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The US Need Of Safer Trucks.

When it comes to safeguarding US troops against roadside bombs, the top killer in Iraq, the new must-have truck is an MRAP - a Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicle. It is a hulking machine, at 31,000 pounds, with a 'V'-shaped hull which diverts blasts away from the carriage - and the troops riding inside. No one has ever been killed riding in one version of the vehicle, called a Cougar.

"How is it possible that with our nation at war, with more than 130,000 Americans in danger, with roadside bombs destroying a growing number of lives and limbs, we were so slow to act to protect our troops?" asked Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware in a letter on May 29 to Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

The answers to Biden's question illustrate how hard it can be for the US government - and the private sector - to respond to urgent battlefield needs while weighing legitimate concerns about how government contracts are awarded and production lines are cranked up. In the case of the MRAP, the process has been especially slow and tangled.

In 2004, a year after the invasion of Iraq, the insurgency was mounting and roadside bombs were killing US troops. The conventional thinking about how to protect troops was to field "up-armoured" Humvees.

At the time, the insurgency did not look as if it would go on much longer, so there was no need to invest in a new vehicle, and the Humvee already had an established industrial base. But the enemy was adapting, placing roadside bombs in such a way to cause blasts which ripped through the underside of vehicles, causing casualties.

At the same time, a small company in South Carolina called Force Protection Inc. was pushing a different solution. It had designed a truck with a steel under-carriage shaped like a 'V', which diverted the force of blasts to the side of the vehicle. But the company and those who supported the initiative could not provide enough data to prove the effectiveness of the MRAP design. And even if it had had the data to make the case to the Pentagon, the company was too small to mass-produce the vehicle. A year earlier, its 11-employee workforce had taken a month to produce just one truck.

The Christian Science Monitor on May 31 quoted Mike Aldrich, the company's VP for marketing and government relations, as saying: "In the beginning, we really weren't good enough to mass produce enough to be a good, mainstream solution". But Marines with the I Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Pendleton, Calif., knew the design would save lives and made a request in February 2005 for more than 1,100 of the trucks. More than a year later, they made a second request. The Pentagon ultimately approved just 185 vehicles in mid-2006. Even as the Pentagon gears up to buy thousands more of the vehicles, Biden wants Secretary Gates to investigate the delay.

The Pentagon wants 21,000 of the vehicles and Congress is paying for 7,700 of them. The company is now producing each month about 100 Cougars - the version most wanted by the military - and it is preparing to go to a 200-per-month production rate, hiring 25 new employees a week.

Aldrich says his company can make 10,000 vehicles by December - but that is if he gets an order from the US government by July 1, saying: "That will get a lot of people protected in a hurry. Now we're clearly putting the ball back in the government's court, we're saying 'place the order'". But he declines to say how he can meet the surge in demand. At least eight other companies are also vying for MRAP contracts.

The process by which the Pentagon awards contracts has long been slow. But it moved quickly once the decision was made. Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway says the Corps is pushing the envelope when it comes to working through - and if necessary, around - contracting regulations which can delay such purchases.

Some question why there is all the fuss about a vehicle which will not have a big impact protecting forces until thousands more can be fielded next year and the year after - about the same time many Americans believe the bulk of US forces will have left Iraq. But Aldrich says as long as roadside bombs are effective, enemies of the US will use them wherever they may be.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Date:Jun 4, 2007
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