Armor: The Afghanistan Armor Airlift


February 7, 2010: The U.S. is hustling to get MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles to Afghanistan. In the last month, 400 were flown in, doubling the number available there. For the next few months, 500 a month will be brought in. Most of those coming in are the M-ATV model, designed for use in Afghanistan. A B-747 freighter can carry five M-ATVs per trip, but An-124s are also being used. The vehicles are moved by ship to a European or Persian Gulf port, to shorten the flight time (and enable a fully loaded B-747 to make it in one jump from the Gulf.) Nearly 7,000 M-ATVs are on order, most for use in Afghanistan, where there are already over 4,000 vehicles of this type. These are vehicles heavily modified based on experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The rush to get MRAPs to Afghanistan is all about reducing casualties. Anyone in these vehicles is much less likely to be killed by a roadside bomb. The math is simple. If all the troops who encountered these bombs were in a MRAP, casualties would be about 65 percent less. About two-thirds of all casualties in Afghanistan are from roadside bombs. Thus these vehicles reduced overall casualties by about a third.

The M-ATV (MRAP-All Terrain Vehicle) is a 15 ton, 4x4 (with independent wheel suspension) armored vehicle. Payload is 1.8 tons, and it can carry five passengers (including a gunner). Top speed is 105 kilometers an hour, and range on internal fuel is 515 kilometers. The M-ATV is slightly larger than a hummer. Each M-ATV costs $446,000.

The M-ATV was a new design, that improved on the fact  that all other MRAPs were, after all, just heavy trucks. The capsule design produces a high center of gravity, that makes the vehicles prone to flipping over easily. They are also large vehicles, causing maneuverability problems when going through narrow streets. Most MRAPs don't have a lot of torque, being somewhat underpowered for their size. And, being wheeled vehicles, they are not very good at cross country movement (especially considering the high center of gravity.) The M-ATV was designed to deal with all of these problems.

The first few thousand MRAP vehicles in service created a big demand from users to fix a lot of annoying, and sometimes dangerous, quirks and flaws. When first used in Iraq six years ago, problems were encountered. These included poor off-road performance, difficulty maneuvering along narrow village and city streets, high fuel consumption, too high (exposing turret gunners getting snagged by wires, often electrical ones, and more prone to tip over), and poor internal design (for example, the drivers seat is too cramped for a soldier wearing armor). Despite the problems, over 10,000 MRAPs were sent to Iraq.

Fixing the shortcomings was difficult. Their height, weight, large size and high fuel consumption are essential in protecting passengers from bombs and mines. Problems with the internal layout were fixed. Maneuverability problems are addressed somewhat by better driver training, and a wider wheel base in vehicles like the M-ATV. Commanders of units equipped with MRAPs are being taught the best tactics and techniques (based on a growing body of user experience) to get the most out of these vehicles. Smaller MRAPs, like the M-ATV, are better off the road, less liable to tip over and easier to take through narrow village roads. The wire problem was fixed by putting plastic pipe, at an angle, in front, to deal with the wire. Another solution is to use a gun turret that is controlled from inside the vehicle.

MRAPs cost about five times more than armored hummers or trucks. These vehicles are more expensive to operate, and less flexible than the hummer. MRAPs use a capsule design to protect the passengers and key vehicle components mines and roadside bombs. The bulletproof MRAPs are built using construction techniques pioneered by South African firms that have, over the years, delivered thousands of landmine resistant vehicles to the South African armed forces. These were a great success. The South African technology was imported into the U.S. in 1998, and has already been used in the design of vehicles used by peacekeepers in the Balkans.

In addition to many more MRAPs going to Afghanistan, the supply of explosives (nitrate based fertilizer) has been reduced by mandating the use of non-explosive fertilizers in Afghanistan. The U.S. is also transferring its bomb detection techniques to Afghanistan, along with its methods of identifying and hunting down the teams that manufacture and place the bombs. These tactics greatly reduced the number of bombs being placed, and the MRAPs made those that did get used, much less effective. After a few years effort, roadside bomb casualties declined over 90 percent.



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