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MRAP trucks: Afghan savior or boondoggle?

The vehicle saved soldiers in Iraq. Now it's getting a $2 billion makeover for Afghanistan.

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Pentagon planners agree. They "are convinced that the terrain and infrastructure in Afghanistan vary so greatly from Iraq that a different class of heavy trucks is required," says Mr. Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

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Within the armed forces, however, there is skepticism about the need for M-ATVs. Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, isn't committing to the new $1 million-a-copy truck yet. He wants to determine if a faster, cheaper modification to one of the existing MRAP models might make it "Afghan-worthy."

In theory, the modification is an interim measure to tide over the Marines until the new MRAPs arrive. But the temporary solution could become a long-term fix.

After years of being stuck in Iraq, the Marines are trying to return to their expeditionary roots. They are increasingly worried about the weight and size of some of the new vehicles, which would make them difficult to stow aboard ships and cargo planes. The safety specifications of the new M-ATV may add so much weight that they literally tip the scales, leading the corps to pass on the vehicle, General Conway said.

Four companies have submitted five M-ATV prototypes for consideration, and each is undergoing testing at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds outside Washington. Pentagon officials expect to choose one vehicle by the end of this month or in early July, defense officials say.

The effort has its roots in Mr. Gates's first weeks in the Pentagon more than two years ago. He arrived to find that many troops in Iraq were still driving in Humvees and other vehicles ill-suited to protect against roadside bombs. A new truck became his chief acquisition priority.

Since then, Gates has broken new ground, creating a task force that essentially skirted the stodgy defense industrial complex and its bureaucratic impediments to get the truck built quickly and shipped to Iraq.

In the process, however, he also spent billions to create a truck that may be useless in other types of environments.

"It really is a situation of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't," says Dakota Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington.

"People who hit a roadside bomb in an MRAP typically walk away, but that comes with a cost" to the military's broader strategic capabilities, he adds.

Money is another factor. The Pentagon had the cash to build and field the MRAP quickly. But defense dollars are beginning to shrink, and defense officials will have to make wise spending choices. The popularity of the MRAPs among troops, Congress, military leaders, and the American public will make it a sacred cow no one wants to be seen as opposing.

For his part, Rummel hopes that whatever truck the Pentagon sends to Afghanistan, it's one that can keep saving lives.

"I truly believe in it, I really do," he says.

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