Quo Vadis MRAP?

February, 2010: As U.S. military operations in Iraq are winding down, the services are considering what to do with those assets, specially developed for Operation Iraqi Freedom, that cannot be ‘ported’ to other theaters of operations- like Afghanistan. The High Mobility, Multi-Role Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles are two examples. Both are too heavy for real military missions, since add-on armoring was added layer onto layer, to endure through years of escalating threats, exhausting the vehicle’s automotive systems and payload-carrying reserve. The latest, most protected configuration of the Up-Armored HMMWV is over-weight, under-powered, and under performing even on the least demanding missions.

As a result, HMMWV are directed to missions where troops are exposed to low threat levels. Nevertheless, the Army and marine Corps are always looking for protection enhancements, and are currently evaluating a new armored, blast protected capsule developed by Granite as a potential improvement for the HMMWV. Eventually, the Joint Tactical Light Vehicle (JLTV), when fielded in few years, will introduce a highly maneuverable and more protected alternative to the HMMWV.

The MRAP is the heaviest armored wheeled vehicle in the U.S. inventory. While providing excellent protection to the crew, passengers and mission systems, MRAP is too heavy to travel off-road. The high ground-pressure of the 19 ton vehicles (either 4×4 and 6×6  wheeled configurations) causes mobility issues when traveling on soft terrain (deep sand, mud, bridges etc), limiting the vehicle’s movement to hard (paved) roads. Difficult steering, rigid suspensions (rigid axles), and high center of gravity, negatively affecting vehicle stability even in slow speed, limiting turn rate, turn speed, movement on narrow roads and traveling on side slopes. In short, this vehicle must be fixed before it is sent out of the Middle-East.

A number of new platforms, recently introduced in Europe and India, are pushing the limit of the MRAP concept – from the RG-35 8×8 monster vehicle, the all-protected British Ranger, developed by a British industry consortium as a solution for future requirement, for an all protected combat vehicle, and new concepts like the Ocelot from Force Protection or the new British Total Mobility Vehicle (TMV) – both highly protected, yet versatile and efficient vehicles. A different approach to a modular design is represented by the French Aravis all-protected vehicle, while mine and blast protection is still being implemented with a wide range of vehicle families, among them the Indian developed mine protected combat support vehicles (MPV). All these designs could be available for production within the next year or two, anticipating the growing requirements by military users from all armies, considering mine, blast and armor protection a basic and mandatory requirement for a military vehicle.

Two years ago the Pentagon was spending over $15 billion on buying the MRAP vehicles. Billions more are still invested in operating and maintaining the vehicles in the Iraq and Afghan theaters. As U.S. troops begin to withdraw from Iraq, more billions are spent on reconstituting and repairing these vehicles, primarily adding independent suspensions enabling the vehicles to travel off road in Afghanistan. The three manufacturers of MRAP vehicles – Force protectionNavistar Defense and BAE Systems have each received contracts to upgrade existing MRAP vehicles with independent suspensions.

Last week Navistar Defense was awarded a $752 million contract to produce 1,050 enhanced ‘MaxxPro Dash’ 4×4 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. Force Protection has already converted hundreds of Cougars adding independent suspensions to prepare them for Afghanistan. More recently, General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada has also announced a contract of over $220 million to deliver 250 new RG-31A2 vehicles. The company will also upgrade over a hundred existing RG31Mk5EM, installing TAK-4 independent suspensions form Oshkosh.

The US Army plans to maintain these MRAP in service for many years, and is currently looking into different operational and organizational frameworks to integrate these vehicles into the order of battle of the combat brigades. Unlike the HMMWV, which was designed as a tactical vehicle and outgrew its mission and capacity, MRAP was never intended to operate as a fighting vehicle. The name reflects its  rather passive nature – protecting troops from mines and ambushes, rather than an ‘infantry combat vehicle’ that should fight the enemy. This differentiation is not merely semantic.

The requirements set for the MRAP were to protect the passengers at all cost – mobility, weight, ergonomics, while, dismounting and access, supportability, recovery – all were dwarfed by the sheer mass used for protection. Converting this Behemoth into a combat vehicle will not be a simple task. Nevertheless, with over 15,000 vehicles in service, and as the Army is expecting a short supply of combat vehicles, in absence of the new Ground Combat Vehicle, the military is expected to be using MRAP vehicles for many years to come.

If they stay in service, what roles could these vehicles be used for? As converting them into combat vehicles seems highly unlikely, MRAP could be useful for missions benefiting from their high-level of protection, like secured transport, where the armor will contribute to the survivability and safety of combat support elements, such as, combat engineers, MEDEVAC teams, essential network support (signal) elements, even ammunition resupply vehicles, capable of supporting forward elements over unsecured routes. Despite their challenged space, MRAP could become important vehicles for forward command elements, protecting critical command and control nodes, operating in the combat zone.

Offering crews a relative safe operating-environment, within a chaotic combat zone, MRAP vehicles could also become useful for operators of unmanned systems, which are now common within the tactical land forces elements. Some of these missions could require reconfiguration and adaptation of the basic MRAP, trimming the internal space for cargo, loaded on flat bed, or introducing external mounts for mission systems. Typical examples are the MRAP recovery vehicles and Tactical Support Vehicles, already introduced by Navistar and Force Protection.

And, what will be the fate of the Up-Armored HMMWV? The US Army is preparing for a projected March 2010 release of a draft Request For Proposals (RFP) for the recapitalization of thousands of Up-Armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs). Recapitalization of some 60,000 Up-Armored HMMWV worth over $1 billion will be open for industry participation. The first phase was a request for information distributed to industry in December 2009. The formal request for proposals is expected this month (March 2010).

A major issue with the Up-Armored HMMWV is the extremely limited payload and deteriorated mobility available with these vehicles, and insufficient protection they provide, leave the military no other choice but to phase them out for the two newcomers – MRAP All Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV), which is a beefed-up interim solution for an all-terrain, mobile and survivable vehicle, and the JLTV – the future vehicle that will introduce true, all-terrain mobility, survivability and versatility (load capacity, access, reconfiguration) at a size and performance the Army could be comfortable with.

A new option currently being evaluated by the Marines is to replace the HMMWV’s cab with an armored, blast protected capsule developed by Granite Tactical Vehicles. Three such capsules are being prepared for testing with the Marine Warfighting Lab, following ballistic tests performed earlier in 2010. The new capsule is marketed by Textron Marine & Land Systems, under cooperation with Granite announced in January.

The increased availability of C-17 air transports, and rapid sea-lift and ship-to-shore transfer capability, will also contribute to the Army’s and Marine Corps content with heavier vehicles. In the past, weight and size limits, imposed by C-130 air mobility, have dictated the maximum weight of armored vehicles transportable, which significantly challenged their survivability.

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