Warfare is often a battle against change, and the U.S. military is always attempting to stay ahead of, or at least on top of, the curve. A fairly new yet significant player in this struggle is the MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. From seemingly nowhere, the ubiquitous “Humvee” (High-Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV) used by U.S. forces was replaced, a response to the deadly “new” tactic of our adversary in Iraq — the roadside bomb. MRAPs are now heralded as critical to protecting our soldiers and Marines from the effects of blast and fragmentation, and the Pentagon and defense industry have responded appropriately, if not always efficiently, to fielding the capability. Every rock leaves its ripples in the military technology game; the MRAP has made waves, both in the field and at home.

Few adversaries see U.S. military might and proclaim “I want to go toe-to-toe with those guys”. All but a few realize that a stand-up fight with American armed forces is a losing proposition, leading most to pursue war by other, asymmetric, means. Booby trap, roadside bomb, improvised explosive device: the concept is not new. The U.S. gained hard-earned experience on these weapons in Vietnam; the British, in Northern Ireland; the Russians, in Chechnya. The transition from conventional combat to counter-insurgency in Iraq saw a change in tactics, and the methods and tools developed for conventional warfare quickly proved less than effective — just as in the past.

Combat is a series of actions and reactions. You move, the enemy counters. You change tactics, the enemy adjusts. So it was in Iraq. For $25, an unemployed Iraqi might dig a hole and emplace in the path of coalition forces an IED (improvised explosive device) that could turn a lightly armored vehicle inside out.

HMMWVs were particularly vulnerable to the roadside bombs, with little armor and an unprotected undercarriage. A buried bomb or one adjacent to the road directed at passing vehicles punches easily through the thin-skinned vehicles. The associated shock wave passes through passengers. The insurgents in Iraq exploited this vulnerability heavily beginning in 2003, particularly around Fallujah and Ramadi in Al Anbar Province. The death toll quickly rose (approximately 64% of U.S. deaths in Iraq have been caused by IEDs, according to the Washington Post), and the Marines in Al Anbar raised the alarm. A solution was needed to combat the enemy tactic. The MRAP program began solely within the USMC, but quickly become relevant to all the services reliant on the HMMWV for mobility.

What is an MRAP?

With a V-shaped hull, a raised chassis and armored plating, the MRAP vehicle has proven to be the single most effective counter to improvised explosive devices. Blast-resistant underbodies and layers of thick armored glass offer unparalleled protection from buried or roadside bombs, while all-terrain suspension and run-flat combat tires ensure combat troops can operate in complex and highly restricted rural, mountainous and urban terrains.

“Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle” is simply a generic term for a class of troop carriers intended to mitigate the blast effects of a bomb detonated beneath the vehicle. Specifically, the V-shaped hull re-directs the blast and fragments away from the personnel compartment, while the raised undercarriage allows the dissipation of the blast’s energy. Distance is life when it comes to explosions, and it’s almost always better to be farther away from an exploding munition.

MRAPs come in three classes, from a variety of approved manufacturers — over 60 variations have been built. A Category I MRAP carries up to six passengers and weighs seven tons. Category II vehicles carry 10 passengers and weigh 19 tons. Category III is reserved for mine-clearing variants that carry up to 12 passengers; they can weigh as much as 22.5 tons. These categories can be misleading though, because personnel capacity varies by the equipment load-out of the passengers, and weight doesn’t account for all the various add-ons: weapon systems, radios, electronic counter-measures, fire suppression systems and, for additional protection from mines, extra armor. Operating weight can be over 30 tons.

A Tough Cost/Benefit Analysis

Variety is the spice of life, but over 60 models? That seems a little too spicy. In May 2007, Defense Secretary Robert Gates focused fielding efforts by telling his Pentagon subordinates, “The MRAP should be considered the highest priority Department of Defense acquisition program”. A number of major defense contractors received approval to make MRAPs, and production jumped from 80 vehicles each month in June 2007 to 1,300 in December 2007 — at an average of $1 million per vehicle. That may seem steep to some, but consider that the cargo is U.S. servicemen.

Forget for a moment the human toll of lost lives. Even in the cold, stark calculation of risk vs. benefit, where the training of one officer can cost $1 million, and an enlisted service member $500,000, that 6-passenger vehicle can be carrying $2.5 million of national treasure — the bigger versions, even more.

The Pentagon’s MRAP group estimates that MRAPs have saved 40,000 lives. That’s pure fantasy and hyperbole from a public affairs pedant. However, the vehicles have undisputedly saved the lives of numerous service members, and if you buy the math above, present a worthy investment. Even if math isn’t your thing, the saved American lives are undeniable. This service member has more than a few friends who are still walking around because of the protection afforded by the MRAP.

On the flip side, I’ve also participated in the recovery operation for four Marines riding in a HMMWV who were killed by a blast so devastating that one Marine’s remains weren’t found for two days. What was found: a fragment of thigh bone and a portion of his torso protected by body armor.

