Senator Biden [D-DE] took some deserved heat the other day for saying something really stupid, not exactly an uncommon occurrence for a politician. What is uncommon is an effort by a politician that actually makes a difference on the ground, and fulfills a moral calling. Which Senator Biden has also done recently... and so I'd like to cover that road less traveled, instead.
What he has done is going to save a number of lives, on the front lines, in both of CENTCOM's theaters of war. It's late, the reasons why it's late have shocked me, and this isn't where I expected help to come from. The bottom line remains, however: at long last, a festering issue is being addressed - and Sen. Biden deserves genuine, sincere credit and appreciation for helping to make this so.
Defense Industry Daily has been covering the issues with Hummers for years, noting the platform's inadequacy for its role in a theater where IED land mines are threat #1, and covering the global availability and procurement of better alternatives. (Hey, if you call them IEDs, people might think they're new - and not criticize you for lack of preparedness or wartime response against a staple of war for the last 600 years.) In March 2006 my frustration meter overloaded, and I stepped out of my understated DID editor role over here with a detailed "let me tell you what I really think, and why" piece called "Hummer Deathtraps Suck."
I assumed that the professionals in the US military were covering this issue in briefings and committee hearings, and that Senators, Congressman, et. al. were being told of the Humvee's basic flaws and the availability of alternatives by returning troops, or by their military-specialist staff aides after attending yet another local funeral.
Assume. Ass-u-me. Yeah, I know....
What I'm finding instead, as I speak to members on both sides of the aisle, is a fuzzy level of awareness and understanding even after the issue has hit the floor in the latest supplemental - and when there are fully switched-on exceptions, they seem to be born of unplanned encounters in theater, or a chance briefing by someone outside the entire system. Rep. Gene Taylor [D-MS] has been a consistent supporter of the war and the troops, and is a Democrat I respect for a number of other reasons as well. Over 2 years before he became Chair of the House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee, he had this to say to SecDef Rumsfeld about inadequately armored vehicles back in May 2004:
"As far as IEDs, it was conversations with troops in the field that told me that that was their biggest fear, not a hearing in this room, not a statement from the secretary. It was troops in the field that told me that that's what they were afraid of and they didn't think the proper measures were being taken to protect them.
And lastly, it was a National Guard unit from home, shortly before Christmas, that showed me proudly their efforts to make their own up-armored Humvee, because apparently no one above was bothering to tell Congress, which writes the checks for these things, that they needed to be protected.
You're obviously a smart man. I mean, you're probably one of the smartest people I know... And what's troubling is how someone who is so smart and so detail-oriented, why does it take from January to May for this committee now to find out about this in the wake of all those other things that this committee should have known about?
I sent those kids off to get killed. I share in that responsibility. I also share in the responsibility to fix these things, but we can't fix these things if we're not told about them."
Which seems to be the story of this entire issue, over and over again. It wasn't until 2006 that a retired Colonel explained the last piece of the puzzle to Rep. Taylor: that up-armoring wasn't enough, and that a Humvee taking a blast versus a v-hull vehicle taking one is like a flat-bottomed boat hitting a wave at speed versus a v-hull boat. State of Mississippi, remember - his light finally went all the way on. For Sen. Biden, it was an encounter in Anbar province, Iraq during the summer of 2006.
To Biden's credit, he began talking to colleagues about getting more vehicles like the one he saw into theater - and met a surprising amount of dismissiveness and resistance. His staff have told me that they, and he, have been somewhat bemused and a bit troubled by the fact that here they were, of all people, leading a charge on this issue in the Senate, at this late date. You can add me to that list of the bemused and troubled. But the bottom line is, they did lead it.
Meanwhile, commanders on the ground were finally beginning to request mine-protected vehicles, and some were included in the budget. The requirement grew from 185 vehicles in May 2006; to 1,185 vehicles on December 2006, to be formally requested in the supplemental funding bill by the military; to a contract for up to 4,100 vehicles issued on January 27, 2007, total dollar amount unspecified. A total of 9 contractors have been invited to submit qualifying MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected) Category 1 patrol vehicles and larger MRAP Category 2 squad vehicles for testing and procurement:
- Armor Holdings: a modified FMTV, which is the Army's standard medium truck. Looks like a v-hulled troop capsule on top of the standard truck frame.
