It was the cause du jour for the 110th Congress; a silver bullet that would save lives in an increasingly unpopular war, make even the most superfluous lawmaker look like they were on top of defense issues, and bolster the military credentials of any Pentagon-hostile Capitol Hill denizen.
It even had a catchy acronym: MRAP.
The so-called "Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected" vehicle became the latest symbol of the Bush administration's callous treatment of men and women in uniform--it was the new "body armor shortage" issue. And the "V-shaped hull" behemoths were easy to latch onto for lawmakers looking for a hardened steel club to batter the White House's handling of the war and equipping of America's troops.
"This is outrageous and another example of this Administration's gross mismanagement of this war. Our troops are being killed and these vehicles save lives. No more delays; no more excuses," Democratic presidential candidate and outspoken MRAP advocate Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said in an August 24 statement.
Most people didn't realize that MRAP vehicles were already in the Iraqi theater--used primarily by explosive ordnance disposal units that cruised the main supply routes for roadside bombs. When the issue exploded into the political debate, however, Congress flooded the Pentagon with money and mandates to outfit nearly every patrol with the IED-hardened vehicle--with some calling for a one-for-one replacement of up-armored Humvees.
A new defense secretary fresh out of confirmation hearings and eager to make nice with a Democratic Congress acceded to lawmakers' demands and launched a crash program to get as many MRAPs to the field as industry and logistics could bear.
But if anyone spoke for caution in this plan (and I was one of them), they were quickly shouted down as chicken hawks--dismissed as ignorant of the risks and deadly violence of plying Iraq's bomb-strewn roads.
But now the game has changed. Finally sober minds are beginning to prevail and the services are finding the courage to push back. Let's say the surge gave them the "breathing room" to take a moment to really examine whether these vehicles fit their battle plans or were, as one defense researcher termed them, just a "million dollar Kleenex."
To be sure, MRAPs have their place in a counterinsurgency. The Marine Corps was blamed early this year for taking too long to purchase their MRAPs. But the head of the Corps' Systems Command, which buys all Marine gear, rightly called the MRAP a "boutique vehicle"--one that had very specific uses but could not be employed in place of Humvees in all cases. In October, the first fissures emerged in the MRAP debate when Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson revealed Marine commanders in Iraq were asking Pentagon leaders to slow down their shipment of the vehicles to Iraq. The vehicles come in three different sizes--from 10 to 25 tons--and even the smallest versions are too heavy for some bridges and roads and too wide for village streets. Nevertheless, the Pentagon, at the behest of Congress, began to flood the zone with orders, shipping the vehicles almost as soon as they came off the line.
"I would say 'relax.' We don't know how we're going to use them, nobody does," Nicholson told me. "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."
Nicholson was speaking for Marine commanders, but it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to figure his sentiment was shared by Army leaders in Iraq as well.
Many also wondered how the large, intimidating vehicles would work in a counterinsurgency campaign that emphasized interaction with the population and a "hearts-and-minds" approach. Not to mention that if the surge strategy worked, the IED risk to troops would drop and billions would have been spent on a vehicle that had outlived its usefulness.
"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."
Unfortunately, any reasonable approach to fielding these vehicles was shouted down by war opponents.
But since arguments against the surge are harder to come by these days, the services are taking the first steps in slowing the MRAP freight train. Late last month, the Marine Corps announced it would cut 1,300 vehicles from its order, saving the Pentagon $1.7 billion and removing the logistical headache of moving the weighty vehicles to the field and trying to find something to do with them.
"What's happened since September of 2006 has been absolutely amazing by most counts. We have not lost nearly the numbers of vehicles that we were experiencing because attacks have gone down dramatically," said Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway at a Pentagon press conference a few days ago. "And I will say that in incorporating greater use of the vehicles, we found that especially the heavy variants don't give us the combat flexibility that a smaller, lighter vehicle does. And commanders in the field have said off-road, you know, it's just a little problematic in places."
"That we could save the government $1.7 billion with a decision, that would have us scratching our head about what we're going to do with this excess number of vehicles then in five years," Conway added, "seems to me, it's all win-win."
And now, apparently, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the number two commander in Iraq, is questioning whether his service needs its 10,000 MRAP order (down from 17,000 earlier this year). He told USA Today this week that with the success of the surge and the increase in tips and other intel on IEDs, the need for MRAPs has waned.
He's going to chat with his commanders in the field to see what they need at this point, a realistic reaction to a changing security environment that many MRAP backers on Capitol Hill refused to believe possible.
And for now, Congress hasn't whimpered that its sage military advice is being ignored.
"Those [in Congress] that we contacted who, again, were our supporters, sort of nodded and said, 'well, it made sense.' Another one said, 'well, I always thought we were buying too many.' Another said, 'you know, if you don't need it, why would you spend $1.7 billion of taxpayer money to go ahead and make the purchase?'" Conway recalled. "So at least at this point, we haven't heard anything negative coming out of the Congress."