Monday, October 29, 2007

Now We Have Too Much Armor?

The new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle is only the latest chapter of the history of armor in Iraq. On the MRAP:

Beyond that [the increased supply needs of the MRAP that will increase supply convoys that could get hit], the notion of sealing troops in metal cocoons is contrary to the Pentagon's notion of counter-insurgency warfare, which requires soldiers and
Marines to mingle with the local population they are trying to win over. Winning hearts and minds in Iraq demands "close contact with the local population to provide them with security and to develop a working knowledge of the local environment that, together, produces the intelligence necessary to defeat an insurgent enemy force," a respected military think tank said in report released October 17. "The MRAP - at least in this situation - may send the wrong message to troops in the field," says the study from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

But it's not only retired ground-pounder officers like Andrew Krepinevich and Dakota Woods - who wrote the CSBA study - who are concerned. Conway, the Marine commandant, also said last week that while there is no questioning the imperative for MRAPs in Iraq, he wonders if their purchase will change the Marines' traditional agile and expeditionary nature. He basically shrugged his shoulders over the question of how useful the 8,800 MRAPs now on order will be after Iraq. "Can I give a satisfactory answer to what we're going to be doing with those things in five or 10 years? Probably not," the Marines' top officer said. "Wrap them in shrink wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere is about the best thing that we can describe at this point. And as expensive as they are, that is probably not a good use of the taxpayers' money."

Even in Iraq, there's a question of how well the new vehicles will protect against the growing threat posed by explosively formed penetrators, a new and insidious type of roadside bomb that Iraqi insurgents - allegedly with help from some forces inside neighboring Iran - are using more frequently against U.S. vehicles. An EFP uses an explosive charge to send a molten slug of copper through even the thickest armor. "If the use of EFPs becomes widespread," the CSBA report warns, "any advantage the MRAPs have against earlier forms of IEDs may be irrelevant."

The MRAP will surely help save the lives of our troops in many circumstances even as the enemy adapts to their presence. We are a wealthy nation and so the price is well worth paying. And as long as our troops exit the vehicles to patrol, live, and fight, protecting them en route better is a good thing.

But this new vehicle is not the end of the problem. Even in my brief history of armor in Iraq I noted the early appearance of shaped-charge EFPs. In the end, tactics defeat IEDs. We need to aggressively pursue the bomb makers and suppliers to protect our troops before the IEDs are planted.

After so much invested in complaining about insufficient armor, I am amused that the MRAP is viewed by some as having too much armor. Indeed, after this war, the best thing we can do with the MRAPs is sell them off because Iraq has been unique in the history of warfare in this regard and we are unlikely to face the widespread threat of IEDs again. The expense of operating these monsters in peacetime would break the bank when Congress stops writing checks as freely.

Of course, winning the war is the best solution.