The Oshkosh MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle is one of several models currently being tested by Defense Department officials as part of a new effort to get lighter, faster armored vehicles to combat troops.

The Oshkosh MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle is one of several models currently being tested by Defense Department officials as part of a new effort to get lighter, faster armored vehicles to combat troops. (Photo courtesy of Oshkosh Corp.)

WASHINGTON — By the end of the year, troops should be driving a new vehicle while on patrols in Afghanistan. But whether they’re still driving it two years from now remains to be seen.

Defense contractors last week submitted their first prototypes of the new MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle, designed to be as safe but lighter and more agile than the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected trucks which dramatically reduced casualties from roadside bombs in Iraq.

Army and Marine Corps officials detailed those plans during a Thursday hearing before the House Appropriations Committee.

Pentagon planners put out a request for the new vehicles last fall and hope to field the armored vehicle by the end of 2009.

Lawmakers offered support for the plans, but questioned whether the vehicles will come too late, after the heaviest fighting of the year.

"We were not ready in Iraq, and consequently we went in there with the wrong vehicles," said Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Mich. "I’m hoping we don’t repeat that same mistake in Afghanistan."

Nearly 12,000 MRAPs have been put into service in the last two years, but fewer than 1,800 of them are in Afghanistan due to their impracticality on the nation’s narrow, crumbling roadways.

Improvised explosive devices have killed 32 coalition troops in January and February, compared with 10 during the same period in 2008.

The prototype M-ATVs provided to the Defense Department last week weigh about 10 tons. That is about half the weight of the older MRAPs, but still significantly more than the basic 5-ton Humvee used by Afghanistan troops.

Defense planners also requested the M-ATVs include the blast-defying characteristics that Humvees lack, such as thicker armor and a V-shaped bottom.

Options for commanders

But the Pentagon isn’t touting the hybrid as a long-term solution for servicemember safety, or even the only short-term solution.

About 882 redesigned, lighter MRAPs will be built before the M-ATV can be mass produced. Updated Humvee armor kits will be fielded in coming months. And the long-range development of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle — set to replace the Humvee in 2015 — won’t be affected by the new truck’s performance, military officials said.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. George Flynn, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, told lawmakers Thursday that the goal is to give commanders on the ground as many options as possible, allowing them to use different convoy configurations as missions change.

But that means the M-ATV program and its potential $3 billion price tag could produce just a few thousand new trucks that will be obsolete within a few years, lawmakers said.

Ranking defense subcommittee member Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., expressed concern that in two years, commanders might decide the M-ATVs don’t fit mission needs just as they’ve decided the MRAPs are too heavy for Afghanistan now.

But Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. J.D. Thurman noted the MRAPs will still play a strategic role, just not one as prominent as it has in Iraq.

Questions about need

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the libertarian think tank Lexington Institute, said the cost of rapidly fielding another new vehicle might seem a steep price, but it’s a priority the services are backing.

"I’m not sure the [M-ATV] is essential for the troops’ mission, but it may be essential to keep political support for the war effort," he said.

While IED attacks are up in Afghanistan, the opportunities for insurgents to build and hide them aren’t as numerous there as they were in Iraq, Thompson said. But the political fallout of not responding to a lesser IED threat in Afghanistan could be damaging to the new administration.

"And the Pentagon has a tendency to throw scads of money at problems anyway," he said.

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments senior fellow Dakota Wood said the plan isn’t fiscally responsible, but that neither were plans to spend nearly $20 billion to rapidly field the MRAPs in Iraq.

"It’s worth whatever you feel like the priority is at the moment," he said. "The MRAPs were seen as a necessity to stop the bleeding. And with the upswing of IED attacks in Afghanistan, there’s some of the same urgency."

But Wood said he’s not surprised the M-ATVs are viewed as a short-term fix for the specific challenges of Afghanistan. "Once you get into the fight, plans change, and you’re not going to wait five or 10 years for something perfect to replace it."

Flynn said he is optimistic the M-ATVs can be fielded on their current schedule. Army officials expect to buy about 2,080 of the new trucks over the next year, although they could raise that number to 10,000 if the need arises.

Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said the MRAP joint program office is expected to finalize vehicle testing this spring, and award the first production contracts for the M-ATV by early summer.

Stripes’ Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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