After a slow and controversial start, the military is furiously trying to get enough Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, into Iraq.
In fact, it is Defense Secretary Robert Gates's biggest priority when it comes to protecting troops in Iraq. But as his department scrambles to provide enough bomb-resistant vehicles, with plans to have as many as 1,500 MRAPs there by the end of the year, concern is emerging that the massive vehicles will become tomorrow's white elephant.
There is no question that the vehicles save lives: The up-armored trucks with their V-shaped hull protect troops from all but the largest types of explosive devices, allowing them often to walk away from some attacks that they would not have probably survived in up-armored Humvees, which are far more common in Iraq.
Yet in and outside the Pentagon, the concern is that such heavy investment in the expensive vehicles this late in the game comes with a greater price. The fear is that the average $800,000-per-unit cost and 22-ton weight of some of the vehicles may undermine military missions beyond Iraq.
Even during the current counterinsurgency, insulating US troops from the local population in these vehicles runs counter to the kinds of tactics US troops are typically employing in Iraq.
Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway supports the MRAP and said Monday the program "was the right thing to do." But thinking ahead, the Corps' top general is concerned that his service's traditional missions could be hindered by the costly and heavy truck that is virtually impossible to transport easily. General Conway also believes the truck is contributing to the Corps losing its "expeditionary flavor."
"Can I give a satisfactory answer to what we're going to be doing with those things in five or 10 years? Probably not," he told a group Monday at the Center for a New American Security, a new think tank in Washington.
When the Marines ultimately leave Iraq – which could be sooner rather than later since they occupy one of the most secure areas there – they will effectively be saddled with the trucks if there is no mission that requires them.
"Wrap them in shrink wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere is about the best thing that we can describe at this point," Conway said. "And as expensive as they are, that is probably not a good use of the taxpayers' money."
Conway's public statements reflect an emerging private dialogue in defense circles that the program is answering a "tactical" call today that may not be there tomorrow.
"The rhetoric right now in the Beltway is highly emotional. It's highly stated in absolute terms of 'moral imperatives,' " says Dakota Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, another think tank in Washington. On Wednesday, CSBA issued a 65-page report titled "Of IEDs and MRAPs: Force Protection in Complex Irregular Operations," which pointedly questions many of the assumptions underlying the MRAP program.
"No one would argue against trying to protect men and women fighting in defense of the nation," the study says. "However, given the resources involved, the decision to mass produce the MRAP warrants careful thought and consideration."
The study raises questions about the impact of the MRAP program on future military acquisition programs. It also asks how the technology could be employed in more practical vehicles and how troops can operate effectively in environments with IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
Mr. Wood acknowledged that the study is effective political cover for officials within the Pentagon who have doubts about the MRAP program but who can't publicly challenge the program for fear that it will look as if the military doesn't want to protect troops.
"It's very difficult for the services to say or make a statement or take a position [questioning MRAPs]," Wood says. "How can you credibly argue against protecting your force? But it comes with a cost."
In a classic counterinsurgency campaign, forces must interact with the local population to "win" them away from insurgent influence and create stability. The MRAPs with their high ground clearance, darkened windows, and menacing appearance keep forces much safer, but they take troops away from the street.
Still, questioning the lifesaving benefits of the MRAP is a tough sell to troops in the field. "White elephant or not, we have them and they are saving lives almost daily," wrote one Marine officer in an e-mail, noting that IEDs remain the greatest threat to forces. "I am all for shrink-wrapping after war, but let's have them on hand for the next war because our enemies have watched and learned the use and value of IEDs – IEDs aren't going to go away, we'll see them wherever we go in the future."