By Nick DukeMay 15, 2013
FORT BENNING, GA., (May 15, 2013) -- Fort Benning recently became home to a new piece of armored warfare history, as three Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles were delivered to the armor restoration shop on Sand Hill last month.
The MRAPs, a Caiman built by British Aerospace Engineering-Tactical Vehicle Systems, a MaxxPro with MRAP Expedient Armor Program built by Navistar Defense and an MRAP-All Terrain Vehicle built by Oshkosh Truck Company, will eventually be relocated to permanent locations on post after being prepped by the restoration shop.
These vehicles will serve as a testament to the rapid acquisition program initiated in 2006 to field vehicles capable of mitigating the improvised explosive device threat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 2006 program to field MRAPs grew out of a 2005 program that Fort Benning was heavily involved in. The 2005 program focused on the needs to move about and encounter IEDs identified by units deployed to Iraq.
"We started a program in late 2005 called the Comprehensive Force Protection Initiative, with the first priority being mounted protection," Tom Stafford, the chief of the Support Systems Branch at CDID's Mounted Requirements Division. "Fort Benning was given the lead for mounted protection for tactical maneuver. We were in search of anything we could find that was a non-developmental item that had a priority for protection on the underbody. We worked through a real deliberate approach of identifying requirements, and then going out and soliciting industries to come and demonstrate their vehicles."
Despite the initial program producing a number of potential new vehicles, production efforts were instead focused on increasing the armor protection on Humvees.
However, as time passed and the conflict in Iraq continued, the need for a vehicle with an increased level of protection became more apparent.
With CFPI unable to produce a rapid solution, the MRAP program began in earnest.
By late January 2007, contacts had been awarded for the production of MRAP variants.
Initially intended to be a small acquisition of vehicles, the program grew rapidly, Stafford said.
"It went from a couple hundred vehicles to a couple thousand vehicles to 10 or 15,000 vehicles," Stafford said. "In the end, the Department of Defense bought almost 28,000 vehicles."
The initial MRAPs were delivered to theater in October 2007, and were large personnel carriers, often standing more than 10 feet tall and weighing more than 10 tons.
Upon their arrival in Iraq, insurgents were unsure of how to combat the new armored vehicles.
"I spent many hours driving and looking at enemies standing on the side of the road trying to figure out how to attack these things," said Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Lawson, the NCOIC for the Mounted Requirements Division. "They would get up close to them or squat down trying to look under them because their IEDs were no longer effective. They weren't killing us anymore. They may have blown up a vehicle, but we were walking out of them."
That level of protection that the MRAP offered soon became well known throughout the military.
"A lot of Soldiers have been in MRAPs, and some had actually been targeted by the enemy, and they'd be the first ones to tell you that they are still alive because of their MRAP," Lawson said. "I've talked to Marines who have been in numerous IED blasts, and they'd tell you that they're here because of their MRAP, no doubt. That in itself speaks volumes for the program."
Despite their improved levels of protection, MRAPs were not without their drawbacks, namely in their maneuverability early on.
"Early on, one of the biggest complaints was that you were so limited with what you could do with an MRAP," said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Cofer, capabilities developer for the Mounted Requirements Division. "I know there were a lot of times in Iraq that we were in areas where even though we had to take MRAPs, we couldn't take MRAPs because the environment constrained us so much. The roads were too narrow, and depending on the type of road, the road could collapse under the weight of the vehicle."
Despite the issues with maneuvering the vehicles, Stafford said the initial fielding of MRAPs was a success.
"When we started this program, we said our priority was survivability and force protection for the Soldier," he said. "If a Soldier can walk away from a blast and the vehicle is destroyed, that's a good thing. We sacrificed mobility to gain protection and speed of production."
However, ways to improve the MRAP's capabilities were soon devised.
"As we delivered the vehicles, we took lessons learned," Stafford said. "We went back and started a program to improve the off-road mobility of the vehicles, and we continued to improve. So, the MRAP that we fielded in 2007 looks nothing like the MRAPs we were fielding in 2010 and 2011."
With the vehicles being immediately fielded during an active conflict, Soldiers often had to learn how to operate them while conducting operations.
However, Cofer said that despite having to learn on the fly, Soldiers soon became not only comfortable, but confident in their new armored vehicles.
"We were continuously learning," he said.
"Every time we went out, we'd learn something and apply it to the next time we went out. It just kept going so that by the time we left, you had a group of guys who had no experience and a year later we could do pretty much anything we wanted to with that vehicle and be confident in that vehicle."
Part of improving the MRAP meant fielding new variations of each MRAP vehicle.
With several variations of the MRAP in existence, each variation is tailored to fit a specific need, rather than having one vehicle be all encompassing.
"When you think of MRAP, it's unfair to judge all MRAPs based on one variant because each variant is designed to do different things," Lawson said. "With the increased capabilities that we are putting onto the trucks that we are keeping, they are much more capable today than we fielded them in 2010."
The Army also continues to update MRAPs in order to increase their usefulness in future conflicts.
One of the latest innovations for the vehicles is an electronic stabilization system, intended to make the vehicle more forgiving for drivers.
"It takes the intended path of the driver using a steering wheel sensor and takes throttle away and applies the brakes individually based on what it assumes is the intended path of the vehicle by the driver," Lawson said. "It doesn't take steering away from the driver, but it controls throttle and brakes to get you where you're trying to go."
According to Lawson, these continued updates to the MRAP show that the Army is using its prior experiences with the early iterations of the vehicle to plan for future conflicts.
"We're really taking a lot of the lessons learned from the force protection survivability piece and applying them to future platforms that we're currently working on requirements for," he said.
Although the MRAP program has a long future ahead of it, Stafford said the vehicle has already left behind an iconic legacy.
"If you think about World War II, the Sherman tank and the half-track were kind of iconic armored vehicles for the U.S. forces," he said. "In Vietnam, you had the M113 armored personnel carrier and the M48 and M60 tanks. In the Cold War, our premier armored vehicles were the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Abrams tank, the AH-64 Apache Helicopter and the self-propelled artillery that we had there. You go to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and from 2007 on, I think the icon is the MRAP vehicle."