Challenges and Troubles

The advantages of the vehicle’s construction have their own disadvantages. The high carriage that provides blast stand-off makes for a tippy high center of gravity, bad enough on first-world roads where service members train, but disastrous on above-grade, off-camber pavement or dirt roads found in the third-world — all too often, adjacent to a water-filled canal. Their armored weight, sometimes over 30 tons, can be prohibitive in getting to the fight. Few of the vehicles fit aboard the U.S. Navy’s amphibious shipping or our strategic mobility transportation fleet. Unlike HMMWV’s, MRAPs can’t be transported by C-130, the principal intra-theater lift (from say, Iraq to Afghanistan). Inter-theater lift (from the U.S. to Afghanistan), by C-17, costs $150,000 per vehicle.

A new variant, the MRAP all-terrain vehicle, or M-ATV, is a response to those challenges. Smaller, lighter (by more than 15 tons) and more mobile, the M-ATV provides much of the same protection of its bulkier brethren while retaining the speed and agility necessary to be relevant on future battlefields.

Those vehicles in Afghanistan? They stay, or they leave; either way, it will be expensive. And will they be relevant in the future? For a conventional fight, against a force nearly equivalent to the U.S.’s, probably not. It’s difficult to get them to the fight, especially in the early phases of an engagement where building relative combat power is extremely important.

The U.S. military is notorious for preparing for its last fight, but there’s considerable talk in the beltway about shifting from the Middle East to the Pacific, which calls for different tools and methods. However, the IED is here to stay, and that likely means that some variation on the MRAP is as well.

CAT II Cougar 6×6 (Various manufacturers)

A. Power Plant: MILSPEC Caterpillar C7 7.2L diesel engine, turbocharged inline 6, with 330 hp. It takes a big power plant to get this 32-ton combat-loaded war pig up and running (and out of mud holes when it gets stuck) at a top speed of 65 MPH.

B. Tires: Michelin XZL 395/85 R20 or Hutchinson VFI Run Flats.

C. Electro-magnetic Counter Measure, or ECM: This provides a protective bubble around the vehicle by jamming radio-control detonated IEDs.

D. Air brakes: Like you’d expect to find on any big rig.

E. Armored glass: Protects the driver from taking one between HIS running lights.

F. Armored v-shaped hull: Diverts blast and frag away from the troop compartment.

G. Gun turret: Sometimes, you get to shoot back.

H. Michelin XZL 395/85 R20 tires: On the raised chassis, give additional stand-off from blast effects.

I. Troop compartment: With 5-point harnesses and a fire suppression system, this compartment protects up to 10 troops from all but the biggest roadside bombs. Still no fun to ride out an IED attack, but better than dead.

Other Key Specs

Dimensions: Height, 9.9 feet; Width, 8.9 feet; Length, 24.6 feet
Curb Weight: 42,000 lbs
Combat Weight: 64,500 lbs max
Payload: 16,000 lbs max
Max speed: 65 mph
Range: 350 miles
Fording Depth: Unprepared, 39 inches
Ground Clearance: 15 inches under transfer case
Crew: 10 (driver, co-driver, eight troops)
Weapons/Optics: Mk 19 40mm grenade launcher, M2 .50 cal heavy machine gun, or M240 7.62mm machine gun.

Price: $1,000,000

MRAP All-terrain Vehicle (M-ATV) (Oshkosh Corporation)

A. Power Train:: Caterpillar C7 7.2 liter diesel engine, turbocharged inline 6, with 370 hp. Bet on the skinny kid in a race.

B. Tires: Run flat tires with central tire inflation. Because there’s lots of sharp stuff on the battlefield.

C. Cargo compartment: Also makes a good support for a designated marksman, as shown here.

D. Troop compartment: Carrying five, with the driver, assistant driver, gunner, and two troops.

E. Armored V-hull: That same blast protection as mentioned earlier.

F. Gun turret: Made to handle a Mk 19 40mm grenade launcher, TOW II anti-tank missile system, or M240 7.62mm machine gun, this vehicle is shown with a test-bed common remotely operated weapon system, aimed and fired with a joystick from inside the vehicle without exposing a gunner to enemy fire.

G. Tow-bar: Even this “light” vehicle will need an occasional assist, due to mechanical or battle damage.

H. Corner mirrors: MRAPs are notorious for “nicking” objects with their corners. The nicked usually ends up losing.

Other Key Specs

Dimensions: Height, 8.7 feet; Width, 8.2 feet; Length, 20.5 feet
Curb Weight: 27,500 lbs
Combat Weight: 30,500 lbs max
Payload: 4,000 lbs max
Top speed: 65 mph (governer limited)
Range: 320 miles
Crew: Five (driver, gunner and three troops)
Weapons/Optics: Mk 19 40mm grenade launcher or, TOW II anti-tank missile system, or M240 7.62mm machine gun. Low-visibility/night thermal-imaging display for driver.

Price/Unit Cost: $470,000