WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, shifting money among the military branches, has come up with another $1.2 billion to supply troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with special armored vehicles that are built to withstand explosive devices and mines.
The money, which awaits a sign-off by key committee chairmen in Congress, would allow the military to order another 2,650 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. Officials think that the vehicles are best equipped to fend off improvised explosive devices, the most common type of weapon launched against soldiers in the two countries.
Gates has said that getting more of the special vehicles to Iraq and Afghanistan is his highest priority, since such homemade bombs are responsible for 70 percent of U.S. casualties. Three times heavier than armored Humvees, MRAPs have V-shaped hulls designed to deflect blasts from below.
Gates went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday night to seek approval for the money shift, which would bring to $5.4 billion the amount of money allotted for the vehicles. MRAPs are the third-largest Defense acquisition program, behind only missile defense and the Joint Strike Fighter, said John Young, the chairman of the department's MRAP task force.
In all, the Defense Department hopes to have 3,900 vehicles in hand by the end of the year, the majority of them deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates has asked the department to look for faster ways to equip MRAPs with necessary radio equipment and to transport the vehicles to combat zones. The military formed an MRAP task force in January.
These heavily reinforced vehicles have come to symbolize the military's slow response to quickly evolving threats in Iraq. In 2005, insurgents began using improvised explosive devices against troops who were often traveling in unarmored Humvees and getting killed by 50-pound bombs.
But the U.S. Marines didn't order any MRAPs until May 2006. In between, the U.S. added more armored Humvees, but they weren't enough to thwart the threat from homemade bombs. Iraq's armed factions planted bigger explosives, and it's now common for soldiers to encounter 200-pound bombs during patrols.
MRAPs don't protect troops from what military officials are calling the newest threat to troops, explosively formed projectiles. A growing number of soldiers have been killed by the weapons, including some thought to be riding in MRAPs.
Last month, Democratic senators, led by Joseph Biden of Delaware, wrote Gates asking why it took so long for the military to ask for the vehicles.
It's unclear where the military is using MRAPs in Baghdad. Earlier this month, Gen. Rick Lynch, the commander of the Multinational Division Center and the 3rd Infantry Division, which is responsible for Baghdad, said he didn't have any of the vehicles.
"I know there's a plan on the part of the Army and the theater here to get us the MRAPs," he said.
Pentagon officials concede that they're taking a risk by pushing nine companies to build the vehicles as quickly as possible.
"This is an extremely aggressive program, and the Defense Department is accepting risk here," Young said. "We may encounter manufacturing issues as we accelerate. But Secretary Gates and the entire Defense Department leadership team agreed we should accept these risks in order to provide more capable vehicles to our troops as fast as possible. We are not delaying manufacture of these vehicles for documentation, extended testing or test reports. This is not a business-as-usual process."