver. The telescoping steering wheel in the Buffalo is straight off the Mack. The one in the Cougar is from International Harvester.
Height and ungainliness are among the issues critics have with the vehicles.
Taylor Biggs, an Iraq veteran and Marine captain, said the MRAP’s weight does not necessarily mesh with the Marine Corps’ lightweight, fast-moving expeditionary nature. He would prefer, he said, to see MRAPs in combination with lighter vehicles like the Humvee, rather than a complete replacement. Indeed, The Associated Press reported recently that it was partly this debate over weight that kept the MRAP from being deployed in large numbers until now.
“This is the debate among many Marines, ‘Do we go heavy or stay light as possible?’ ” he said. “You could wrap a Marine head to toe in Kevlar and make him the most survivable guy out there, but he can’t chase down the guy who just threw the grenade at him. Some people would slap me, but I think the up-armored Hummer’s a good truck for what it was designed for. I don’t see the Cougar in places other than on hardball roads or other passable terrain.”
The weight issue has not been lost on Force Protection. The company is testing the Cheetah, a far smaller MRAP that the company hopes will become a replacement for the Humvee in many applications.
Despite his reservations with MRAPs, Captain Biggs enthusiastically acknowledged their benefits.
“When I first showed up in Iraq, we were duct-taping Kevlar to the side of our trucks,” he said. “Still, I had no problem doing a mission in them. But then we got the 1114’s (up-armored Humvees) and said, ‘This is awesome.’ Then when we got the Cougars I felt extremely confident that I could put marines on that road in front of me and if they got hit, I wasn’t going to be calling in a helicopter to pull them out of there.”
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