On the tough streets of Baghdad, the U.S. military's humvees are widely considered to be prime targets, at best—and mobile death traps, at worst—by the troops who patrol in them every day. And so those soldiers have developed their own rituals in the hopes of mitigating, if only a little bit, the devastating effects of roadside bombs. Some sit slightly forward in their seats; others lean back, all acutely aware of stories of fellow soldiers who narrowly avoided deadly flying shrapnel—and even more aware of those who did not.
So the arrival in Baghdad this month of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, is being widely hailed as a welcome development, if not a panacea for improvised explosive devices, whose designs are as clever as they are diabolical. The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway, has called MRAPs the "gold standard" of protection for his marines, who received the first MRAPs off the assembly line in what was at the time the volatile Anbar province of Iraq. With their V-shaped undercarriages, MRAPs are far more effective at deflecting the explosions of certain types of IEDs, particularly those of the powerful, deeply buried variety.
Express delivery. The Army's 1st Cavalry Division, responsible for security in Baghdad, is getting its first MRAPs this month, rushed into Iraq by the Pentagon on cargo planes that, depending on the model, can carry three to five vehicles per trip. The Pentagon made an emergency spending request to Congress for some $750 million this summer to help make that happen. In the weeks ahead, it plans to airlift some 300 MRAPs per month into Iraq at a cost of upwards of $900,000 per vehicle, including air transport. There are 600 MRAPs there now, and the Pentagon has green-lighted the purchase of some 15,000 MRAPs by 2010.
But throughout the military, there remain questions about how well MRAPs will hold up against explosively formed penetrators. EFPs shoot so-called shaped charges that can penetrate tank armor. The military plans to begin "up-armoring" MRAPs, according to one U.S. general, to make those MRAPs already in Iraq more resistant to EFPs.
In addition, commanders are concerned about the ability of the wide vehicles to navigate narrow neighborhood streets, particularly in a counterinsurgency war that emphasizes the importance of patrolling among the local people. A report released last month by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a nonpartisan think tank, noted, "It does little good...to field MRAPs that can protect against IEDs if the net effect is to further isolate U.S. troops from the indigenous population they are ordered to protect."
But in a war in which humvees have proved inadequate protection for soldiers, there is a palpable sense of anticipation surrounding the MRAPs' arrival. The 2nd Battalion of the 17th Field Artillery Regiment has been patrolling the EFP-ridden streets of eastern Baghdad for nearly a year. Though the wide MRAPs may be a "challenge" on the narrower neighborhood streets that the regiment patrols, limiting the vehicle to major roadways, MRAPs also sit up higher, allowing soldiers to scan more of the streets they patrol, says the 2nd Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Wayne Grieme. What's more, notes Col. Jeffrey Bannister, who heads up the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, "the battalion commanders are certainly asking for them."