On April 25, 2010, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Sampsell peered through the ballistic glass of his heavily armored truck, trying to see through the rooster tail of dust ahead of him.
Three other 14-ton behemoths — known as category I mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles — rolled in front of him at 5 mph, conducting a mounted patrol in Baraki Barak District in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Sampsell’s cavalry scout platoon, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, crept slowly because the route had become known as a death trap that was strewn with improvised explosive devices, and because 5 mph was a safe driving speed on the rough roads.
As the vehicles moved south, a small boy riding a bicycle pedaled around Sampsell’s vehicle. He stopped in front of the 10-foot-tall MRAP and shook his head before quickly taking off in the opposite direction. Looking back, Sampsell now realizes that was a signal. The boy was trying to warn him. A short distance down the road, not far from where the boy stopped his bicycle, an IED containing 300 pounds of homemade explosive detonated under Sampsell’s MRAP, directly beneath his seat.
“I didn’t hear anything, everything just went black. I felt like I was in the air and then confirmed that when the vehicle slammed back to the ground,” Sampsell said.
This is precisely the type of life-threatening event for which the MRAP was created. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who personally intervened to expedite the production and delivery of these vehicles to war zones — regarded the MRAP as one of his proudest achievements. He got Congress to approve up to $36 billion for MRAP procurements.
MRAP has proven to be 10 times safer than Humvees against IED attacks like the one on Sampsell’s vehicle. According to the Defense Department, the casualty rate for an MRAP is 6 percent. In contrast, the casualty rate for a 70-ton M-1 Abrams main battle tank is about 15 percent. A Humvee’s is 22 percent.
The increased survivability that MRAP provided in IED blasts, however, came at a price. Because the vehicle was rushed to the battlefield — since 2008, more than 27,000 have been produced — troops encountered several safety problems that at times endangered MRAP occupants even if they had managed to survive an IED blast. The fast-paced acquisition and deployment of the trucks made it difficult for these problems to be identified and fixed before MRAPs were handed to soldiers.
When Sampsell’s vehicle hit the ground, the engine compartment was engulfed in flames. He called for a crew report from the six passengers in his vehicle and discovered they were all alive. Had they been traveling in a Humvee, most likely they would have not survived. His medic — the only one unscathed in the MRAP — went to work on two unconscious soldiers.
Sampsell had two compound, open fractures on his right ankle, two compound, open fractures near his right elbow and two compound, closed fractures on his left forearm. This was the 14th IED he’d been hit by in three deployments — one to Iraq and two to Afghanistan — and from experience he knew his crew had to escape quickly.
“We didn’t have much time before ammunition inside the vehicle began cooking off from the heat or before the vehicle completely caught fire,” he said.
He tried opening his door but it only moved about an inch. Heavy MRAP doors are equipped with a pneumatic system that stores compressed air to help open and close them.
“It’s a good system except that the tanks holding the air are in no way protected, and in this case, had been destroyed,” Sampsell said.
Sampsell’s driver regained consciousness and quickly discovered his door wouldn’t budge either. One of his soldiers in the crew compartment repeatedly tried to lower the rear hydraulic ramp, but it was rendered inoperable by the blast. Their only way out was a painful egress through the roof turret.
“Ten feet in the air, on a burning vehicle, fully exposed to enemy fire and no real way to get down. Luckily, the enemy didn’t conduct a complex ambush [with rocket-propelled grenades or small arms fire] that day,” Sampsell said.
Other soldiers from the scout platoon helped lower the wounded down to the ground, and a medevac helicopter arrived just eight minutes after the request was called in. The MRAP did what it was supposed to do; it protected Sampsell and his soldiers.
The platoon’s story in many ways explains why MRAP has been both worshipped and reviled by U.S. soldiers and marines. They’re vehicles designed for survivability that do their job well, but because of the rapid acquisition process the MRAP went through, it is a vehicle with logistical and design flaws that the Defense Department is still trying to fix.
By most measurements, the Pentagon’s race to deliver MRAPs to Iraq and Afghanistan was a success, albeit with a rocky start. The technology wasn’t new. The original designs were first seen in South Africa and Rhodesia in the ‘70s. The Marine Corps was the first service to field the MRAP in Iraq. It relied on its v-shaped hull, height and armor protection for explosive ordnance disposal. When it was reported in 2007 by USA Today that not a single marine in an MRAP had been killed in more than 300 IED attacks in Iraq’s Anbar province, the Pentagon and the public took notice. The Marine Corps, by then, had been asking for more MRAPs for two years.
