The MRAP Boondoggle/Why The MRAP is Worth the Money

From the July Foreign Affairs:

Just last week, an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal argued, “the success the Army and Marines have had with [the MRAP] shows what happens when the Pentagon throws out the bureaucratic rule book and takes on a more World War II-style business model.”

But data from the battlefield does not support the claims that MRAPs are highly effective in decreasing the number of U.S. causalities. We recently conducted a study using For Official Use Only (FOUO) Pentagon data, which the Defense Department provided in response to a research request. We found that, relative to light and unprotected tactical wheeled vehicles, those with “medium” amounts of armor plating and mine protection were highly effective at reducing the fatalities in units exposed to heavy combat. For infantry units, one life was saved for every seven medium vehicles purchased, at a total cost of around $1 million to $2 million per life saved. However, tactical wheeled vehicles with “heavy” amounts of protection, such as the MRAP (which has higher quality armor and a V-shaped hull designed to improve resistance to IEDs), did not save more lives than medium armored vehicles did, despite their cost of $600,000 apiece — roughly three times as much as the medium-protected vehicles.

Then a response, in the August edition:

To be sure, the MRAP program is a big, almost irresistible target — apparently for economists as well as insurgents. But the logic for the deployment of MRAPs, like the vehicles themselves, withstands attack. Our own research and a close look at the authors’ methodology put Rohlfs and Sullivan’s findings in doubt.

The authors claim that the $45 billion MRAP program is excessive because MRAPs “did not save more lives than medium armored vehicles did despite [costing] roughly three times as much.” This argument is suspect for several reasons. Rohlfs and Sullivan’s findings are skewed because they measure the value of MRAPs by comparing fatality rates among units that “faced similar baseline levels of violence.” But in Iraq, a baseline of violence is hard to establish: troops met all kinds of attacks – improvised explosive devices but also small groups of insurgents, snipers, and indirect fire. The greatest comparative advantage of the MRAP over medium armored vehicles is its success protecting soldiers specifically against IEDs. Aggregating all unit combat experience thus skews the data against the vehicles.

More important, in evaluating the MRAP’s effectiveness, the authors consider only fatalities and not wounded soldiers. By 2008, the casualty rate (killed plus injured) for troops in MRAPs was six percent, compared with a casualty rate of 15 percent for the M1 Abrams tank [my emphasis–Nick] and a 22 percent rate for the up-armored Humvee. In other words, up-armored Humvees are far less effective in safeguarding soldiers against IEDs. And that is no small thing: protecting soldiers is far cheaper than replacing them. It costs about $500,000 to replace an enlisted soldier and between $1 million and $2 million to replace an officer, depending on their occupational specialty. Therefore, the average light tactical vehicle with one officer and four enlisted personnel is protecting about $3 million of Defense Department funding. Moreover, the military pays billions of dollars in other long-term, casualty-related costs, including rehabilitation for the wounded and survivor benefits for the deceased.

4 responses to “The MRAP Boondoggle/Why The MRAP is Worth the Money

  1. Silliness.

    First, all M1 tanks were conducting combat operations, not escorting convoys, so they were in inherently more dangerous situations.

    Next, if what you really want to do is minimize casualties, then don’t go to the damn war. MRAPs may or may not be good at keeping people alive, but they are damn effective at pissing people off by destroying cars, generator cables, buildings, etc, since they are enormous, even gargantuan, vehicles.

    Last, effective TTPs and discipline are far more effective than any armor plating. I made my company walk in front of the HMMWVs everywhere we went, and we had a 80%+ find rate. This worked for my AO, it very well may not have worked in an area the had deep burieds or 500+ pound HME, we were in EFP country.

    There was goodness and badness to the MRAP, but if there’s going to be debate, it needs to be intelligent, not the meaningless flinging of statistics by journalists and politicians rather than people that actually used these things.

  2. When I don’t agree with you about something, it’s almost always that I’m agreeing with your conclusions but differing on the details, or disagreeing with your conclusions but agreeing on the details. This was somewhere inbetween.

