ARLINGTON, Va. — The Defense Department hopes to ship downrange about 3,500 vehicles designed to better withstand blasts from roadside bombs by the end of the year, a top Pentagon official said Wednesday.

Officials briefed reporters Wednesday about the Defense Department’s efforts to buy Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, which are bigger than Humvees and have V-shaped hulls to deflect blasts from underneath.

Contractors are ramping up production of the vehicles, known as MRAPs, and they expect to deliver about 3,900 of the vehicles to the Defense Department by the end of December, said John Young, chairman of the department’s MRAP Task Force.

Young said he estimated about 3,500 of those vehicles would be in theater by the end of the year, but he did not specify whether he meant just Iraq or both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Marine Corps has more than 200 MRAPs in theater and expects to have roughly 1,000 by the end of the year, said Marine Lt. Gen. John G. Castellaw, deputy commandant for programs and resources.

“They will go to the units that are in the closest combat,” Castellaw said.

At Wednesday’s briefing, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, who handles Army resources issues, did not say how many MRAPs the Army has in Iraq now and how many it hopes to have by the end of the year.

Young declined to say how the additional MRAPs will be distributed among U.S. troops.

“That’s another sensitive discussion that I won’t talk about other than to tell you that Central Command, the Joint Staff and the theater commanders have had a detailed discussion about the priority areas that will get the first MRAPs, and which ones will get the next MRAPs,” Young said.

In December, manufacturers will be able to produce 1,300 MRAPs per month, meaning the Defense Department could ship some 15,000 of the vehicles downrange in 2008, he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked Congress to shift about $1.2 billion from other Defense Department programs toward purchasing MRAPs, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

MRAPs can cost up to $1 million each, not $1 billion each, as The Associated Press reported in Wednesday editions.

Marine Corps Systems Command, which is in charge of ordering MRAPs for all of the services, has ordered 4,935 of the vehicles as of Friday, a SYSCOM news release says.

After the Army initially ordered fewer MRAPs than the Marine Corps, Gates wrote then-acting Army Secretary Pete Geren a memo asking about the disparity between the two service’s approaches.

The memo stressed that the MRAP program should be considered the “highest priority Department of Defense acquisition program.”

Afterward, Geren sent Gates a memo saying that Multi-National Corps-Iraq had requested 17,700 MRAPs.

“In response, the Army is analyzing theater numeric requirements to determine the most accurate quantity of MRAP vehicles based on mission sets, terrain and threat,” Geren wrote.

Geren also wrote that the Army estimates all 17,700 MRAPs could be manufactured by July 2009, but the Army's past efforts to put soldiers in up-armored Humvees were hindered by delays.

When the war in Iraq began, the Army only had about 400 up-armored Humvees, and it took until late 2006 to get close to 18,000 of the vehicles in theater.

A military official noted on Wednesday that by the beginning of the Iraq war, the Army was in the process of getting rid of its up-armored Humvees and had canceled the M117 Armored Security Vehicle project in favor of lighter vehicles.

Production for both vehicles was not ramped up until after the war started, the official said.

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