The massive blast-resistant vehicles the George W. Bush administration bought last decade and sent to Iraq often are hailed as the Pentagon's wisest purchase in some time. But two academics are challenging assertions in a controversial new piece.
The Pentagon since the mid-2000s have fielded 30,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles at an average cost of about $600,000 per truck. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates led the charge on obtaining the vehicles, which feature heavier armor than other U.S. military vehicles and a special V-shaped hull to direct blasts away from troops inside.
In a 2007 media interview, Gates said the MRAPs had become troops' "vehicle of choice," adding that the massive trucks were life savers. Gates last year said the armored trucks have saved "thousands and thousands of lives." Gates told USA Today in the 2007 interview that during 150 attacks, only 6 percent of troops were injured or killed while inside an MRAP, while that rate was 22 percent for the venerable Humvee.
Not so fast, say economists Chris Rohlfs and Ryan Sullivan.
"Data from the battlefield does not support the claims that MRAPs are highly effective in decreasing the number of U.S. causalities, Rohlfs and Sullivan write in an article out in the latest version of Foreign Affairs. "We found that, relative to light and unprotected tactical wheeled vehicles, those with 'medium' amounts of armor plating and mine protection were highly effective at reducing the fatalities in units exposed to heavy combat."
The Syracuse University and U.S. Naval Postgraduate School economics professors found one life in seven were saved for every seven vehicles smaller than the MRAPs. That breaks down to a cost of $1 million to $2 million per saved life, according to the duo.
"However, tactical wheeled vehicles with 'heavy' amounts of protection, such as the MRAP, (which has higher quality armor and a V-shaped hull designed to improve resistance to IEDs)," Rohlfs and Sullivan conclude, "did not save more lives than medium armored vehicles did, despite their cost of $600,000 apiece—roughly three times as much as the medium-protected vehicles."
The academics compared fatality rates among units that saw similar levels and combat, some got MRAPs while others kept their lighter vehicles.
"We found that the heavily protected vehicles were no more effective at reducing casualties than the medium armored vehicles," Rohlfs and Sullivan write. "While the heavier vehicles are safer in principle, they are bulky and lack maneuverability, and they were introduced at a relatively calm time in the conflict, when there were few deaths for them to prevent."
MRAP program spokeswoman Barb Hamby said in a statement that the professors' data "was neither researched nor developed by the JPO. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for us to comment." But Hamby did note "the authors of that data are not privy to the hundreds of extensive test-event classified data, or that collected in the theater of operations."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.