The Army has requested bids from industry for up to 10,000 lightweight versions of its Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, dubbed MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV). It’s supposed to be a lighter, off-road capable and more maneuverable vehicle than the monstrous MRAPs the Army bought to shuttle soldiers around Iraq. The Army has already bought some 12,000 of the larger MRAP.
The pre-solicitation request says builders must deliver five test vehicles in a timely manner, points will clearly be given to the company or companies that can deliver a new vehicle the fastest. An accelerated test and evaluation period will eventually narrow contestants down to a single M-ATV builder, although the Army may place orders with more than one firm. The request says the Army wants anywhere between 2,080 and 10,000 of the new vehicles, and wants to know if any vendors have assembly lines with enough juice to crank out up to 1,000 vehicles a month.
The “off-road mission profile” part of the request comes from a joint urgent operational needs statement from commanders in Afghanistan struggling to manuever on the country's absolutely atrocious to non-existent road network. As the Pentagon plans to send up to 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan, it has belatedly realized that the MRAP is too large and cumbersome for operations there.
Dry river beds often substitute for roads in Afghanistan’s mountain valleys, terrain that is barely navigable by Humvee and definitely not by the MRAP that weighs up to 24 tons and has a very high center of gravity. The MRAP was optimized for patrolling Iraq’s highly developed road network. “The M-ATV will maximize both protection levels and off-road mobility & maneuverability attributes, and must balance the effects of size and weight while attempting to achieve the stated requirements,” the request says.
Roadside bomb attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have shot up over the past two years. The Army request says the M-ATV must protect its occupants from both the deadly armor-piercing explosively formed penetrator bombs and rocket propelled grenades. The only way to get any kind of RPG protection in a vehicle with a target weight of 7 to 10 tons would be with add-on slat armor, similar to that affixed to the Stryker.
One of the potential problems the Army has not adequately addressed is that none of the MRAP vehicles are front-line vehicles, in the sense that they cannot operate in an environment approaching mid- to high-intensity combat. They can and do prove useful in stability and counterinsurgency operations, particularly in urban areas that require troops to conduct lots of presence patrols.
But in an environment where an enemy is equipped with large numbers of man-portable anti-tank weapons, of even the omnipresent low-tech RPG-7 variety, these vehicles are not survivable. They don't have the armor protection and are very big targets. While it makes sense in wartime to build vehicles tailored for specific combat environments, one has to wonder if the service has any kind of long term strategy for all these new heavily armored trucks it keeps buying.
The Stryker vehicle is not a front-line vehicle either and is only survivable in an RPG environment with the addition of slat armor cages. Yet, it still lacks protection against anything much heavier than a 14.5mm machine gun. Its armor is much too thin to protect against 20mm, and up, auto cannons which are very common battlefield weapons, equipping pretty much every Russian built APC commonly found in world armies.
At the Army association gathering in DC this year, Army chief Gen. George Casey said future foes will be equipped similar to Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon in 2006, with lots of advanced, man-portable anti-tank missiles. If he’s correct in that assessment, the MRAP is not a viable vehicle for that type of combat and the Army will need something with much heavier armor protection. Look at the Israeli army and you can see what they’ve done in response to high numbers of RPGs and heavier anti-tank missiles, their APCs are very heavily armored, often built from a tank chassis with the turret removed. Then they slap on a layer of reactive armor tiles to defeat shaped-charge warheads.
This is a point made in an excellent new book by RAND historian David Johnson on Medium-Armored Forces in Past Military Operations. Medium weight vehicles are great in a low intensity conflict environment (I know I’m using dated terminology but I have yet to see a good alternative), but in the face of enemies equipped with anti-tank weapons fighting in cities or mountains, medium armor is not survivable.