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Military services in the market for 4,000 blast-proof vehicles 


By  Sandra I. Erwin 

MilitaryServiceExpectations that U.S. troops will not leave Iraq for the foreseeable future have prompted the military services to request an additional 4,000 mine-resistant armored vehicles.

Unlike armored humvees, mine-protected vehicles have V-shaped hulls and raised chasses, and are specifically designed to deflect bomb blasts. Side armor and bulletproof glass protect against small arms fire.

The Army and the Marine Corps have purchased several hundred of these vehicles in recent years, but the escalating violence in Iraq led to a decision last fall to boost the inventory.

In late December, vendors submitted bids for the so-called “mine-resistant ambush-protected” vehicles, or MRAP.

The MRAP program will cover a family of three categories of trucks. The Marine Corps currently is managing the program on behalf of the other services. The decision to acquire 4,000 more vehicles was driven by the assumption that these trucks can withstand roadside bombs and sniper attacks better than conventionally armored trucks, explained Capt. Jeff Landis, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Systems Command.

The command issued a request for industry bids in November for 4,060 vehicles — 2,500 for the Army, 538 for the Navy and 1,022 for the Marine Corps.

The Corps got $966 million in last year’s war emergency appropriation to buy 805 vehicles, but is counting on an additional $2 billion this year to acquire all 1,022. The other services also are expected to receive emergency war funds to pay for the vehicles. The price of each truck ranges from $400,000 to $750,000.

Three types of vehicles will be acquired under the MRAP program.

One is a mine-resistant six-passenger utility vehicle. It would be slightly larger than an armored humvee, with a V-shaped hull, ballistic glass, gun turret, undercarriage armor and a raised chassis. The Army plans to buy 463, the Navy 415 and the Marine Corps 538.

The second category is the 38,000-pound Cougar troop transport. The Cougar is a multipurpose, 12-ton mine-protected armored patrol vehicle that comes in 10-passenger and 16-passenger variants. Anticipated orders for this vehicle include 2,037 for the Army, 113 for the Navy and 420 for the Marine Corps.

The third category is the 45,000-pound Buffalo mine-clearing vehicle currently used by explosive ordnance disposal units. The Navy and the Marine Corps each will order 10 and 64 Buffaloes, respectively.

The MRAP program is billed as a competitive award, but two of the three categories of vehicles — the Cougar and the Buffalo — currently are made by one company, Force Protection Inc. At least 300 Cougars and Buffaloes have been deployed to Iraq so far.

“We wanted to open it up for competition to get the best available technology,” Landis said.

The Marine Corps Systems Command selected nine companies, each of which will provide four test vehicles -- two for category one and two two category two. The companies are Armor Holdings Aerospace and Defense Group, BAE Systems, Force Protection Industries, Inc., General Dynamics Land Systems, General Purpose Vehicles, International Military and Government, Oshkosh Truck Corporation, Protected Vehicles, Inc. (a joint venture of Force Protection and General Dynamics) and Textron Marine and Land Systems.

The contracts for the 36 test vehicles are worth $34.6 million. Vendors are expected to deliver the vehicles by April, and the Marine Corps intends to complete the tests by January 2008. The government plans to select one or more companies for long-term production contracts. "Several of the awarded contract vendors indicate they could initially deliver start-up production rates between 30, 60 and 90 days after receipt of production orders," said Paul Mann, program manager for MRAP.

Several industry representatives contacted for this article privately voiced frustration about the market dominance of Force Protection Inc. as the sole U.S. provider of mine-protected vehicles. They also wondered whether this new round of vehicle buys could be handled by the small company, whose manufacturing capacity is said to be about 40 vehicles per month.

A spokesman for Force Protection declined to comment for this article. A number of public announcements in recent months reveal that the company is trying to expand its manufacturing capacity by signing up partners to help produce the Cougar. Force Protection is a subcontractor to BAE Systems for the production of the Cougar for the Iraqi army. The company subsequently signed partnership deals with General Dynamics Land Systems and with Armor Holdings for the production of the Cougar for the U.S. military. Under the agreement, General Dynamics will build armored cabs as a subcontractor to Force Protection. Most recently, both companies created a joint venture to offer Force Protection’s Cougar 4x4 and 6x6 armored vehicles.

The succession of industrial alliances built by Force Protection creates a “very confusing picture” of the company’s actual capabilities to manufacture large quantities of vehicles, said one industry source.

In November, the Marine Corps awarded Force Protection a $125 million contract for 100 Cougars and 44 Buffaloes, which are scheduled to be delivered in November 2007. Another $69 million contract in December asked for an additional 100 Cougars. It expects to receive additional orders for several hundred more vehicles under the MRAP program. Force Protection also is producing Cougars for the U.K. military.

The Marine Corps will test one or more of the bidding contractors’ vehicles in the coming months.

As a possible competitor for the category one MRAP, Force Protection designed the Cheetah light tactical truck, which weighs 14,000 pounds, and is heavier than the 9,800-pound up-armored humvee.

Another vehicle expected to vie for the MRAP award is BAE Systems’ RG-33L six-wheel, 22-ton mine-protected vehicle. Raj Rajagopal, vice president and general manager at BAE Systems, said the RG-33L was jointly developed with the company’s OMC subsidiary in South Africa. General Dynamics is the U.S. distributor of smaller versions of that vehicle, the RG-31 and RG-32. “South Africans have led the world in mine-survivable vehicles,” Rajagopal told reporters.

The Army recently awarded General Dynamics a $77 million contract for 169 RG-31 Mk5 mine-protected vehicles, with options for nine more. BAE Systems’ OMC division in South Africa will manufacture the vehicles. Deliveries will begin in June 2007, General Dynamics said. The Mk5 is the latest version of the RG-31 vehicle family. The Army bought 94 RG-31 Mk5s in 2006 from General Dynamics, at a cost of nearly $43 million.

The RG-31 Mk5 is a contender for the category-one vehicle in the MRAP program, said a General Dynamics spokesman.

BAE Systems, for its part, is supporting the manufacture of the Cougar armored truck for Iraq under its partnership with Force Protection. Insiders point to the close similarities between the Cougar and the RG-33.

Also bidding in the MRAP program is Oshkosh Truck Corp., which has the rights to produce the Australian Bushmaster armored vehicle. The Bushmaster is in the same category as the RG-33 and the Cougar.

The Marine Corps Systems Command will proceed with the evaluation of the vehicles, but it is not yet clear that the Army will agree with the selection made by the Marines, industry sources said. “The Army isn’t putting money on the table. It’s waiting for the Marine Corps to select a vehicle and then they’ll decide,” an industry official said.

“Currently the Marine Corps has acquisition authority for the Army and the Navy,” said Landis. “We purchase MRAP vehicles for them using our contracting officials and expertise with the program to fulfill their vehicle requirements. Funding simply gets funneled through us, but we handle the contracting aspects and simply add their requirement numbers. The Army has purchased Cougar and Buffalo vehicles before,” said Landis. However, he added, the MRAP “has not been declared a joint program yet. There may possibly be a joint Army-Marine Corps acquisition board in the near future.”

Landis also noted that the MRAP category one vehicle should not be interpreted as the replacement for the humvee. “This is incorrect,” Landis said. “They each have very different missions.”

—Additional reporting by Harold Kennedy

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