Behind the Wheel

The perils of letting short-term planning drive major weapons programs.

The development of mine-resistant ambush- protected vehicles, which are heavily armored and boast a V-shaped hull design to resist improvised explosive attacks, is emerging as a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing short-term requirements to drive billion-dollar weapons programs.

In 2004, American bomb disposal teams in Iraq began purchasing MRAPs. Combat experience showed the vehicles were resistant to mine blasts, and requests poured in from U.S. commanders in Iraq. "The MRAP program should be considered the highest priority Department of Defense acquisition program," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in May 2007. From a handful of specialized vehicles, the MRAP program ballooned into a requirement to replace all 17,700 Humvees in Iraq with the heavily armored trucks during the next two years, at a potential total cost of $25 billion.

But soon, questions began to emerge about the wisdom of spending billions of dollars on a fleet of vehicles designed for very specific battlefield conditions.

In an October 2007 report, "Of IEDs and MRAPs: Force Protection in Complex Irregular Operations," Andrew F. Krepinevich and Dakota L. Wood of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said the MRAP was a good solution to the threat troops face in Iraq and Afghanistan, but "there is little certainty that future threats will mirror current ones."

What's more, the Pentagon was forced to buy a mixed fleet from seven different manufacturers. Now, troops in the field face problems repairing and providing spare parts for disparate vehicles, with an average sticker price of $800,000 each.

At an October conference in Washington, military officials acknowledged that there was no post-Iraq plan to use the vehicles. "Wrap them in shrink-wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere is about the best thing that we can describe at this point," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway said. At a December news conference, he said the vehicles had proved too heavy for the Marines' expeditionary style of warfare, so the Corps cut back its order of 3,700 MRAPs to 2,300. According to reports from the field, the MRAPs are not as effective as initially hoped, and some troops want to keep their Humvees, John Young, acting Defense acquisition chief, told lawmakers at a November hearing. "We might not need as many as we are buying for the Iraq situation if we're successful in continuing to stabilize Iraq and the force mission changes there," said Young, who headed the department's MRAP Task Force.

Defense Department acquisition reform experts have urged that combatant commands play a greater role in shaping requirements for the major weapons programs whose products they will use. In the traditional procurement process, buyers tend to look out decades hence to anticipate potential threats for which they develop weapons and technologies. Troops in the fight, on the other hand, need immediate solutions with delivery timelines often measured in months.

The Pentagon's rush to field the MRAP initially was held up as an example of just the sort of fast response to the short-term demands of those on the battlefield that experts had suggested. But now it appears that investments made to deal with immediate challenges in Iraq might leave Defense holding stocks of expensive equipment ill-suited to conditions troops will face after Iraq.

It's a conundrum for an acquisition system already under attack for developing high-ticket, high-tech weapons unsuited to counterinsurgency needs such as those in Iraq. As Pentagon planners gear up for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, this latest reversal should provide grist for a close examination of the proper role and priorities for purchasing and matching resources to national security needs in the future.

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