CHARLESTON, S.C. — Pete Lombardo remembers when there were holes in the roof of Building 1602 and half of it was filled with remnants of the old Navy base in North Charleston.
It was early 2007, and Lombardo was beginning what would become a memorable five-year run as Science Applications International Corp.’s man in charge of the mass vehicle integration program at SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic. The task was to outfit mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles with the high-tech electronics American soldiers would need to survive in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When the first MRAP was delivered to the facility that March, there were only about 50 people working there, Lombardo said. “The first year in here was quite brutal,” he recalled. “It was freezing in the winter and hot in the summer.”
But SPAWAR fixed the roof the next year, and despite some defective vehicles and difficulties getting up to rate, the pace of integration — installing radios, GPS and other systems in the rolling fortresses — increased dramatically.
With 1,500 people working on the program, in three Charleston-area facilities and overseas, they passed through as many as 75 of the hulking V-hulled vehicles per day at the height of the wars. By the end of this year, they will have integrated more than 27,000 MRAPs.
“It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” Lombardo said Monday, estimating the related SAIC contracts at just over $400 million. “It’s also been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Lombardo was one of more than 100 people who gathered at the center of Building 1602 Monday afternoon to commemorate the end of the program.
Assembly line workers perched on the tan MRAPs and MATVs (all-terrain MRAPs for use in Afghanistan) and stood among other contractors and government staffers as defense officials, standing on stage beneath a huge American flag, lauded their grit and perseverance.
There were “naysayers,” said Capt. Mark Glover, commanding officer of SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic, people who didn’t think they could get enough MRAPs ready fast enough to be shipped to the soldiers in Iraq.
But “the team got it done,” Glover said, and Monday, they celebrated “something that is not quantifiable: warfighter lives and limbs saved.”
“It’s not the parts, it’s not checklists, it’s the people of 1602 that allows the magic to happen,” said Paul Mann, who was once the MRAP joint program manager on the government side and has since moved on to a longer title and an office in the Pentagon.
When it became clear in 2005 that Humvees could not withstand attacks from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and protect the American soldiers they carried, the military turned to SPAWAR to upfit them. But that didn’t work, and by the next year, MRAPS, with their V-shaped hulls, were the new plan.
Force Protection, which sold a year ago to General Dynamics, built the first ones, but as demand grew, bigger defense contractors like BAE Systems and Navistar got in on the action. Eventually there were six manufacturers and 52 different variants of the vehicle, according to MRAP joint program manager David Hansen, the public counterpart to Lombardo.
Hansen recalled when people called the SPAWAR integration facility a “choke point” between the manufacturers and the battlefields, but by getting the manufacturers to fix their own glitches and by improving the assembly line processes at SPAWAR, the MRAPs began to flow.
“You always had trucks waiting on troops, not troops waiting on trucks,” he told the audience.
By late 2007, they were making 50 per day, and by January 2008, 60 per day. They opened other integration facilities off North Rhett Avenue and in Orangeburg to keep up with the demand.
The 10,000th MRAP was integrated at the facility in August 2008. In 2009, the MRAPs wound down with the Iraq war effort, but MATV production and integration surged as the Afghanistan conflict returned to center stage, Lombardo said.
Monday’s ceremony was meant to commemorate the final MRAP roll-outs, but the details of those were not clear. What was clear is that they haven’t been integrated yet.
Most of the vehicles in the building had either returned for repairs or were MATVs that were part of a new Army program and needed new networking systems, Lombardo said.
“There are only a couple left from the MRAP program. [T]hey are very close to completion,” SPAWAR spokesman Lonnie Cowart wrote in an email. “[T]he vehicles you saw today are part of another project.”
Mann later referred to that work as Capability Set 13 and called Building 1602 “a national asset,” hinting it will not be mothballed again.
But what the future holds for the building and the SAIC team, a portion of which has already moved over to Boeing’s North Charleston 787 Dreamliner complex, wasn’t completely clear either Monday.
Several people said the facility’s past record with Humvees, MRAPs and MATVs bodes well for future work from various branches of the military. Lombardo and his group sure hope so.
“We’ll keep this going as long as the services need us here,” he said.