Pentagon contends with surplus of armored trucks

March 7, 2012

Of all the military equipment that streamed into Iraq in the past decade, there is perhaps no item more iconic than the MRAP — the heavily armored truck that was rushed into the country as casualties from roadside bombings grew.

But with tens of thousands of MRAPs on hand and no assurance of much new funding to store and maintain the vehicles, the military is struggling to determine what to do with them.

The Obama administration has made clear that it no longer wants to conduct “stability operations” — the term used to describe the kind of war that the military has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, blending military operations with diplomacy and peacekeeping. Instead, the administration is looking to a lighter, smaller and more technologically capable military to conduct specific missions.

In this context, the MRAP — or mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle — is something of a relic, bought specifically to protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan but far too bulky for a future characterized by drones, cyberwarfare, and intelligence and surveillance technology.

“Threats drive demand for military goods, but there’s so many different types of threats that it’s very unlikely that what worked in one war will be well suited for the next,” said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant.

The MRAP’s signature V-shaped undercarriage helped deflect the impact of blasts from improvised explosives and made the armored vehicle exactly what troops needed in Iraq. In 2007, the military began ordering almost 28,000 MRAPs, most of which went to Iraq, though some were designed for Afghanistan and its more challenging terrain.

The military had little intention of keeping the vehicles over the long term. But to get them to the battlefield as quickly as possible, the Pentagon ordered multiple versions from six manufacturers, drawing from the war funding appropriated by Congress.

“At the time we bought MRAP, it was pretty clear to most people that this was a short-term buy for the current wars,” said David Berteau, senior adviser and director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ defense -industrial initiatives group.

But, Berteau said, “when you buy that many variants, it becomes a long-term nightmare.”

What to do with the vehicles now is a complicated matter, particularly for the Army, which owns most of the MRAPs, and the Marine Corps, which has a sizable number.

The services are concerned about the cost of maintaining the vehicles, estimated by program officials at $10,000 to $20,000 a year for each vehicle overseas. But the services are also reluctant to write off equipment they own and have used successfully, particularly as the defense budget declines and fewer vehicles are purchased.

The military is paying a high price to keep MRAPs up and running. Last year, Navistar Defense received a $133.7 million contract to service vehicles in Afghanistan and Kuwait, and Fairfax County-based ManTech received a contract this year worth up to $507 million over 10 months to repair battle-damaged MRAPs and make upgrades.

Once the vehicles are off the battlefield, maintaining them is expected to cost less, but they will still require regular maintenance, such as checking fluids and batteries.

David Hansen, program manager with the office set up to manage the MRAP initiative, said none of the military services has decided how many to keep. Although the Army has completed two studies on the issue, one of its top officials recently sent staff “back to the drawing table” to take another look, he said.

The military will certainly keep some for training at U.S. bases so troops know how to operate them, but most of the vehicles will probably be placed in some form of war reserve. Older models that haven’t been upgraded are likely to be shed, Hansen said.

The Defense Department will consider selling some of the vehicles to foreign countries or moving them to other federal agencies. Under one idea, some could be used by units patrolling the nation’s borders.

“President Obama’s mantra for the future is versatility, flexibility, agility,” Thompson said. “None of those things sounds like an MRAP.”

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