While U.S. forces move around Iraq in patrols of up-armored Humvees, M-2 Bradleys and specialized bomb-proof vehicles like Force Protection's Buffalo and Cougar, Iraqi forces are still sporting Nissan pickup trucks and, in rare cases, cast-off U.S. Humvees (see picture). This means Iraqi forces are especially vulnerable to roadside bombs and small arms fire. In an effort to beef up Iraqi forces and advance their ability to take over from the U.S. Army and Marines, the Army is sponsoring the design and production of a brand-new and super-tough vehicle for the Iraqis. It's called Iraqi Light Armored Vehicle, or I-LAV, and it's a derivative of the 14-ton Cougar (pictured below).Force Protection manager Wayne Phillips says the I-LAV features more head-room than the standard Cougar and is designed for rapid dismouting, unlike the Cougar which is hard to get into and out of. I-LAV ain't cheap -- $350,000 per copy is the current pricetag -- but it promises a high degree of protection. The question is, can the Iraqis maintain it? In Basra last summer, a British Army officer told me even new SUVs were too sophisticated for Iraqi forces to maintain. He said they should stick to what they know: simple, rugged but lightly protected pickup trucks. The U.S. Army is counting on Iraqi forces rising to the occasion and taking care of their I-LAVs.There are presently 378 I-LAVS under contract, from a planned total of more than 1,000, and production will commence soon. Force Protection is a small operation based in a former General Electrics turbine engine plant in Ladson, S.C.Just two years ago, FP had a staff of 12 hand-building one Buffalo per month. Now it employs 400 and churns out more than a vehicle per day. In addition to the I-LAVs, FP is slated to build 300 Buffalos through 2010 and several hundred more Cougars. Taking on I-LAV production is a tall order, so FP has partnered with BAE Systems. FP will build half of the I-LAVs at a new line at the Ladson facility. BAE will build the rest.FP and its portfolio of South African-licensed vehicles is a major player in the rapidly-expanding bomb-proof vehicle market. Capitalizing on its successes, FP is looking to compete for the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, which aims to replace the Humvee. As many as 100,000 vehicles are up for grabs in that competition.-- David Axe
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