- BAE: new RG-33, and RG-33L with a robotic arm to poke safely at suspicious objects. Early MRAP order placed to ship 90 of them to Iraq and/or Afghanistan.
- Force Protection: Cougar 4×4 and 6×6. Used by the US, British, and Iraqi armies in Iraq. That's a Cougar in the blast testing picture, above. Early US MRAP orders for 1,325 placed already.
- General Dynamics: RG-31 in partnership with BAE's South African subsidiary and GD Canada. Used by the US 101st Airborne in Iraq, by US EOD teams, and by the Canadians in Afghanistan. US has ordered about 450 - some under MRAP, many outside it.
- General Purpose Vehicles: Serjeant and Commander police vehicles.
- International/Navistar truck: new v-hulled MPV design based on their Workstar 7000 tractor-trailer cab, in cooperation with Plasan Sasa of Israel whose armor solution protects the Marines' MTVR trucks.
- Oshkosh Trucks: partnered with PVI for the Alpha in cat 1, and with Thales-ADI Australia for their Bushmaster in cat 2. The US military ordered 100 Alphas under MRAP, to be shipped to the front pending successful testing. Bushmasters have been used by the Aussies in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, and the Dutch also use them in Afghanistan.
- Protected Vehicles, Inc: new Alpha patrol vehicle, and the Golan squad vehicle co-developed with and used by the Israelis. the Golan is also designed to carry reactive-explosive armor for extra protection vs. the RPGs and shaped-charge side-firing Iranian IED land mines used in Iraq; the US ordered 60 in an initial MRAP order, for shipment to the front.
- Textron Land: stretched version of the M1117 Guardian Armored Security Vehicle that has been ordered, used, and liked by MPs in Iraq. Bad news: the only factory is in New Orleans.
Of course, talk in the Senate is cheap. But this wasn't. Nor were the efforts behind the scenes before this speech was made - even though none of the manufacturers involved are located in his home state of Delaware:
WASHINGTON, WEDNESDAY, MARCH 28, 2007
Vol. 153 No. 54 Senate S4033-4034
Mr. BIDEN: Madam President, I wish to begin by stating very simply that this amendment is literally, not figuratively, a matter of life and death. I have been here for many years. I have never begun a discussion of an amendment--and I have sponsored some serious amendments and pieces of legislation--by saying something as graphic and drastic as this is literally a matter of life and death. But it is. This is not hyperbole. This is not an exaggeration.
What my amendment will do is allow the military to put 2,500 more mine resistant ambush protected vehicles--known in the military by its acronym, MRAP--in the field by the end of this year.
Now, let me explain what I am talking about. First, I want to point out that the committee acknowledged the need for these vehicles and included $2.5 billion in this bill [JK Background: the 2nd-half 2007 supplemental military funding bill, currently the subject of political dispute]. But what I propose in this amendment is forward-funding money from next year's 2008 budget into this supplemental. In that way, we can build more of these vehicles which have one purpose--the specific purpose of saving lives, American lives. The fact is, as most of my colleagues know, 70 percent of American casualties in Iraq are caused by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Many of my colleagues, including the Presiding Officer, have been to Iraq. They have had the same experience I have in my seven trips--visiting field hospitals. There, you see amputees and people with serious head injuries who, because of the incredible skill and triage capability of our military doctors and nurses, are able to be kept alive. Most of those injured at Walter Reed and at Bethesda naval hospital are victims of these devices, sadly now familiar to all Americans from the nightly news. We have tried very hard--although this administration has done so belatedly--to better equip our troops to withstand IEDs. God forbid they find themselves victim of an IED attack, but if they do, we want them to be able to survive.
MRAP vehicles provide four to five times more protection to our troops than up-armored HMMWVs. That statement, that these MRAPs provide four to five times more protection than up-armored HMMWVs, is not my estimate. That is the judgment of our military leaders. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, GEN James Conway, with whom I spoke as recently as this afternoon, wrote on March 1 to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said:
Multi-National Forces--West, that is, the Marines in Iraq [JK Background: specifically, in Anbar province], estimates that the use of the MRAP could reduce the casualties in vehicles due to IED attack by as much as 80 percent.
He went on further and said that even though the MRAP is not expeditionary: It is, however, the best available vehicle for force protection. He concluded by saying: Getting the MRAP into the Al Anbar Province is my number one unfilled warfighting requirement at this time.
Let me repeat that: Getting the MRAP into the Al Anbar Province is my number one unfilled warfighting requirement at this time.
