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Surge in vehicle orders calls for unconventional buying methods 


By Sandra I. Erwin  

SurgeVehicleAmid escalating pressure to deliver better protection for troops in Iraq, the Army and the Marine Corps have committed to buying nearly 6,800 mine-resistant armored vehicles by March 2008.

But to meet the aggressive schedule, the services have made a number of unorthodox buying decisions.

The Marine Corps, which oversees the procurement of the “mine resistant ambush protected” vehicles on behalf of all the services, was seeking to buy 4,060 MRAPs in late 2006. But the mounting U.S. war casualties in Iraq caused by roadside bombs led the Corps to triple its orders. Last month, the services agreed to buy approximately 6,800 vehicles.

The Marine Corps is buying MRAPs so it can take its armored humvees out of harm’s way. The Army instead views the mine-resistant vehicles as “route clearance” support assets that would not necessarily be employed as patrol humvees.

The MRAP program is a “real challenge for the acquisition community,” said Delores Etter, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. Etter is the senior procurement executive overseeing MRAP. Because of its size, the program also will garner additional oversight from the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, Kenneth Krieg.

As a result of the sudden increase in the size of the program and the urgency attached to it, the Marine Corps began awarding production contracts for vehicles before they were fully tested and before the program got final endorsement from the four-star panel that approves all major military acquisitions.

Despite the pressing need for these vehicles, most of the funds to procure them are not in the Defense Department’s budget and have yet to be appropriated under war-emergency measures. It also remains unclear whether the Army and the Marine Corps have agreed to buy the same vehicles. Earlier this month, Army officials indicated they are considering purchasing as many as 18,000 mine-resistant vehicles after they complete an initial buy of 2,500 MRAPs.

“This is a fast moving program with so many pieces,” said a senior defense official who closely follows the MRAP program. Military commanders in Iraq have categorized these vehicles as “urgent needs,” so the only way to satisfy the demanding schedule is by “doing things in parallel,” the official said. That means several contractors — each one with a different MRAP design — are ramping up production lines while prototypes are tested at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

Before the MRAP program got under way this year, the Marine Corps had approximately 300 mine-protected vehicles in Iraq, and the Army about 2,000. Unlike armored humvees, mine-proof vehicles have V-shaped hulls and raised chassis. They offer 400 percent more protection than an armored humvee, said Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps.

The Joint Requirements Oversight Council — a four-star panel led by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — was expected to approve the expanded MRAP program several weeks after the contracts had been awarded. The JROC was asked to sign off on orders of 2,500 vehicles for the Army, 538 for the Navy and 3,594 for the Marine Corps.

The fiscal year 2007 emergency war budget included $1.1 billion for MRAP, and $830 billion was requested in the 2008 budget. But that still leaves the program $4.45 billion short of what it needs to acquire all 6,632 vehicles.

The absence of funds for vehicles that were deemed an urgent need resulted from a lack of “synchronization” between the chains of command that oversee the budget and war-equipment requests, the defense official said. “The timing was out of synch. The services weren’t able to react fast enough.”

The Army signed on to the MRAP program last November — only after it received urgent requisitions from deployed units. “The request from the theater came too late” to include it in the budget that was sent to Congress in February, an Army official said. Most likely, the Army’s MRAP funds will require “reprogramming” either in the 2007 or 2008 war budgets.

In early February, the Marine Corps awarded contracts to nine vendors to produce 36 MRAP. Collectively, the companies received $34.9 million to each produce four prototype vehicles.

But only two weeks later, five of the nine contractors received “low rate initial production” orders. Force Dynamics (a joint venture between Force Protection and General Dynamics Land Systems) received a $67.4 million contract to produce 125 vehicles. BAE Systems was awarded $55 million to manufacture 90 MRAPs. Three other companies — General Dynamics Land Systems Canada, Oshkosh Truck Corp. and Protected Vehicles Inc. — got orders for 180 vehicles, worth $79 million. So far, the five orders amount to 395 vehicles, and deliveries must begin in April. Of the total, 190 will be “mine resistant utility vehicle” for urban operations, and 205 will be larger trucks for various uses such as convoy lead, troop transport, ambulance, explosive ordnance disposal and combat engineering.

While these production orders get under way, the services will continue to test all 36 prototypes at Aberdeen.

Program officials decided to award low-rate production contracts before tests were completed because the vehicles are not entirely new designs and most of their components already have been used by military customers.

“We are buying and testing simultaneously,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Anderson, director of Army force modernization.

