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Military thinks twice on fortified trucks

It was just what American soldiers had been longing for -- a patrol vehicle designed to withstand the powerful roadside bombs that have killed more service members than any other insurgent weapon in the Iraq war.

But as the Defense Department hits its year-end goal of delivering 1,500 heavily armored, V-hulled "mine-resistant ambush-protected" trucks to Iraq, the feeling in the Pentagon is far from elation. Instead, an intense debate has broken out over whether the vehicle that is saving lives also could undermine one of the most important lessons of the whole war: how to counter an insurgency.

Though offering needed armor, the MRAP lacks the agility vital to urban warfare. "It's very heavy; it's relatively large; it's not as maneuverable as you'd like it to be," Gen. William S. Wallace, the officer in charge of Army doctrine and training, said recently. "All of those things should be of concern."

But with nearly 12,000 of the trucks on order in a program that has a projected cost of more than $17 billion, the MRAP -- the most expensive new Army weapons system acquired since the Sept. 11 attacks -- is likely to influence how the Army fights future wars.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said MRAPs are an important part of the military's response to the needs of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

"There is never one silver-bullet solution for all the problems you find in war," Morrell said. "The key is to find a combination of things that address the problems."

Support for MRAPs within the Pentagon has weakened recently, in part because of the decline in military casualties in Iraq. With roadside bombings diminishing, the military services worry that they will be saddled in the near future with thousands of large, heavy, expensive trucks that they will no longer need.

But more fundamentally, the MRAP has reignited a debate that has bedeviled strategists since the war began: Is the best way to save soldiers' lives to give them tools to survive attacks, or to prevent the attacks?

On one side of the argument are senior officials in Washington, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who have insisted that MRAPs are a moral imperative, needed to protect vulnerable soldiers from death and dismemberment.

But a growing number of counterinsurgency experts, prodded by an October report by influential Pentagon consultant Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., have argued that the hulking vehicles are antithetical to fighting a guerrilla war.

Guerrilla warfare, or counterinsurgency, requires soldiers to mingle with Iraqi citizens -- a task that has been at the center of the strategy implemented by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Iraq war commander.

"You've got Dave Petraeus telling his people 'Get out and walk,' because the long-term solution to reducing our casualties is . . . getting to know the people, providing security in the neighborhood," Krepinevich said in an interview. "In a sense, you've got two competing priorities."

Gates rushes MRAPs in

The decision to make MRAPs the Pentagon's top wartime procurement priority was one of Gates' first decisions as Defense secretary. Occasionally frustrated with the department's inability to move quickly, Gates ordered MRAPs flown to Iraq in scarce cargo planes in an unprecedented logistical effort.

"There was a moral imperative to provide a better way to protect soldiers," said Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, the Army general in charge of procurement programs. "That was the driving factor that united all of us in a realization we had to do something different. Soldier protection was Job One."

Pentagon spokesman Morrell said: "There are tradeoffs. You can't build a vehicle as protective as this one is without trading off the ability to connect more directly with the population."

Gates' championing of MRAPs made emerging doubts about the program all the more remarkable, since they mark one of the first times the uniformed military has publicly pushed back against the popular Defense secretary.

Earlier this month, Marine Corps officials announced they were cutting the number of MRAPs they intended to buy, to 2,300 from 3,600, citing the reduced violence in Iraq and the questionable utility of the vehicles in other missions.

Army officials, who were planning the largest purchases, are considering a similar move.

Under pressure from both Gates and Capitol Hill, Army officials said earlier this year that they would replace all Humvees in Iraq with MRAPs, a total of 17,700 vehicles.

In the last month, however, Army officers have said they see a long-term need for, at most, 10,000 of the MRAPs -- which cost $500,000 to $1 million apiece, depending on the model. Officers in Baghdad and Washington now are reevaluating whether they should ask Congress for money next year to buy more, or whether 10,000 is already too many.

"We're buying MRAPs based upon what the theater has asked for," said Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff. "They have since come back, now that they have MRAPs, and said, 'We are re-looking our number.' "

Critics of defense budgeting believe the Pentagon and Congress rushed too quickly to embrace the MRAP as the best fix for the problem of roadside bombs.

"Congress latched onto this to show how pro-soldier and how pro-defense they were," said Winslow T. Wheeler, a longtime critic of military spending at the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan think tank. "It is another example of people thinking the way to address these conflicts is through technology. But that kind of thinking guarantees defeat in this kind of conflict."

Congressional MRAP advocates have argued that the short-term need to protect soldiers from roadside bombs far outweighs any long-term concerns about being stuck with expensive vehicles with limited uses.

"We might be stuck with a lot of these things that don't have a clear application in the next field of battle," said a Biden aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as is customary for congressional staffers. "But it doesn't matter. We're fighting the war we're in now, not the war we're going to fight in five or six years."

Pentagon officials said Gates expressed similar frustration in internal discussions, and he eventually ordered the Marines and the Army to make the program a priority. Gates also demanded weekly briefings to make sure they were making progress.

In his first year as Defense secretary, Gates has drawn a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had been criticized as moving too slowly to improve armor.

According to Francis J. Harvey, who was Army secretary during the early debates, MRAPs were a chance for Gates to move more decisively.

"I think he saw a way to differentiate himself from Rumsfeld," Harvey said. Harvey was forced to resign his post in March in the aftermath of revelations of deficiencies at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, said Gates was concerned not about comparisons with Rumsfeld, but about providing the best possible protection from improvised explosive devices.

"The MRAP program was driven by an urgent desire to protect U.S. forces from the No. 1 killer in Iraq -- IEDs," Morrell said. "That was the focus of the program."

'A fundamental error'

One result of the decision to rush MRAPs to Iraq is that they have not been thoroughly tested. The vehicle's ability to withstand bombings was extensively evaluated, but few infantry companies so far have tested its utility in counterinsurgency missions.

A Pentagon consultant who recently visited Iraq, in part to study the use of MRAPs, said the trucks protect troops and are useful for bomb disposal teams and commanders circulating in the battlefields. But the vehicles are not a good choice for combat infantry companies, the consultant said. They are too heavy to drive in soft sand and are difficult to turn on narrow streets.

"You have a pretty good anti-mine vehicle that has zero fighting ability, terrible off-road mobility, and can't turn around in a city," said the consultant, who was not authorized to discuss the findings and spoke on condition of anonymity. "The bottom line is that this MRAP is a fundamental error."

The concerns over the MRAP's abilities have increased inside the Pentagon. Some high-ranking officers worry that the price tag will lead congressional budgeters to cut funding for other weapons systems the Army believes are more important for the future.

Those pressures have led the Army to reconsider earlier proposals to replace all Humvees with MRAPs. Speakes, the Army procurement official, said he now sees the MRAP as a narrowly focused vehicle that can be used to clear mines and evacuate injured soldiers.

"We see niche roles for the MRAP, but we don't see that MRAP will ever be a dominant part of our tactical wheeled-vehicle fleet," Speakes said.

Nonetheless, critics said, the investment in MRAPs is too high and coming too late for Iraq.

"We went in the wrong direction," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who has advised the Bush administration on Iraq policy. "It is the wrong vehicle, too late, to fit a threat we were actually managing."

julian.barnes@latimes.com

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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