The Government Accountability Office in 2008 reported that Marine Corps leaders had identified MRAP as an “urgent operational need” as early as February 2005. A request for more than 1,100 MRAPs was shelved around the time that then Vice President Richard Cheney declared the Iraq insurgency to be “in its last throes.”
But IED attacks increased and became even more sophisticated. By the spring of 2007, they were responsible for 70 percent of U.S. casualties in Iraq. In May 2007, Gates declared the MRAP to be the Pentagon’s most important acquisition priority. The program was given the highest “DX” rating, which put it first in line for supplies and manufacturing capacity. The MRAP surge had begun.
Five vendors — Navistar Defense, Force Protection Industries, BAE Tactical Vehicle Systems, General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada Corp. and BAE Ground Systems — received the majority of orders and delivered 871 vehicles by September 2007. By March 2008, 6,997 vehicles had been delivered. By early summer 2008, the military had 9,121 of the initial 15,838 vehicles approved by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. In February 2009, the Pentagon reported that it had fielded its 10,000th MRAP.
To date, more than 27,000 MRAPs have been produced. Nearly 15,000 are now in Afghanistan. Commanders there have all but phased out the use of flat-bottomed Humvees outside the wire. About 2,000 MRAPs remain in the United States for training.
Three years ago, as thousands of vehicles began to roll into war zones after production ramped up, they soon started to create problems for MRAP users in the field.
When Sampsell arrived in Afghanistan for the second time in December 2009, he sent his driver to a 40-hour course that was designed to teach drivers and mechanics how to operate and maintain the MRAPs that would replace the unit’s M3A2 Bradley fighting vehicles. The training, he said, was laughable. Drivers conducted their training on a flat, paved road instead of learning how to “tactically operate the vehicle under combat conditions.” He was also surprised to learn that the bulk of regular vehicle maintenance couldn’t be performed by the crew or by company-level mechanics. Maintenance, including oil changes, had to be performed by field service representative contractors from MRAP manufacturers.
Sampsell said he did not initially mind the extra help. “It means my soldiers get more sleep between combat patrols,” he said. But he soon found out that contractors, for security reasons, would not come out to an outpost to fix a vehicle. Soldiers had to find a way to move the vehicle to designated contractor facilities. That was a major inconvenience and a burden on the unit, Sampsell said.
The logistics support can be daunting. The Army now has 19,000 MRAP vehicles in four different categories with a total of 19 variants it must maintain.
GAO predicted in 2008 that the military’s move to rapidly produce and field the MRAP would complicate vehicle maintenance because “each vendor’s design is unique and requires specific operating procedures and maintenance.” Investigators wrote that the “original logistical support concept was based on a much smaller quantity requirement and shorter assumed life span.”
Contractors took the lead on MRAP maintenance as the military worked to develop a long-term strategy.
During his tour in Afghanistan that was cut short by the large IED blast, Sampsell estimated that 90 percent of his vehicle’s maintenance was required to be performed by a “certified MRAP mechanic.” His soldiers were allowed to perform preventative maintenance, which he said was basically checking the tires and fluid levels. Company-level mechanics could be disciplined if they performed maintenance outside their authorized level. Every three to four months, when it came time to change the oil, Sampsell had to take all 22 soldiers in his platoon, in four MRAPs, to a forward operating base for the work to be done by contractors, a task he says could have easily been performed by his mechanics. Because some combat outposts are not equipped with contractor mechanics, this process put Sampsell’s platoon out of business for at least a day, which potentially created vulnerabilities for other units that could have used that platoon for IED patrolling.
“What is a soldier’s life worth?” Sampsell asked. “Is it worth an oil change?”
Joint Program Office MRAP, led by the Marine Corps, created MRAP University to fill the void of mechanics. This is not your average mechanic job. An MRAP has at least five different part numbers just to replace an oil filter. The training program covers all five models that are used in combat.
“Because of the rapid fielding there just wasn’t time to train the soldiers in the traditional schoolhouse fashion so it became mandatory for all field service representatives and [Red River Army Depot] employees in support of the war [to] be trained at MRAP-U prior to deployment,” JPO spokeswoman Barbara Hamby said.
MRAP-U was established in late 2007. Red River Army Depot, in Texas, was chosen as its main location because the depot’s future mission includes refurbishing and rebuilding MRAPs after they return from war.
