On Saturday, May 19, at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, I saw these huge new vehicles for myself. There were a number of different models from different manufacturers being tested. I watched in awe as a test model was blown up by a large #IED and the passenger compartment remained intact. The soldiers inside would have survived. The experts at Aberdeen were identifying the weaknesses and strengths of the different models to inform the program managers, who would decide what to buy, and also to give feedback to the manufacturers about their vehicles. I had nothing to contribute except to reiterate my now-familiar exhortation: “Hurry up! Troops are dying.”
At the end of May, I approved putting the MRAP program in a special, very small category of Defense procurement, effectively setting aside many bureaucratic hurdles typical of military programs. It gave the MRAP program legal priority over other military and civilian industrial production programs for key components such as specialty steel, tires, and axels. I also directed establishment of a department-wide MRAP task force and asked to be briefed every two weeks. I emphasized that getting MRAPs to Iraq as fast as possible was essential and that everyone needed to understand that speed and multiple models meant we would face problems with spare parts, maintenance, training, and more. I said we would deal with those problems as they arose and that we should be candid with the president and with Congress that those potential problems were risks we were prepared to take to get better protection to the troops faster. We also reminded everyone that the MRAP wasn’t immune to successful attack and the enemy would adapt his techniques to the new vehicle. But it would provide better protection than anything else we had.
The magnitude of the challenge became clear at my first meeting with the task force on June 8. The initial approved requirement for MRAPs of all models at that point was 7,774 vehicles. In just a matter of couple of weeks, though, the total proposed requirement had skyrocketed to 23,044 at a cost of a little over $25 billion – I think because the field commanders quickly recognized the value of the MRAP and realized that the vehicles were actually going to get built. But how to produce the huge quantities of critically needed materials for the vehicles, from specialty ballistic steel to tires? How to get the MRAPs to Iraq? Where to base them? How to maintain them? It fell to the task force led by the director of defense research and engineering (and soon to be undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics), John Young, to find the answers to these questions, and find them they did.
On a trip to the Middle East in late summer 2007, I experienced a gut-wrenching validation of the need for MRAPs. While visiting Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, a gigantic logistics center supporting the war effort in Iraq, toward dusk, I was taken to the “boneyard” – an area covering many acres that contained the wrecked remains of thousands of American tanks, trucks, Humvees, and other vehicles. Nearly all had been destroyed by enemy attacks in Iraq. I separated myself a bit from the group and wandered through the endless sandy rows of equipment, each vehicle bearing witness to the suffering and losses of our troops. I imagined their screams and their shattered bodies. As I departed, I knew it was too late to help them, but by God, I would move heaven and earth to try to save the lives of their comrades.
Ultimately, we would but some 27,000 MRAPs, including thousands of a new all-terrain version for Afghanistan, at a total cost of nearly $40 billion. The investment saved countless lives and limbs. Over time, casualty rates in MRAPs were roughly 75 percent lower than they were in Humvees, and less than half those in Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Stryker armored vehicles. And there would continue to be improvements. For example, underbelly blasts had such upward force that too often soldiers in in MRAPs would suffer badly broken legs and fractured pelvises, so the flooring and seats were redesigned.
On January 18, 2008, I visited the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in Charleston, South Carolina, where MRAPs received a final fitting out before being shipped to Iraq. I toured the factory and talked to the workers, many of them veterans themselves. These men and women were skilled salt-of-the-earth patriots who were passionate about what they were doing. Each of those I talked with knew that the vehicle he or she was working on would very likely save the lives of our soldiers. One of them, a bearded, heavyset fellow in jeans and a plaid shirt, invited me to sit in the driver’s seat of the MRAP he was just finishing. He reached into the glove compartment and brought out a laminated card that would accompany the vehicle to Iraq. It had the signatures of the team that had worked on that vehicle. He said they knew lives depended on the quality of their work, and they wanted the soldiers riding in that vehicle to know that each member of that team took personal responsibility for that specific MRAP. He said such a card went with every MRAP.
Beginning in late 2007, every time I visited Iraq, units were proud to show me their MRAPs. Unit commanders especially loved them as they saw their soldiers walk away from attacks that previously would have been fatal. I learned from soldiers that the ride was very uncomfortable, that the vehicles were so heavy(the weight ranged from roughly fourteen tons to nearly thirty tons, depending on the model) that they were not very useful off-road, and that rollovers were a real risk. They were so tall that, when going through towns, the antennas could snag electric wires. Our ingenious troops simply improvised, using long pieces of plastic pipe to lift the electric wires as they went under. Others jerry-rigged ambulances out of the MRAPs, and one brigade commander had a desk put in one to use as a mobile command post. But mostly they just delivered soldiers from one place to another with far greater safety than they previously had. Time and again, commanders would walk me over to a damaged MRAP, and there would be two or three soldiers standing by it who would tell me about surviving an attack on that vehicle. A journalist passed along to me the story of a colonel watching a live video feed showing one of his unit’s vehicles overturned and in flames after an IED attack and praying out loud, “Please, just save one of my guys.” And then he watched, astonished, as all three men inside emerged injured but alive. They had been in an MRAP.
Toward mid-2008our attention turned to the need to get MRAPs into Afghanistan because of the growing IED threat there. As we began to ship growing numbers of the vehicles over time, it became clear that, having been designed for the relatively flat terrain and roads of Iraq, the heavy and hard-to-maneuver vehicles weren’t suitable for off-road use or for rocky and mountainous Afghanistan. Again, the MRAP task force – and industry – responded quickly by designing a lighter, more maneuverable vehicle – the MRAP-ATV (all terrain vehicle).
There are a lot of heroes in the MRAP story, from those in the Marine Corps who kept pressing for an MRAP-like vehicle for years, to program director Marine Brigadier General Mike Brogan and his team, John Young and all those who worked with him on the MRAP task force, my own staff – especially Chiarelli, who was passionate about getting the troops more protection and who daily reminded everyone that I was watching like a hawk – our industry partners, all those great folks in Charleston, and Congress, which on this rare occasion did the right thing and did it quickly. On May 21, 2008, I wrote letters to all the key contributors thanking them for a great achievement. I hand-wrote, “Your efforts – and those of your team – have saved lives and limbs. On behalf of all who return home alive and whole because of your efforts, you have my most profound gratitude.”
Continue Reading Part 5: https://www.colmikehoward.com/article/Waging+War+on+the+Pentagon++Part+5