The Marine Corps is making a major cut in the number of bombproof vehicles it is buying, a surprise move that underscores how much safer Iraq has become in recent months and the Corps' own changing assessment of the vehicles' limitations.
On Thursday, Commandant Gen. James Conway, the Corps' top officer, submitted to a Pentagon procurement body his recommendation to cut by almost 40 percent the number of Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicles he will buy, from 3,700 MRAPs to about 2,225.
The decision is bound to be controversial – and to spur debate in Washington about why the United States is spending billions to buy thousands of the mammoth vehicles even as security in Iraq is looking much improved from a year ago, when the American public and Congress first rallied behind the life-saving program.
Conway's move is not likely to affect the Army's purchase of the vehicles, at least for now, defense officials say. But it could raise questions about the kinds of MRAPs the Pentagon is buying and have reverberations within the industry that's been building the trucks at a furious pace.
Earlier this year, the Marine Corps had planned to buy 3,700 of the vehicles at nearly $1 million apiece, all to be contracted by early 2008 and sent to the field soon thereafter. The Corps already has contracted for all the MRAPs it wants, so General Conway's move in effect ends future contracting for the service.
"There have been some things that have happened since then that is causing us to rethink a little bit what the total number ought to be," Conway said during a recent trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. "You combine the reduction in attacks with the fact that we're therefore not losing as many vehicles as we thought, with the fact that we're finding them not as capable off-road as we thought ... that all leads us now to believe that the number [of MRAPs] is something less then 3,700."
The recommendation, if approved, could save about $1.7 billion in Defense Department funding, Corps officials say.
Conway is concerned that, despite the trucks' effectiveness against roadside bombs, MRAPs are too massive to be carried aboard the Navy ships on which the Corps traditionally rides and too cumbersome for all but the flattest terrain. His decision comes as the Corps looks to draw down its forces in western Iraq and is lobbying to deploy to the largely mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, where the vehicles would be harder to use.
Conway this fall has been openly raising questions about the trucks' size and effectiveness. At the same time, Marine operations in Iraq's Anbar Province slowed as the area became more peaceful. Then a Washington think tank issued a study on MRAPs that asked the same questions as Conway, giving the general some political cover from lawmakers who may fight any downsizing of the MRAP program. Members of Congress with an interest in the program could not be reached by press time.
The Pentagon in recent months has scrambled to get more of the vehicles into Iraq and a smaller number into Afghanistan. A total of 669 are in Iraq, 45 are in Afghanistan, and another 153 are being prepared for fielding in Iraq over the next month. The goal is to have 1,500 MRAPs in Iraq by the end of December. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Wednesday the first sea-shipment of vehicles is under way.
"To get these vehicles to our troops as soon as possible, not only are they being air-lifted and sea-lifted, but once those that are sea-lifted to Kuwait arrive, they will be then flown into theater," he said.
At the behest of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has made the MRAP program his top priority for troop protection, the Pentagon plans to buy as many as 15,000 of the vehicles in coming years.
Conway's recommendation should not signal anything more than the new reality the Corps faces in Iraq, says a Marine official.
"We're not saying that the Army doesn't need it," says the official, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the recommendation. "But if things continue on current trend lines in Iraq, we could be walking around in soft covers and no body armor in 2008."
Earlier this year, the Corps was called on the carpet for apparent foot-dragging on buying MRAPs. Criticism mounted after documents suggested that a Marine commander recently returned from Iraq had requested the vehicles as early as 2005, but that the Corps did not respond quickly enough. Corps officials, for their part, say that the request was for a "capability," not a specific vehicle, and that the Corps honored that request, which was for up-armored Humvees, not the trucks now known as MRAPs.
By any standard, the trucks are immense. While effective at countering the deadly effects of most roadside bombs, MRAPs also insulate troops who in a modern counterinsurgency are expected to be out among the populace as much as possible. In many parts of Iraq, the trucks have been used as route-clearing vehicles, in which soldiers or marines drive down roads to check for roadside bombs – knowing that if a bomb goes off they are likely to be safe.
But by most accounts, the trucks are not effective in urban terrain or over bridges because they are so heavy. A minor incident during Conway's visit to Iraq last week is one example.
The general and his entourage were riding in several of the trucks through Haditha, in northwestern Iraq, when one got stuck on a median strip on a divided street. The truck's wheels got jammed around the concrete pad, preventing the driver from turning the large tires to drive the vehicle off the strip. After a delay, the driver maneuvered the truck down the length of the strip to get it free.