WASHINGTON — In February 2005, Marines in Iraq made a "priority 1 urgent" request for 1,169 military vehicles with V-shaped undersides that save lives by deflecting blasts from roadside bombs.
But instead of those Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, the Marines back home sent armored Humvees, vehicles that offer far less protection. It wasn't until May 2006 that the Marines ordered the MRAPs, and then only 185 of them.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates now is asking the Marines to investigate and explain what happened. Today MRAPs are a priority with Gates. Congress is spending $8.4 billion to meet the military's request for 7,774 MRAPs. And the Army is checking to see whether it needs thousands more to replace Humvees.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., a longtime critic of the war and a presidential candidate, wrote Gates in May asking him to determine by Friday how many more MRAPs are needed, and to set a production plan to get them into Iraq as fast as possible. He also has asked President Bush to declare the drive to build MRAPs a national priority.
Roadside bombs cause 70 percent of American casualties in Iraq, and MRAPs reduce the casualties by two-thirds.
The vehicles' V-shaped bottom deflects the force of a blast from below. An MRAP is three times heavier than a Humvee.
However, MRAPs aren't designed to withstand another weapon — explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs — that blast from the side. To fend off these more deadly weapons, which have been used against U.S. forces since 2005, the U.S. military has been working to develop another vehicle called the Bull. Biden asked Gates to look at that program as well.
"We must make sure that this is not another MRAP story that falls through the cracks," he wrote.
Long term, the military could create a vehicle that protects against both threats. For now, however, Biden is pushing Gates to get as many MRAPs and Bulls into Iraq as American forces need.
The Bull is new, but the MRAP isn't. Other countries, including South Africa, have been using it for years.
Since March, Biden has gone to the Senate floor time and again to talk about how urgently MRAPs are needed in Iraq. In March, after his staff heard Army officials complain at a hearing about lack of funds, Biden proposed an amendment to the war-spending bill that sped up $1.5 billion so that 2,500 MRAPs could be built six months ahead of schedule. It passed the Senate 98-0.
Biden said he was shocked when InsideDefense.com broke the story of the Marines' 2005 request.
"How is it possible," that the military failed to act then, he asked at a May press conference. "How many people have perished in the meantime?"
The Marines said in a statement that, at the time of the 2005 request, the Defense Department was using a new version of the Humvee, one equipped with armor.
But the 2005 request from Marines in Iraq specifically asked for the V-shaped MRAP. Attacks from roadside bombs, small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades were growing, and Marines had to move quickly and without large security contingents in hostile areas, it said. "MRAP vehicles will protect Marines, reduce casualties, increase mobility and enhance mission success," the request concluded.
Two years ago the Pentagon was looking for light at the end of the Iraqi tunnel, and might have been trying to avoid being stuck with a big, expensive military truck, said John Pike, a defense expert and founder of GlobalSecurity.org. He said he was not surprised that it took time for military planners to realize that the vehicle would be needed in Iraq and possibly elsewhere in the future.