Tuesday, July 03, 2007

US Military Orders 17,700 Roadside Bomb Proof Vehicles

If orders for military vehicles are anything to by, the US military is not planning on leaving Iraq, or the Middle East, any time soon.

From the day the first all-but-unarmoured Humvee was destroyed by a roadside bomb, only a few weeks into the Iraq War, the US military has been all too aware of just how vulnerable their vehicles were to improvised explosive devices, usually planted along roads and highways, and sometimes suspended beneath bridges and overpasses.

A story from the Washington Post goes into detail about how the US military is now trying to contract, build and then deploy more than 17,000 new vehicles, with its raised wheel base, and v-shaped chassis, designed to deflect IED impacts. The MRAPs - "mine-resistant, ambush-proof" - are a long time coming, and the first fleet deployed to Iraq are more than a year late.

But it is likely to take years to deploy most of 17,770 MRAPs the military are contracting to be built. The US is suffering not only a shortage of the premium-grade steel needed, each vehicle requires some four tons, but the industrial capacity to ramp up the production line turnout has been hampered by the closure of hundreds of American machine shops and associated car and vehicle building factories in the past decade.

What would have been possible during World War 2 may prove to be an impossibility for the American industrial sector to achieve, more than 60 years later.

17,770 roadside bomb proof vehicles? Surely they can't all be for Iraq. And they probably aren't. Clearly Al Qaeda, and militants across the world, have seen just how effective IEDs and shaped-charges can be in disabling even the latest generation of armour-heavy Abram tanks and triple-plated Humvees - M1114s. So effective, in fact, that it appears the US at least has all but given up on such vehicles for war-fighting in Iraq. At least, until an MRAP has cleared the road ahead for the more vulnerable vehicles to then follow.

The order for 17,770 MRAPs is more than three times estimates of two years ago. The Marine Corps alone says it needs 3700, with more than 500 for Fallujah, and the rest of the Anbar province, alone.

The MRAPs, however, are not invulnerable to attack. And presumably Iraqi insurgents are already working on new ways to disable the vehicles if they find their current arsenal doesn't do the job.

Each MRAP is expected to cost around $1 million. But the vehicles are said to be hard to maneuver on tight urban streets and back alleys. And they are so heavy, the Washington Post article notes, that they may all end up being abandoned, or destroyed, in Iraq, rather than shipped back home again :

The success of the vehicles has drawn praise from Congress, which added $4 billion to this year's defense authorization bill for the MRAP program, up from the $400 million the Pentagon had requested. And as Congress presses the Pentagon to speed deployment of the vehicles and defense contractors prepare for large orders, the rush has created a potential $20 billion program that could become one of the Pentagon's largest.

The Marine Corps has issued more than $1 billion in orders for the vehicle, including more than $450 million in contracts awarded last week to International Military and Government, Force Protection Industries and Rockville-based BAE Systems. When the vehicles will begin to arrive in Iraq in large numbers depends on how quickly the industry can ramp up, Delarosa said.

A Defense Contract Management Agency report recently found that contractors might have trouble obtaining thin-gauge armor steel plate, tires, axles and other crucial components, according to a Pentagon statement. Only few plants in North America are capable of making the 3/8 -inch steel needed for the vehicles, the statement said. In an effort to accelerate MRAP production to 1,200 vehicles a month, the Pentagon gave the program a "DX" rating, giving manufacturers special preference in getting access to raw materials.

BAE has received orders for 94 vehicles, which it expects to deliver this summer. But its version of the vehicle requires four to five tons of steel each. The steel usually must be ordered six months in advance, making it difficult to produce them quickly without significant planning, said Matt Riddle, vice president of survivability systems at BAE.

"You want 1,000 vehicles a month, but that's 4,000 tons of steel. The question is, do you have enough industrial capacity?" Riddle said.

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