Wheels Of War

A Troop Carrier Refitted For Afghanistan's Harsh Terrain Is Being Put Through Its Paces At Aberdeen For A Deployment That Will Shape The Fight Against A Resurgent Taliban

July 12, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltimoresun.com

As it rumbled down a steep hill at the Aberdeen Test Center, the huge armored troop carrier hit a bump and briefly caught air. Thanks to a modified suspension, the 22-ton truck did not land with a bone-jarring clatter. Instead, its knobby front tires seemed to glide back to the dirt road.

"That speed would almost definitely bend the axles on the original suspension," automotive engineer Adam Vittum shouted over the engine noise. "We would all be in a lot of pain and very possibly have broken something on the vehicle." No danger of that now, he noted, given the cushiony independent suspension: "It feels like nothing."

A comfier ride is one benefit of the $160,000-per-vehicle retrofit. The main purpose, though, is to keep these Cougar vehicles rolling across rocky, hilly Afghanistan, where the U.S. military is stepping up its fight against a resurgent Taliban.

Testing of the nimbler Cougar began, and continues, in Harford County. More than 90 years after Aberdeen Proving Ground's establishment, the facility is still helping the U.S. military prepare for battle. These days a big part of that mission is focused on Afghanistan, where roadside bombs are a growing threat.

The test center, which is part of the sprawling proving ground complex northeast of Baltimore, has had a key role, for instance, in evaluating the Cougar's entire class of vehicles, known by the acronym MRAP for "mine resistant ambush protected."

Aberdeen is where their ability to survive mine explosions and other attacks has been put to the test. It's also where some automotive trials happen. Assessment centers in Arizona and Nevada have the desert climate found in parts of Afghanistan, but Harford County's Churchville area has hills well suited for punishing MRAP drills.

"You put a high load on the engines climbing the hills, and then you work the brakes coming down the hills," said senior test director Doug Griffin. And frequent speed-humplike bumps test the suspension.

As refinements continue at Aberdeen, 15 to 25 retooled Cougars are expected to reach Afghanistan by month's end, with a goal of having 1,400 there by February. Designed in a hurry for Iraq, with its decent road network (and ubiquitous roadside bombs), the original Cougar had rigid axles that sometimes broke in off-road conditions.

Soft ground

Meanwhile, Aberdeen has tested a brand-new vehicle, the M-ATV, created for the Afghan landscape. Oshkosh Corp. of Wisconsin recently won a $1 billion contract to build 2,244 of them and has begun assembly.

Defense analysts say more maneuverable MRAPs will help. But they caution that limitations will remain because of terrain with the kind of soft ground that can mire a heavy truck or tank.

"We are going to need lots and lots of these kinds of vehicles," said Dan Goure, vice president for national security studies at the Lexington Institute, a military research center in Arlington, Va.

"Having said that, let's be honest with ourselves. In many parts of the country, it is hard to operate anything heavier than a Toyota Land Cruiser pickup." And that pickup, he observed, is commonly used by Taliban fighters.

The MRAP dates to the late 1960s, when the armies of white-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) developed it to counter land mines laid by liberation fighters. The V-shaped hull deflects explosive force from occupants, and the wheels blow off rather than absorb a blast.

Bomb toll rising

The U.S. military bought small numbers of MRAPs between 2000 and 2005. But by late 2006, more and more service members in Iraq were being killed or maimed by roadside bombs, despite riding in armored Humvees. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made increasing the MRAP fleet his top priority and the Marine Corps was put in charge of scaling up quickly.

In a little over two years, nearly 15,000 MRAPs made by five manufacturers have been delivered, the military says. More than 9,500 of those have gone to Iraq. All told, the program has received $28.6 billion.

In June last year, USA Today reported an 88 percent drop in the number of U.S. troop fatalities in Iraq from roadside bombs compared with a year earlier, and the Pentagon pointed to MRAPs as an important factor.

"An incredible success story," said Goure of the Lexington Institute. But the enhanced troop safety came at a price, he and others say: namely, far less versatility than the agile, if more vulnerable, Humvees.

Broken axles

"An MRAP gives you unmatched force-protection capabilities," but it is heavy and doesn't handle well, said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "The original design made them very ill-suited for off-road, cross-terrain use."

The Cougar, produced by South Carolina-based Force Protection Industries, can weigh up to a whopping 71,600 pounds with extra armor added.

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