He went on to tell me today that although there is some disagreement in terms of priorities within this building, he was speaking to me from the Pentagon, he said, "I believe this is a moral imperative."
How many generals with four stars or three or two or one on their shoulders have you heard use that phrase? How often is something so fundamental it is called "a moral imperative"? This is a man who is heading back out to Iraq soon. He is talking about protecting his kids, his troops.
On my last trip into Anbar Province last summer, I went to Fallujah. I met with the commanding Marine general and roughly 30 to 40 of his commanders and noncommissioned officers. I was taken outside a building to see what they were trying to do to diminish the casualty rate of American forces required to patrol Fallujah. They showed me what they called a rhino [JK Background: he means a Buffalo, aka. "The Claw"], a big vehicle, looks like a Caterpillar bulldozer with a great big proboscis on it, a great big arm that is used when an IED is identified, to disarm it. It was interesting. I observed for the first time--maybe others knew about it--the hull. The bottom of it looked like a ship out of water. It had a V-shaped bottom. A humvee, like your SUV or your automobile, has a flat bottom. In a humvee, even if it is reinforced, it is still flat. The rhino had a V-shaped bottom or floor. I asked why. They said it made them much more blast resistant and it could protect the troops inside. That is the first time I heard about this concept. They did not have MRAPs yet, but they had this rhino, a much bigger vehicle for a different purpose.
As I talked to them, I remember asking the question, why aren't we building more of these things? You know, the folks on the ground, these kids and many not so young women and men who are climbing into these coffins, know that even in an up-armored vehicle if they are struck, deadly force may be exerted, scrambling their brains or outright killing them. The number one requirement of the Commandant of the Marine Corps is to get more of these vehicles. I respectfully suggest to all who care--and every one of us cares about the fate of the troops--if there is any place we should not consider the cost--emphasize again, not consider the cost--it is when there is a consensus that what we are purchasing can save lives. We have made no sacrifice in this country to fight this war except for the families of those who have gone to the war. We should not hesitate to save the lives of those who are sacrificing because of cost.
A couple of my colleagues off the floor, none of whom are on the floor at this moment, have told me it might not be cost effective because the military is working on a new vehicle [JK Background: the JLTV, which might be ready in 5 years or so if you give them a lot of R&D dollars, instead of using that to buy safer, proven vehicles right now. Typical Pentagon]. Give me a break. Cost effective? I wonder how many people asked, when we were talking about the invasion of Normandy in World War II: You know, we better be careful. We may build too many landing craft. We might have some left over. What are we going to do with them after the war?
We have no higher obligation than to protect those we send into battle. We have received a pretty good dose of this administration's willingness to send people into battle not prepared. Rumsfeld's famous comment: You go with the Army you have, not the Army you like or need. That is paraphrasing him from a couple of years ago. When we find a way to protect people better in battle, then it seems to me we have an overwhelming obligation to act.
Let me explain the specifics of the MRAP. Each vehicle can hold 4 to 12 troops. Like the rhino, these vehicles have raised steel, V-shaped hulls and chassis. The raised hull is valuable because it gives the blast more time to expand, lessening the impact. The V-shape pushes the blast up the sides of the vehicle and away from the occupants. With an up-armored HMMWV or any humvee, the flat bottom sends the blast through the floor right into the occupants. In addition, the vehicles have side armor and bulletproof glass, and they also have tires that can be driven when flat.
Ever since the military began using MRAPs in Iraq, the requirement has grown, as commanders realize how much better they are at protecting their personnel. In May of last year the requirement was only 185. By July, it had risen to 1,185. By November, it had risen to 4,060. By February of this year, after the supplemental request was submitted, it rose to 6,738. One month later, the requirement went up again to the current level of 7,774. At this point every one in the military agrees, we need 7,774 MRAPs.
The Marines are the executive agents for this program, meaning they are managing it for themselves and the other services. Every service has a need for the vehicle for explosive ordinance units as well as regular patrols. The Marines need 3,700 of them. The Army needs 2,500. The Air Force needs 697. The Navy needs 544, and the Special Operations Command needs 333. The cost of 7,774 MRAPs is $8.4 billion. This administration's current plan is to spend $2.3 billion this year and $6.1 billion next year. But I believe we can and must do much better, and so do the Marines. If we simply put more funds up front, spend them in the supplemental rather than allocate them a year later in the 2008 budget, the same money that we are going to spend anyway next year, if we move it up, we can accelerate production drastically.