The Army, meanwhile, is considering boosting its MRAP orders to as many as 18,000. For the time being, the Army expects to buy up to 2,500 vehicles. “But our goal is to reach 18,000,” Anderson said at a Pentagon news conference.

Although the Marines already have awarded several contracts for MRAP vehicles, the Army has yet to select its preferred design, Anderson said. For the time being, the Army will continue to buy mine-resistant vehicles that already are in its inventory, such as the RG-31, the Cougar, Buffalo and the Husky. Army Col. Timothy G. Goddette, program manager for force projection, said the service will seek industry bids next month for new “medium mine-protected vehicles.” This program, he stressed, is not part of MRAP.

As a temporary measure, the Marine Corps is awarding one-year maintenance and support contracts to each company selected to produce MRAPs. In the future, however, both services “need a joint plan to sustain the vehicles,” Goddette said at an industry conference in Monterey, Calif.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, the Army’s deputy for acquisition and systems management, said that all 36 MRAP prototypes will complete testing in April.

The risks and logistics hassles of having five production lines are necessary “trade-offs” to get enough vehicles quickly enough, Sorenson said at a recent industry conference in Washington, D.C.

“We don’t have time for someone to retool to get a common vehicle. In order to meet requirements, we need multiple vendors,” he said.

After the war in Iraq ends, neither the Army nor the Marine Corps is likely to keep operating multiple MRAP variants. “At some point we’ll consider turning them over to the Iraqis,” Sorenson said. “We’ll wait and see how long we keep them before we decide if we’ll keep them in the maintenance system.”

One major unknown is the survivability of the armor. Of particular concern is whether MRAPs will be tough enough to protect occupants when they are targeted by explosively formed projectiles, which so far have proven to be the most lethal weapons against U.S. troops in Iraq. According to munitions experts, EFPs have been used to defeat armored vehicles for more than 30 years. The EFP warhead consists of a circular cylinder of explosive, with a shallow cavity in one end that is fitted with a thin metallic liner. Upon detonation, the liner dynamically transforms into an aerodynamic projectile traveling at high velocity. EFPs have been known to penetrate even main battle tanks.

Anderson said that the success of EFP attacks hinges on the size and location of the bomb. Humvees, even with armor kits, no longer offer enough protection, he said. “Just a year ago we were talking about the up-armored humvee as if it were the gold standard. It’s not the gold standard any more.”

The MRAPs are more survivable than up-armored humvees, and provide underbelly protection, which humvees do not.

But one of the sturdiest mine-protected vehicles used in Iraq, called the Buffalo, was destroyed by an EFP for the first time in late 2006. According to unofficial accounts, the vehicle was ambushed and hit by an EFP hidden behind a wall.

The Buffalo generally is known for its survivability. One Army official noted that he saw one vehicle endure 63 hits from roadside bombs before it was taken out of service.

The newer batch of MRAP vehicles has various levels of armor protection, but all are preferable over the armored humvee, the official said. “If you ask the guys over there, they’ll take the most protection they can get.”

To get MRAP on a fast track, the Defense Department not only is having to contend with an accelerated testing and manufacturing schedule, but it also must take steps to ensure there is enough armor steel to build such a large number of vehicles. Only two U.S. steel mills are qualified to produce armor steel for the Defense Department.

“We have to understand how to flex the steel market, especially when we only have two armor-quality steel mills in the United States,” said the official. Both of these mills have been acquired by foreign companies in the past year and a half. Oregon Steel is now owned by Evraz Group S.A. of Russia. International Steel Group was acquired by the Dutch conglomerate Arcelor Mittal.

The Defense Department has requested that the armor steel made by both firms be categorized with a “DX” rating for the MRAP program. Under the 1950 Defense Production Act, any item with a DX rating gets top priority and must be furnished to the U.S. government in advance of any other customers. Several other items that are critical to the MRAP vehicles — ballistic glass, transmissions and Mack truck chassis — will receive a DX rating in coming weeks

Armor steel supplies are tight because the Army already is buying large quantities for its up-armored humvees. In recent months, the Army ordered additional armor kits — known as Frag 5 — to protect humvees in Iraq. Defense officials are in negotiations with both steel mills to make sure there will be enough steel available for the Frag 5 kits and for the MRAP vehicles. David Allen, spokesman for Mittal USA, said “DX ratings are nothing new. We’ve seen them on and off since 1980. We would respond to any DX rating as we have in the past.”

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