Commentary

Tell-Tale MRAPS

By Christopher J. Lamb | Op-Ed | May 02, 2017

A recent article in the Washington Free Beacon, “Biden Used False Data to Smear Marine Corps over Armored Vehicle Request from Iraq,” accomplishes the rare feat of politicizing a bipartisan issue; blackguarding both parties erroneously; and unnecessarily embarrassing Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. The April 24, 2017 article by Bill Gertz reports on a new unpublished study by retired Marine, Steve Chill. Chill participated in Marine Corps decision making on the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles used to protect servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chill wrote his study to “correct the record” and prove the Marine Corps did not “drag its feet” in deploying MRAPs. Gertz and Chill get the story wrong, and thus obscure the lesson the Pentagon should have learned from the MRAP experience, which is that its decision making processes need reform. 

MRAPs are heavily-armored vehicles with high clearance and v-shaped hulls designed from the ground up to reduce casualties among personnel subjected to mine explosions, improvised explosive device detonations, and small arms fire. The Pentagon did not deploy MRAPs en masse until almost 5 years of fighting had passed, and then only after decisive intervention from then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. More than 10,000 MRAPs were fielded within 18 months, but the debate continued about whether the effort was wasteful and unnecessary or cost-effective and essential. 

For example, Gertz cites a study by economists arguing the $600,000 MRAPs were "no more effective at reducing casualties than medium armored vehicles” despite costing “roughly three times as much.” However, he ignores a rebuttal that demonstrates the study’s methodology was flawed. Among other things, it evaluates “effectiveness” in terms of fatalities and ignores wounded soldiers. By 2008, the casualty rate (injured and killed) for troops in MRAPs was six percent, compared with a casualty rate of 22 percent rate for the up-armored Humvee. That is a huge difference since it is far less expensive to protect than replace personnel. Replacing a vehicle full of experienced enlisted personnel costs more than the price of an MRAP. And as Senator Joseph Biden (D–DE) pointed out in a speech from that period, MRAP costs are also more than offset by avoiding expensive care for injured soldiers who would have been protected if riding in an MRAP instead of a Humvee. 

But Gertz got more wrong than just his citations; beginning with the title of the article. His headline highlights Chill’s accusation that Biden led “Democrat-driven public accounts accusing the Marines of failing to protect their troops by delaying requests for armored vehicles” in order to “attack then-President George W. Bush over Iraq.” In reality, Congress’ concern about slow deployment of better armor was always a bipartisan issue, and had been for years before controversy over Iraq reached a boiling point in 2007. 

As an NDU study on MRAPs made clear, the quest for better armor was a bipartisan concern for both representatives and senators. As early as February, 2004 Representative Duncan Hunter (R–CA) was leading the charge against the Pentagon on this issue. He even had his own armored gun truck built and driven to the door of the Pentagon to dramatize what could be done quickly with few resources in spite of Pentagon excuses. Senators from across the political spectrum—including Biden but also Republicans like Ted Stevens (R–AK)—weighed in on what Missouri Republican Kit Bond decried as an unacceptable “set of bureaucratic delays” in fielding MRAPs. In short, both parties and chambers of Congress cared deeply about the issue and did so from early on. 

The article also errs in asserting reports of “foot dragging” were “false and misleading.” Chill appears sincere, but his research is a mix of opprobrium and obfuscation. Understandably, he is upset by attacks on those making MRAP decisions. Assessing military requirements is incredibly complex and difficult. Reliability, maintainability, mobility, agility, deployability, versatility, survivability and affordability all have to be considered and compared against numerous alternatives. There is always room for debate, and no one in the debate should assume moral superiority. Yet as Representative Hunter observed, the major advantage of MRAPs over Humvees is clear: “It’s a simple formula. A vehicle that’s 1 foot off the ground gets 16 times [the blast] impact that you get in a vehicle that’s 4 feet off the ground,” i.e. an MRAP.  

