20 November 2012
Under the cover of darkness on a winter night in 2011, a Mobile Assault Platoon of Marine Corps vehicles moved along a dirt road through the flatlands of southern Afghanistan. The unit was returning from a routine operation to retrieve an injured sniper from the field when, in an instant, a thunderous and violent explosion ripped through the lead vehicle’s engine block. Steel and dirt blasted skyward, sending a massive shockwave through the 27,500-pound machine and halting the convoy in its tracks. As the smoke and dust cleared, the gunner lay crumpled in the back seat, knocked unconscious and fallen from the rooftop turret, but still alive. The three Marines inside were dazed and disoriented, but they too were alive and in one piece. Most might thank God, but we should also thank the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle they were driving.
Specifically, the vehicle that saved its precious cargo that night was a MRAP All Terrain Vehicle, or M-ATV, a lighter version of the original model designed for the rough terrain of Afghanistan. The driver, 20 year-old Lance Corporal Connor Maguire, had unknowingly driven over a 60 to 80-pound improvised explosive device (IED) buried beneath the road. The bomb was one of 16,554 IEDs cleared or detonated in Afghanistan in 2011.
MRAP vehicles were designed specifically to protect troops and prevent casualties from IED and grenade attacks. Produced in a variety of models by several companies, the essential features of MRAPs are their raised chassis, V-shaped hull and heavy armor plating to deflect explosive attacks. Yet despite urgent requests as early as 2004 from field commanders in Iraq, where IEDs were shredding through inadequately armored Humvees and causing nearly 70 percent of all U.S. casualties, the MRAP did not see action with infantry units until 2007. Instead, it languished in bureaucratic limbo, unable to get congressional funding until clearing the tragically slow Pentagon requirements process.
When a requirement was finally issued in 2006, the program initially received low priority for production, and only 64 were delivered in May 2007. Many military acquisitions officials were skeptical of prioritizing the program and investing in $800,000 vehicles with little foreseeable utility in future conflicts, despite their obvious value in the two ongoing war efforts. Meanwhile, the few MRAPs in the field had withstood 300 blasts without a single death as of April 2007 and in March were described by Pentagon officials as “up to 400 percent more effective than the up-armored Humvees in reducing injuries and deaths.” The MRAP had proven immediately that it could keep troops alive, as it would LCpl Maguire four years later.
Unlike the high percentage of those killed or severely injured in earlier attacks on Humvees, LCpl Maguire was able to shake off the blast, recall his training, execute security procedures, and help secure a medical air evacuation for his gunner. He was diagnosed with a concussion that kept him behind the wire for ten days, but he ultimately rejoined his platoon at the front of their patrols, his requested position.
In 2007, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized the urgent need for MRAPs and took WWII-style action to skirt bureaucratic barriers and make it the Pentagon’s primary acquisitions priority, appealing to Congress to transfer funds from other programs to expand production and utilizing Cold War laws to require steel producers to prioritize sales to MRAP manufacturers. His attitude: “If you're in a war, it’s all in. I don’t care what we have left over at the end.” One year later, over 13,000 vehicles had been ordered and the casualty rate (killed and injured) for troops in MRAPs was six percent, compared to 15 percent for the M1 Abrams tank and 22 percent for the up-armored Humvee.
The MRAP is now the largest acquisition program since WWII, producing 27,000 vehicles at a cost of $45 billion. This is a staggering investment, but it has saved thousands of lives and limbs and has spared many from brutal burns. Yet with the Iraq War finished and troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, the return on the MRAP investment is being questioned. A July Foreign Affairs article called the program a “boondoggle” and questioned the number of lives the MRAP has saved. Indisputable counterfactual accounting is impossible, but the most recent minimum Pentagon estimate is over 2,000 lives saved (not counting those it might have saved if prioritized earlier), with troops in MRAPs 17 times more likely to survive than those in Humvees. “Another value not to be underestimated is the impact on the morale of the troops,” Gates said last year. “Not only in knowing they can survive these attacks,” he added, “but that the folks back home are willing to do whatever it takes to protect them.”
The question at the heart of the recent criticisms is whether a 1,700 percent increase in the odds of survival and the lives of over 2,000 troops (equal to the total number of troops killed in Afghanistan as of August), are worth it? Are the thousands of troops spared maiming or paralysis worth it? Are those spared the severe burns suffered when the exposed fuel tanks of Humvees rupture and engulf troops in flames, worth it? And how do you account for those who have survived multiple IED attacks?
Exactly one month after returning to patrols, LCpl Maguire’s new M-ATV hit a second IED, this one detonating beneath the mine-roller mounted to the front of his vehicle. The two-ton roller was ripped apart and launched upwards, crashing down on the hood and windshield. This time, LCpl Maguire was able to dismount but quickly collapsed on the dirt road unconscious. Thanks to the quick reactions and superb training of his fellow Marines, he soon regained consciousness and was airlifted to a hospital at a nearby base. Once again, LCpl Maguire and his fellow Marines had survived—shaken, but in one piece.
As a result of the blasts, he has since been diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), for which he was awarded a Purple Heart. His symptoms—including insomnia, headaches, and impaired balance—persist, and have prevented him from redeploying. It is a morbid military science determining the worth of life and limb, or assigning preferences to severe life-long battle wounds, but what is notable when considering the statistics surrounding the MRAP’s value is that just like those killed, maimed and severely burned in IED attacks on Humvees, LCpl Maguire is counted as a casualty.
Yet LCpl Maguire is alive. He recently surprised his parent’s at their 30th anniversary party. He plans to apply to college and go on to contribute more to his society and the nation in the years to come. And he has the same 10 toes, 10 fingers, two arms, two legs, and the same goofy, mischievous smile he deployed with. I thank the MRAP for that, because LCpl Maguire is my youngest brother. It is hard to put a value on how very proud of him I am, or how nice it is to have him around again, but I would say it’s definitely somewhere around $45 billion.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's November/December 2012 print edition.