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Early Christmas gift: US Army off-road vehicle built for Afghanistan

The first of 5,000 new off-road US Army vehicles arrived in Afghanistan this week. Custom made for the mountainous terrain, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicle is lighter, and considered safer, than Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) used in Iraq.

By Thomas DayMcClatchy Newspapers / December 24, 2009

The MRAP all terrain vehicle (M-ATV) is presented to the media at the Pentagon, Nov. 2. The M-ATV grew from an urgent requirement to provide troops a smaller and more maneuverable vehicle that can travel off-road and navigate Afghanistan's difficult mountainous terrain.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Bagram, Afghanistan

The US military’s new all-terrain vehicle doesn’t look all that different from its lumbering predecessor. It’s painted desert sand, and reaching the cabin still means climbing a couple of steps.

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On Afghanistan’s rough dirt roads, however, the new $500,000 to $1 million Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicle is a major improvement over the massive Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle it’s replacing, soldiers say. The M-ATV is tailored to Afghanistan, at least parts of it, and the Pentagon is sending about 5,000 of them to the battlefield.

For soldiers who’d grown accustomed to bruising trips through rural Afghanistan, their first M-ATVs, which have just been introduced in the field, were an early Christmas present. Seemingly without effort, the vehicles climb mountains at angles that approach 45 degrees, and they glide across the country’s rocky roads.

In the cities, the M-ATV’s lighter frame can make sharp turns and maneuver through Afghanistan’s lawless traffic much better than the hulking MRAP can.
Introduced in 2007, the MRAP was the Army’s answer to the Iraqi insurgency’s deadliest weapon, the improvised explosive device. What worked in Iraq hasn’t worked as well in Afghanistan, however.

10,000 pounds lighter

Iraq has a network of smooth roads on flat terrain. In Afghanistan, most roads are paths of rocks and dirt, and the MRAP is ill suited for navigating its mountainous environments. The MRAP’s 36,000 pounds – more than 10,000 pounds heavier than the M-ATV – have given drivers headaches as they figure out how to maneuver around tight corners and up large hills.

Worse, McClatchy reported last month that Afghan insurgents had found vulnerabilities in the MRAP, attacking convoys with explosive charges that punched projectiles through the vehicle’s hull. IEDs have caused more than 60 percent of the coalition fatalities from hostilities in Afghanistan so far this year.

According to iCasualties.org, a Web site that tracks casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, IEDs have killed 266 US and coalition troops so far this year, more than triple the number two years ago.

The military says the new M-ATV’s lower weight won’t mean less protection. Like the MRAP, the M-ATV’s hull is V-shaped to deflect explosions from the vehicle’s crew, but the military is withholding further details of the M-ATV’s counter-IED capabilities.

“It gives us the same protection as the MRAPs,” said Lt. Col. Michael Fordham, a reservist from outside Savannah, Ga., and the executive officer of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Brigade.

One of the M-ATV’s major advantages is that unlike the MRAP, it isn’t confined to Afghanistan’s few heavy-duty roads, a limitation that helped insurgents know where to plant IEDs. However, the steep mountains of eastern Afghanistan and the orchards and deep irrigation ditches in parts of the south will limit even the 12.5-ton M-ATV’s movements.