Marine commanders in Iraq are asking the Pentagon to slow down deployment of IED-resistant vehicles in order to give them more time to figure out how best to employ the heavily-armored trucks, a top Corps official Wednesday.
Congress and the Pentagon have devoted billions to a crash program to field so-called Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles that are said to protect troops from deadly roadside bombs more effectively than up-armored Humvees. But the vehicles are more than four times heavier than an armored Humvee and may require different tactics for their use.
"I would say 'relax,' we don't know how we're going to use them, nobody does," said Brig. Gen. select Larry Nicholson, deputy commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command based in Quantico, Va. "And anyone who says ... 'this is exactly how many we need and this is exactly how we're going to use them' is not being truthful."
Commanders in Iraq are asking military officials in the U.S. to send "a few more" MRAPs, "then let us figure it out," Nicholson said during a panel discussion on the future of the MRAP, sponsored by the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank with close Pentagon ties.
I found this comment interesting, and I pressed Nicholson on it, remarking that it sounded to me like these vehicles had been imposed upon Iraq commanders rather than requested by them. Nicholson responded that the commanders issued the first tanks didn't necessarily know how they were going to employ them and in what numbers - a point to which Andy Krepinevich, CSBA chief, agreed, remembering that the Wermacht figured 400 tanks would be needed in a Panzer division, but later decided a mix of vehicles with fewer tanks would be needed. I found Nicholson's analogy unconvincing. If commanders were really asking for the vehicles, they'd know damned well how they needed to use them.
The push-back from the field stands in sharp contrast to Pentagon moves to field more than 15,000 MRAPs over the next two years, including 1,500 by the end of 2007. The Marine Corps has an estimated 380 MRAPs in service with II Marine Expeditionary Force in al Anbar province so far, and the service is forecasted to receive a total of 3,700 MRAPs.
Nicholson strongly advocated the deployment of MRAPs for Marine operations in Iraq; despite his caution on the rate they'd be fielded.
The MRAP "is a vehicle that allows us to get to, and circulate amongst, the population better," he said. "The continued introduction of the MRAP as the primary transport vehicle will not change the way we conduct counterinsurgency."
The other thing Nicholson said was to remark on the incredible progress won by the Marines in Anbar. He noted that 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines had just left Ramadi and that during their seven month deployment there had zero KIA. That's incredible. The first night I arrived in Ramadi in December 2005, an IED attack killed three Marines and wounded several more. I was on the QRF that responded to the hit and helped pick boots up off the ground with shredded feet still in them. But I wondered why the MRAP was so urgently needed when the success in Anbar had been realized with those vehicles being used solely as EOD platforms. He didn't have a good argument for that.
But analysts with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who sponsored the Oct. 16 event on Capitol Hill, said the MRAP has yet to prove its place in future service equipment plans. The gas-guzzling MRAP could impose a strain on logistics, suck funding away from needed vehicle upgrades in the future and could run counter to the intent of counter-insurgency doctrine, which stresses close contact with the population.
"Our concern is there seems to be this rush to judgment on spending a fairly large amount of money on a program that hadn't been planned for and not much discussion about how you actually plan to operationalize this and incorporate it into the force," said Dakota Wood, former Marine transport officer and co-author of the CSBA analysis report "Of MRAPs and IEDs: Force Protection in Complex Irregular Operations."
MRAPs are said to cost as much as $800,000 per vehicle, he added, with up-armored Humvees coming in at about $150,000 each - leading Wood to call the MRAP a "million dollar Kleenex."
The Pentagon plans to spend nearly $25 billion on MRAP buys.
Other experts disagreed with the CSBA report, however, saying MRAP use today hasn't precluded troops from dismounting their vehicles and interacting with the Iraqi people.
"I generally agree with the purchase of MRAPs in large numbers," said retired Army Col. Bob Killebrew, a former Special Forces officer and frequent Pentagon consultant, during the panel discussion. "I find unpersuasive the argument that MRAP will have some kind of doctrinal impact on the conduct of the war in Iraq."
"It will have no effect at all on the current tactics of putting troops out on the beat and on their feet taking on insurgents in Baghdad and elsewhere," Killebrew added.
To be honest, I found both sides of the argument persuasive, though the retirees' rejoinders had a whiff of Old School, Heavy Forces, I told you so rhetorical overtones to them. I have great respect for formers, but sometimes they get a little hidebound in their thinking and more political than practical. The experts' rejection of the notion of an expeditionary revolution was dead wrong, but their contention that MRAPs would not serve as "armored cocoons" I think was spot on when I remembered the success Stryker brigades are having in Iraq.
While the CSBA report cautioned that the heavy MRAP vehicle would overburden an Army and Marine Corps aiming toward a more expeditionary future, others countered that the lust for lightness has been proven empty given the difficulties of counterinsurgency operations.
"This slow building of alliances and the confrontation of growing terrorist threats by other people's armies who have more at stake in it than us is going to be the next military strategy of the United States," Killebrew said. "We should build as many [MRAPs] as we need now to protect our troops in Iraq, and we should be prepared, as we withdraw eventually, to turn over MRAPs to people who are going to live in that area and who are going to have to continue to contend with the war."