Why so few bomb-safe US military trucks in Iraq?

No one has ever been killed riding in the 31,000-pound 'Cougar.' But only a few hundred are in service.

One senior officer calls it a "moral imperative," and others see it as a no-brainer, but four years into a deadly war, there are only some 350 blast-resistant trucks protecting US troops in Iraq. Officials inside and outside the military want to know why.

When it comes to safeguarding troops against roadside bombs, the top killer in Iraq, the new must-have truck is an MRAP – a Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicle.

It's a hulking machine, at 31,000 pounds, with a 'V'-shaped hull that 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.

So why aren't thousands of the trucks, first available in 2003, in Iraq?

"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 Tuesday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The answers to Senator Biden's question illustrate how hard it can be for the 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 American troops. The conventional thinking about how to protect troops was to field "up-armored" Humvees. At the time, the insurgency didn't 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 that 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 undercarriage 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 couldn't 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.

"In the beginning, we really weren't good enough to mass produce enough to be a good, mainstream solution," says Mike Aldrich, the company's vice-president of marketing and government relations.

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's 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 2008 – but that's if he gets an order from the US government by July 1. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the date for Force Protection’s production goal.]

"That will get a lot of people protected in a hurry," he says. "Now we're clearly putting the ball back in the government's court, we're saying 'place the order,' " he says.

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 the process moved quickly once the decision was made to move forward.

While there was interest in the MRAP, it was hard for the services initially to make a "strategic decision" to buy thousands of them, says a Washington, D.C., attorney familiar with the MRAP contracting issue. If the military put all its acquisition eggs all in one basket and then found it didn't need the truck a year or so later, that would be seen as poor judgment at best and a boondoggle at worst.

"The problem they had was more of strategy – where to you put your money, what makes the most sense – and not so much of the nuts and bolts of government acquisition," he says. "Once the decision was made at the strategic level to go with MRAP, they moved out pretty darn quick, warp speed."

Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway says the Corps is pushing the envelope when it comes to working through – and if necessary, around – contracting regulations that can delay such purchases.

"I could be wearing stripes [of enlisted men] when this is all over," General Conway joked during a Pentagon briefing recently, saying nevertheless that it is a "moral imperative" to get these vehicles to Iraq.

Some question why there's all the fuss about a vehicle that will not have a big impact protecting forces until thousands more can be fielded next year and the year after – about the same time that many Americans believe the bulk of US forces will have left Iraq.

That's not the way Aldrich sees it. As long as roadside bombs are effective, enemies of the US will use them wherever they may be, he says.

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