Chill’s obfuscation arises from his laborious citing of various bureaucratic decisions. Most egregiously, Chill treats uparmored Humvees as “MRAP” equivalents and hides behind bureaucratic decisions that paid lip service to MRAPs but allocated no funding for them. Chill notes Marine headquarters considered the February, 2005 urgent request for MRAPs from Marines in Iraq and downgraded it from “urgent” to a regular request. Further, it decided uparmored Humvees were sufficient to meet the need. Thus, by Chill’s logic, the urgent request for MRAPs was handled in a timely fashion. He says critics like Biden and whistleblower Franz Gayl, a civilian scientist working for the Marines, are Johnny-come-latelies trying to make a stink out of nothing. This Kafkaesque reasoning could be “exhibit A” for substantiating Gayl’s assertion that bureaucrats slow-rolled MRAP requests. Unarmored Humvees are not MRAPs and declaring a request “not urgent” does not make it less so by any objective criteria. Chill also equivocates when he asserts, “The Marine Corps was actively pursuing MRAP for approximately a full year by the time Senator Biden sent a letter of concern to the DOD about MRAP delays.” That is only true if you construe “actively pursuing” to mean “talking about” rather than buying and deploying them.  

Much could be said about the history of the Pentagon’s management of field requests for MRAPs, but here is what readers need to know. From the February 2005 urgent request until Secretary Gates’ March 2007 designation of MRAPs as the Pentagon’s top acquisition priority—more than two years—the Pentagon failed to launch a major MRAP program. There was plenty of talk, but no action. The Commandant called MRAPs a “moral imperative,” and Marine General Robert Magnus testified to Congress that MRAPs were “up to 400 percent more effective than the up-armored Humvees in reducing injuries and deaths,” but neither the Marines nor the Army initiated a large MRAP program. Army and Marine flag officers repeatedly told Congress MRAPs were “unfunded requirements.” At a time when Congress was adding $200 billion a year to meet supplementary military requests to support combat operations, Army and Marine leaders decided not to request any of that funding for MRAPs. 

Finally, the article exaggerates in saying the “MRAP controversy follows officials to the White House,” particularly Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who Gertz and Chill claim “has been repeatedly and unjustly smeared” by false allegations of negligence. A google search of “Mattis, MRAPs, negligence” for anything in the past year reveals only three items, one of which is Gertz’s article. So Chill and Gertz are probably doing Mattis a disfavor by dredging the issue up at this juncture. Unless, that is, Mattis is prompted to consider some real lessons from the MRAP experience. Gates’ memoirs reveal that: 

  • He accidentally stumbled upon the USA Today report that alerted him to the MRAP issue;  
  • Not a single senior official, civilian or military,” supported his proposal for a crash program to buy MRAPs; and:  
  • When he tried to better balance warfighting and irregular warfare capabilities like MRAPs in his National Defense Strategy, all the senior uniformed leaders in the Pentagon “rebelled” and forced him to “water down” his strategy. 

Reflecting on this, Mattis ought to consider whether the Pentagon decision making system requires reform. Does he really want a decision making process that:  

  • Required happenstance to bring to the Secretary’s attention a highly effective but controversial option for defeating the enemy’s most lethal weapon?  
  • Blinded every single senior Pentagon official to the merits of the MRAP program that were apparent to the Secretary and Congress?  
  • Forced a leader as competent as Secretary Gates to water down his own strategic guidance for the benefit of consensus? 

Fortunately for Secretary Mattis, Congress has already considered these issues and passed a law providing a remedy. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act requires, inter alia, the Secretary of Defense to use cross-functional teams to circumvent normal Pentagon decision making behavior that is slow, consensus-based and unable to manage complex security challenges well. Secretary Gates used just such teams to implement his MRAP intervention, and Mattis can do the same for his priorities. How will Mattis know he needs a cross-functional team? He’ll know when someone like Gertz, Chill or even the entire Pentagon leadership cadre tells him, “Don’t worry boss, we have a simple and easy solution to your complex and difficult problem: do nothing! Everything is fine just the way it is.”

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Dr. Christopher Lamb is a Distinguished Research Fellow at Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, Department of Defense or the National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.