National Security

Rare IED success: MRAPs cut U.S. death rate in Afghanistan

The MATV vehicle (left) will gradually take over for the MRAP vehicle (right), which has proven ill suited for the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. (Thomas L. Day/Macon Telegraph/MCT)
The MATV vehicle (left) will gradually take over for the MRAP vehicle (right), which has proven ill suited for the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. (Thomas L. Day/Macon Telegraph/MCT) Thomas L. Day / Macon Telegraph / MCT

KABUL — Canadian reporter Michelle Lang spent her last moments in a Canadian Light Armored Vehicle rolling down a muddy path in Kandahar province on the day before New Year's Eve.

The improvised explosive device that killed Lang and four Canadian soldiers flipped the 23-ton LAV upside down, according to the Canwest News Service, Lang's employer. The Canadian LAV-III and LAV-25 closely resemble the American Stryker, an armored vehicle that U.S. soldiers have nicknamed the "Kevlar coffin."

In Iraq and now in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has battled to keep pace as insurgents have devised IEDs that are big or sophisticated enough to cripple or destroy even the biggest American armored vehicles, the 33-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle.

The MRAP, however, is still far superior to less heavily armored vehicles such as the Stryker and the Canadian LAVs. No MRAP has ever lost its entire crew to an IED, and if Lang and the soldiers who died with her had been in one, it's less likely that the bomb would have killed them all.

"It is certainly the case that almost all of our casualties have come from IEDs, and that many of those have come in lightly armored vehicles," said Brian Platt, the author of the Canada-Afghanistan Blog.

Casualty figures suggest that the quick pace of American development of blast-resistant vehicles such as the MRAP and its all-terrain variant, which is designed for Afghanistan's rugged conditions, has helped to reduce fatalities from IED attacks.

The new armored vehicles are arriving as President Barack Obama has ordered an additional 30,000 or more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and as the frequency of IED attacks has skyrocketed. In 2003, there were 81 recorded IED incidents in Afghanistan. In 2009, there were 7,228.

Canada and other NATO partners have lagged behind the U.S., however, and the casualties their forces have suffered have increased domestic pressure on their governments to limit offensive operations in Afghanistan, resist U.S. requests to send additional troops and in some cases even to consider withdrawing their troops.

After MRAPs began trickling into Afghanistan in 2007, American troops became far less likely to be killed in IED attacks than their Canadian and British counterparts were, according to figures compiled by the Web site, which tracks casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. U.S. fatal casualties due to IEDs, as a percentage of combat fatalities, have decreased precipitously as more blast-resistant vehicles have entered the theater.

In 2008, about half of the British, Canadian and American troops who were killed in action died in IED attacks. In 2009, the percentage of American troops who were killed in IED attacks fell to 40 percent from 50 percent, while the odds of a successful IED attack against their two largest NATO partners increased dramatically.

During the same period, the percentage of British combat casualties due to IED attacks grew to 70 percent from 58 percent. IEDs killed 27 of the 32 Canadian troops who died in combat in 2009, or 84 percent.

According to figures compiled by The Guardian newspaper in London, the Canadians have had 5.1 percent of their total deployed force killed in action since 2006. The British have lost 3.6 percent and the Americans 2.5 percent.

Those figures can be misleading, however. A large number of U.S. troops are deployed in the quieter north and west of Afghanistan, while almost all the Canadians and Britons are in the volatile south, where the Taliban originated.

In addition, a few of the troops who were killed by IEDs may have died while they were on foot patrols, not in military vehicles, and American, Canadian and British ground tactics and procedures are as different as their soldiers' accents are.

U.S. commanders privately have gasped at how their British counterparts conduct operations in Land Rovers, which have no discernable protection against IEDs.

Canadian commanders, on the other hand, have complained privately that U.S. troops carry too much armor, preventing interaction with Afghan locals.

Still, the data indicate that U.S. troops are better prepared for IED attacks than their NATO partners are.

Canada, the United Kingdom and other NATO partners have sent MRAPs to Afghanistan, but in smaller numbers and well behind the pace of their U.S. counterparts.

Diane Larose, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Forces in Ottawa, said the Canadian government had purchased 39 Cougar MRAPs, a model that provides some of the best protection against IEDs, but she declined to say how many have been deployed to Afghanistan.

A British spokeswoman also declined to specify how many MRAPs the United Kingdom has purchased and deployed.

The first wave of U.S. M-ATVs arrived in Afghanistan last month, and the military expects to send about 5,000 of the off-road vehicles to Afghanistan this year.

(Day reports for The Telegraph in Macon, Ga.)


Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle program

Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected-All Terrain Vehicle program

Description of the M-ATV


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Afghan insurgents learn to destroy key U.S. armored vehicle

U.S. Marines find Iraq tactics don't work in Afghanistan

Pentagon ignored danger of roadside bombs, report finds

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