To date, MRAP-U has 7,489 graduates, some attending its 12-day operator course and some completing the six-week maintenance class that trains field service representatives, logistics assistance representatives and military tactical wheeled vehicle mechanics. According to MRAP-U’s website, contractor mechanics have priority over military personnel.
Dakota Wood, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-partisan think tank, said relying on contractors to perform most of the MRAPs maintenance was a logical decision made by a military that lacked the necessary manpower and expertise to do it in-house. Expanding the contractor base, rather than expanding the military, will be cheaper in the long run.
“When the contingency is done, that [contractor] support goes away,” Wood said. Hiring more military personnel is more expensive because it saddles the government with long-term healthcare, benefits and other overhead costs.
Concerns about who should be responsible for maintenance pale in comparison to bigger worries about MRAP’s performance off-road.
The vehicle was fine for Iraq’s paved roads. But its weight and suspension greatly hinder maneuverability on anything but improved surfaces.
When Staff Sgt. Mario Reyes, an Army cavalry scout, deployed to Iraq in 2007 with the 3rd Infantry Division, he was among the first soldiers to receive the MRAP. Compared to Bradleys, MRAPs were a huge disappointment. “They were useless for our operations due to the fact that they had no off-road capabilities and their height made them impossible to take through the small towns we operated in due to the low hanging wires and narrow roads,” Reyes said. During the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, new MRAPs sat in the motor pool, unused.
But when he returned to Iraq for a third time in 2009, Reyes was deployed to an area that required him to use MRAPs for long distance convoys across flat, open roads.
“The MRAP is a wonderful vehicle for moving from point A to point B with a high degree of survivability. It simply is not the most effective vehicle when conducting direct combat operations,” he said.
Army Sgt. Robbie Hira, a 3rd Infantry Division cavalry scout, now honorably discharged, deployed with the MRAP to Iraq and also saw the lack of maneuverability as a major hindrance.
“The way my unit used the MRAPs in Iraq … was appropriate, but we did not use them for any purposes where contact was probable,” he said.
The suspension, size and weight distribution of the MRAP also make rollovers a frequent concern. The narrow wheelbase and tall profile of many MRAP variants makes the vehicle prone to rollovers. “They’re not combat vehicles. They’re not assault vehicles. They’re not designed to do that…[the MRAP] doesn’t fit really well into maneuver tactics. … It’s not a fighting vehicle. It’s a protective vehicle,” Wood said.
Afghanistan only exacerbated the problem. It is a country the size of Texas, but with only 2 percent of the state’s roads, and few are paved.
The number of miles of paved roads in Iraq, the country for which the MRAP was designed, is nearly four times that of Afghanistan. In the summer of 2008, the Defense Department began to procure an MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV) made by Oshkosh Corp. By January 2011, there were approximately 6,500 M-ATVs operating alongside 13,264 older MRAPs in Afghanistan. The M-ATV offers troops an independent suspension for greater mobility and a weight reduction of about two tons compared to category I MRAPs.
GAO estimated the M-ATV has an average unit cost of $1.4 million, which is up to 50 percent higher than the conventional variants.
In 2009, Marines unwilling to wait for the delivery of the M-ATV began retrofitting older MRAPs with an independent suspension at a cost of about $160,000 per vehicle, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most of the retrofitting was done in theater.
The litany of MRAP’s growing pains has dramatically expanded the workload at the program office in Quantico, Va. In an interview, MRAP Technical Director John Rooney, said he was familiar with soldiers’ concerns, many of which he heard first-hand during a trip to Afghanistan in May.
“We are doing a large number of enhancements to the vehicle,” Rooney said.
As enemies have found ways to blow up MRAPs, the top priority is to improve the armor, Rooney said. The BAE Systems’ Caiman model that is used in Iraq, for instance, is receiving extra protection against ultra-deadly projectiles known as explosively formed penetrators. A handful of kits already has been shipped, Rooney said. M-ATVs in Afghanistan will receive new underbody armor kits.
Complaints about doors being jammed and trapping occupants inside also are being addressed, he said. Doors are locked from the inside, so if the truck is blown up, and the occupants are wounded and can’t open them, a rescue crew can use a “universal combat lock tool” to open the door from the outside. Rooney described the device as a “large Swiss Army Knife.” Thousands have been shipped to combat zones, he said.
