Monday, July 16, 2007

The MRAP: A Case Study in Military Planning (and Congressional Response)

Improvised Explosive Devises (IEDs) are the #1 killers of U.S. military personnel in Iraq. Suddenly, acquiring vast numbers of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) -- is at the top of the military’s to-do list.

They should have seen it coming. That they didn’t, or worse, that they did and ignored the signs, is symptomatic of the Cold War mentality that still preoccupies our military and political leadership.

Two weeks ago the DoD approved the Army’s request to acquire 17,700 MRAPs. MRAPs are popular with U.S. forces because their V-shaped undersides, or “hulls,” help deflect the energy of roadside bombs or land mines away from the crew inside the vehicle, and provide much greater protection than even the armored version of the military’s ubiquitous High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, or “Humvees.”

The Pentagon’s decision to dramatically ramp up procurement of MRAPs comes two months after Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the military would make replacing its fleet of Humvees a top priority. At the time, Sec. Gates told reporters that up-armored Humvees were “the best we had” but that now “…we have something better, and we're going to get that to the field as best we can.” [see the
Defense Department press conference, May 9, 2007.

Yes, MRAP has become the top priority of the military, with the Army, Marines Corps and other branches of the service seeking a total of 23,000 vehicles, and of Congress, which has already allocated $3 billion to the program earlier this year and is in the process of adding $4.6 billion more. Yet according to a story in today’s USA TODAY, reports by Pentagon analysts about the need for MRAPs reached the Joint Chiefs of Staff as early as December 2003, three and one-half years before Sec. Gates’s May announcement.

The specter of urban combat that planners feared prior to the invasion of Iraq did not materialize the way the U.S. military expected. Members of the Iraqi military shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population rather than hunkering down in their cities. But such combat materialized nonetheless, as part of a complex insurgency that strikes at U.S. combat and support forces not just in urban areas, but also at their bases and along the known routes they must travel.

Neither the Bush Administration nor the military were adequately prepared for this eventuality. Politically, this myopia manifested itself in Vice President Dick Cheney’s now infamous comment on “Meet the Press” in March, 2003, which predicted that U.S. forces would be “greeted as liberators.” The military, which critics say arrived with an undersized force, was unable to safeguard Iraq’s infrastructure, including the vast amounts of military material at Saddam Hussein’s former bases.

The U.S. military’s initial response to the growing waves of insurgent attacks was to call for dramatically increasing supplies of personal body armor and the “up-armored” version of Humvees (although Congress can legitimately claim at least partial credit for responding to the perceived need by approving billions of dollars for these programs over the last several years.)

Up-armoring Humvees could never be more than a stop-gap measure – a view reflected by then-Marine Corps Major Roy McGriff III. In a 2003 paper, cited in the USA TODAY article, Maj. McGriff wrote “…our underprotected vehicles result in casualties that are politically untenable and militarily unnecessary. Failure to build a MRAP vehicle fleet…will substantially increase” risks for the military. The Humvee was a replacement for the venerable Jeep, albeit with vastly greater capability, but it was never intended to be the mainstay of an occupation force in a hostile environment. It simply was not designed for that type of work load.

That the “round peg” Humvee was forced into the “square-holed” role it finds itself in Iraq is symptomatic of the old military axiom of preparing to fight the last war. The predominance of Army and Marine land forces are heavy (armored) vehicles like the M1 tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicle, or thin-skinned vehicles like the Humvee. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq there were virtually no examples of hybrids in the U.S. arsenal. Even the up-armored version of the Humvee was in short supply.

This situation, intentionally or not, demonstrates the limitations of one of the essential components of what has become known as the "Powell Doctrine;" that military force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy. It helps explain why the U.S. military has dominated the traditional battlefield in Iraq, both in 1991 and the spring of 2003, and yet is inadequately prepared for the current insurgency. To put it another way, the U.S. military has plenty of hammers in its tool box and knows how to use them, but it’s short on crowbars.

Finally, the response of the Pentagon and Congress to the need for the MRAP is typical; a sluggish, inertia-riddled effort to address an under-appreciated problem, transiting at near light-speed to a hyper-reaction once overdue attention elevates the situation to “criticality.” Neither approach is healthy, yet the cycle repeats itself within government again and again.


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