Some have said the extra production capacity does not exist. Again, speaking to the Commandant of the Marine Corps today, he indicated that there are eight companies they are dealing with and he has confidence that they can build all they can purchase, all they can afford. That is also what the Chief of Staff of the Army thinks.
On March 14, General Peter Schoomaker told the Appropriations Committee that with the MRAPs, "We can build what we get the funds to build. It is strictly an issue of money."
Let's assume the Commandant of the Marine Corps and General Schoomaker are wrong. Let's assume they have made a mistake. Let's assume we can't build as many as the money we give them. So what. So what. We are not talking about building a highway on time. We are talking about an informed judgment by the United States military, to build not a new weapons system, but to build a new protection system for their forces.
I respectfully suggest, if we are going to err on one side or the other, for God's sake, for a change, let's err on the side of doing something that will protect American fighting women and men.
Quite frankly, if the Marines believe we can do it, then my money is on the Marines getting it right. If General Schoomaker says he needs it, and more money will get the vehicles, then I take him at his word. I would rather take a chance, and I believe the American people would also, to protect more Americans under fire than not.
What does this mean specifically? Well, by adding $1.5 billion, which my amendment does, to the supplemental today, the Marines will have $4 billion to work with. Based on their estimates, that will mean 2,500 vehicles get to the field 6 months sooner than under the current plan. You may say: What is 6 months? Ten of thousands of lives is what 6 months is. Figure it out: Four to twelve people in 2,500 more vehicles. Add up the numbers. That's 10,000 to 30,000 Americans. Look at the casualty rates that come from IEDs striking up-armored HMMWVs. Do the math, and tell me if their lives are not worth taking a financial risk to protect.
If we move this money forward, on October 1 of this year, instead of having only 2,000 MRAPs, we would have 4,500 in the field. On January 1, 2008, instead of 3,500 MRAPs, we would have 6,000 in the field. By February, we would fulfill the entire requirement, instead of waiting until next July. We are still going to spend $8.4 billion, but spending it faster will make a major difference.
If you want to be callous about this, it would also save the American taxpayers a whole lot of money because for every one of those injured soldiers who comes back--to put it in Machiavellian terms--who needs a lifetime of medical care, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars committed per casualty. I can find no logical argument for delaying this.
Let me end where I began. This is a matter of life and death. Madam President, 2,500 more vehicles means literally that 10,000 to 30,000 more Americans will have a four to five times greater chance of surviving a hit with an IED while on patrol than exists today if we do not act. Madam President, 10,000 to 30,000 Americans will not be added to the casualty and death numbers if we move this money up.
To use the phrase of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, at 3 or 4 o'clock today, on the phone with me: This is a moral imperative.I agree. It is a moral imperative that we protect these troops as soon as possible.
So tomorrow, when I have my 1 or 2 minutes to speak to this issue before we vote, I will urge all my colleagues to vote for this amendment."
The amendment passed in the Senate, and has solid support now on both sides of the aisle. The contemptible politics and deeply dishonest 'slow-bleed' strategy surrounding the supplemental make the exact timing of funds unpredictable, but on this issue the funding numbers will be there as soon as the needs of forces and commanders in the field trump the needs of politics.
Following House-Senate reconciliation, the amendment's value is down to $1.2 billion (the House had not included the full amount in its bill), but the Marine Corps believe they can shift $300 million from other programs over FY 2007/2008 to buy these vehicles, in order to meet their goal of making every single vehicle riding "outside the wire" (i.e. outside American bases) in Anbar province a blast-resistant vehicle with MRAP-level protection. Up-armored hummers would then be restricted to operating under explicit commander's waivers.
The Army remains predictably slow in this respect, and their request for only 2,500 MRAP vehicles in FY 2007-2008 won't begin to replace about 19,000 Hummers in theater. But they're moving in the right direction at last, toward blast-resistant patrol vehicles like the 101st Airborne's RG-31 Mk5 Chargers (one of the approved MRAP vehicles), rather than restricting these designs to Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams. They're also going to get more of these vehicles, sooner than planned.
That's going to save lives. You may like Senator Joseph Biden's political and policy choices, or you may hate them - but no matter what you think of him, he deserves real credit and sincere appreciation for this.
Long, long overdue. Still... better late than never.