    1. Not sure I follow your point about the M1 and “combat operations”. What sort of “combat operations” were M1s in where IED strikes were more likely than what trucks ran into on convoys or patrols? For that matter, what sort of “combat operations” were M1s in that trucks weren’t? (I wanted to respond to this by talking about where those casualty numbers came from, but when I followed the footnotes, they seemed to dead-end in a quote from a DoD press release. Which was my problem with the second study in general, even though I bought into its conclusions a little more–it didn’t seem to have the same rigor.) But whatever, not that important.

    2. Got it–but I think you overstate the tension between minimizing casualties and “winning”. MRAP’s bull-in-a-china-shop act had very little to do with its intent and a lot more to do with its execution, which is to say with it being a rushed solution. Which gets into one of the points the study referred to in the second essay makes–that it was borderline nuts that we didn’t and still don’t have a replacement for the HMMWV designed to deal with the realities of actual combat. And that, I think, segues to your last point, which I read broadly as “this should be an in-house discussion”. On one hand, it is sort of an in-house discussion–the first study is an NPS guy, the second is guys from NDU. But on the other hand, yeah, it’s in Foreign Affairs and the WSJ, which is ridiculous. And yet: is there a point at which it ought it not to be an in-house discussion? In the ’91 war, they realized HMMWV scout platoons were hopelessly unarmored, and put truck formations a terrain feature or two behind the tanks. 20 years wasn’t enough lead time to figure that one out?

    3. Just an observation: It’s kind of crazy how different OIF was depending on where and when you’re talking about. 2005 Ramadi was a deep-buried monster a few times a week, at least in the beginning. 2009 Mosul was mostly calm, but punctuated by massive VBIEDs. In both of those cases, MRAPs (when used with the right TTPs) were (or would have been) the right tool. (In 2005, after we lost HMMWVs, we rolled BFVs instead of trucks–it kept guys alive, but they tore up the neighborhoods even more than MRAPs would have.)

    That said, there’s a lot to be said for the “just-get-out-of-the-damn-truck” method. Thinking about writing something to Armor magazine about it, after that last issue, with that 1LT complaining that MRAPs disrupted his mobility. I mean, I get it, but… get out of the damn truck.

    The direction I’m thinking about going with whatever it is I write–and more than anything else, I’m writing here, I really want your opinion on this–

    – That “patrol around in your squad car until something happens” is a far more popular TTP than it ought to be, but it’s what gets used when you don’t know what else to do–which is to say that patrols, mounted or otherwise, ought to have a task instead of being an end unto themselves. (Before I write that one, I’m going to take a quick survey of AR and IN peeps, see how common the “you have to do ___ hours/day of patrols” bullshit was.)

    – That ten years of dicking around in OIF/OEF hasn’t been enough to solidify what it is that armor units do in COIN. Are tank companies undermanned infantry units? If they are, it should be a standard TTP at this point to plus us up by cross-attaching IN platoons in garrison. If they’re not, what are they? (There’s a larger discussion there about whether what Armor does is tied to a set of tasks, or to a specific platform.)

    hope that was long enough and disjointed enough for you. n

  3. Leaving discussion of tactics behind, I think the MRAP is systemic of American military thinking; that is – IEDs = KIAs, so we have to defeat IEDs. Symptom to a larger, wicked problem, which is governing a conquered foe. Now that we are winding up the war, I’m disappointed to see lots of thoughts on the statistic viability of equipment, rather than things like the viability of bringing in state dept to govern or getting the locals to get right to it. Or perhaps even an American doctrine for the employment of force at the policy maker level. Martial law and a constabulary force until equilibrium returns to society? Crunching numbers about MRAPs and IEDs is cool for ORSA guys to do when they are briefing acquisition guys, but without a greater discussion of strategy and the use of force as state apparatus, we are bound to replace the MRAP with a four tracked geegaw in the next conflict.

    Rereading this, I see it is high and right of target, but I don’t care. Be prepared for a rant on educating military strategists as opposed to operationalists.

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