Another problem with the doors is that, following a large blast, the metal is twisted and the door gets stuck. MRAP engineers recently have added “pull points” on doors to hook up tools so another vehicle can be used to rip the door open.
“Egress of doors is absolutely a substantial challenge,” Rooney said. “You have to have a multitude of doors, hatches, options for getting out … in case one exit is blocked.” Based on feedback from deployed units, he said, “We are still developing solutions for emergency egress.” To avert injuries, some vehicles are being equipped with luminous tape that marks the location of hatches and doorknobs so if it happens at night it is easier for troops to identify egress points when they are disoriented.
Rollovers are a major source of complaints from drivers, Rooney said. The roads in Afghanistan are a huge problem. “In some cases, it’s nothing more than a goat trail,” Rooney said. With a vehicle the size and weight of the MRAP, often the ground gives way. “That is the largest contributor to rollovers.”
Independent suspension systems don’t help when the ground is unstable, he said. “If the ground is gone from one side of the vehicle, it’s going to roll over.”
The program office is now working on new warning systems that would give vehicle occupants a few extra seconds to react before a rollover, and possibly prevent it, said Rooney. Rollovers can’t be completely eliminated, he said.
Training, in this case, can be more valuable than material solutions, he said. “It’s like planning how to get out of your house if there’s a fire. Your instinct takes over based on your training.”
Compared to the earlier days when the truck was first being fielded, training programs are now much more widely available, at home stations and within each deployed unit, Rooney said. “But there’s always room for improvement,” he said. “You never get to the promised land.”
There are currently 100 MRAP training locations — most in the United States, and a few in Europe and Japan.
As to whether units will be taking over more of the MRAP maintenance work, the jury is still out. “We were given the requirement from the very beginning that the higher level maintenance would be our responsibility until it could be transitioned to the services,” Rooney said.
Military personnel have always had the responsibility for lower level “preventive maintenance checklist” that comes in each vehicle’s manual. But major repairs only can be done by MRAP contractors, under government supervision, said Rooney. There are 3,000 contractors and civil servants in Afghanistan assigned to MRAP maintenance and repairs.
When a vehicle is blown up and parts have to be replaced, units do not have the expertise to do that, he said. Because of the hassles associated with transporting damaged vehicles to contractor facilities, the MRAP program office plans to buy 390 customized MRAP tow-trucks, known as “recovery vehicles” that allow a two- to three-man crew to evacuate damaged trucks. Only military personnel can do this, he said. Contractors, for safety reasons, are not allowed to recover blown up MRAPs. “If that truck breaks down in a firefight somewhere, we are not going to send an FSR [field service representative] into a firefight to conduct repairs.”
The Pentagon now plans to build more repair facilities in Afghanistan, even though forces are expected to be drawing down. The cost and the time it takes to ship a broken-down vehicle to Europe or stateside often is “unacceptable,” Rooney said. “If the war fighter has a vehicle, he can’t afford to give it up for a long time. I have to be set up to do those retrofits as quickly as possible.”
The growing infrastructure to retrofit and modify vehicles in Afghanistan raises the question about the future of MRAP. It was supposed to be a stopgap solution to the IED problem, and it was never intended to stay permanently in the military’s truck inventory.
The huge investment in MRAP makes it increasingly likely, though, that the vehicle is here to stay.
Including remaining production and support costs, the program’s price tag will exceed $45 billion. Army and Marine Corps commanders have said that MRAP and M-ATV hardly fit the definition of a tactical vehicle with their height and weight. They substantially protect soldiers from mines and homemade bombs, but they may not fit the bill in the next war.
Analysts have said some MRAPs will likely be sold and some will be given away to allied nations. Additionally, the military has announced plans to transition some of the vehicles into the training cycle and put others in war reserves or inactive status.
But the MRAP industrial complex, so far, shows few signs of slowing down. Hundreds of upgrades to existing vehicles will keep contractors busy for some time. As of July, 27,702 vehicles had been produced, out of a total requirement for 27,744. More could still be bought if units request them, said Rooney. “I could get another urgent requirement from theater that could up that [number] again tomorrow. Every time we think we are about to get to the end of production, the theater gives us a requirement for something and causes us to do more production.”
David Ake served in the Army from 2001 to 2005 as an M1A1 armor crewman and deployed to Iraq in February 2004. He was a summer intern at National Defense Magazine.
Sandra I. Erwin contributed to this report.