WASHINGTON — Hundreds of U.S. Marines have been killed or injured by roadside bombs in Iraq because Marine Corps bureaucrats refused an urgent request in 2005 from battlefield commanders for blast-resistant vehicles, an internal military study concludes.
The study, written by a civilian Marine Corps official and obtained by The Associated Press, accuses the service of "gross mismanagement" that delayed deliveries of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected trucks for more than two years.
Cost was a driving factor in the decision to turn down the request for the so-called MRAPs, according to the study. Stateside authorities saw the hulking vehicles, which can cost as much as a $1 million each, as a financial threat to programs aimed at developing lighter vehicles that were years from being fielded.
After Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared the MRAP (pronounced M-rap) the Pentagon's No. 1 acquisition priority in May 2007, the trucks began to be shipped to Iraq in large quantities.
The vehicles weigh as much as 40 tons and have been effective at protecting American forces from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the weapon of choice for Iraqi insurgents. Only four U.S. troops have been killed by such bombs while riding in MRAPs; three of those deaths occurred in older versions of the vehicles.
The study's author, Franz J. Gayl, catalogs what he says were flawed decisions and missteps by midlevel managers in Marine Corps offices that occurred well before Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006.
Among the findings in the Jan. 22 study:
_ Budget and procurement managers failed to recognize the damage being done by IEDs in late 2004 and early 2005 and were convinced the best solution was adding more armor to the less-sturdy Humvees the Marines were using. Humvees, even those with extra layers of steel, proved incapable of blunting the increasingly powerful explosives planted by insurgents.
_ An urgent February 2005 request for MRAPs got lost in bureaucracy. It was signed by then-Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, who asked for 1,169 of the vehicles. The Marines could not continue to take "serious and grave casualties" caused by IEDs when a solution was commercially available, wrote Hejlik, who was a commander in western Iraq from June 2004 to February 2005.
Gayl cites documents showing Hejlik's request was shuttled to a civilian logistics official at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in suburban Washington who had little experience with military vehicles. As a result, there was more concern over how the MRAP would upset the Marine Corps' supply and maintenance chains than there was in getting the troops a truck that would keep them alive, the study contends.
_ The Marine Corps' acquisition staff didn't give top leaders correct information. Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, was not told of the gravity of Hejlik's MRAP request and the real reasons it was shelved, Gayl writes. That resulted in Conway giving "inaccurate and incomplete" information to Congress about why buying MRAPs was not hotly pursued.
_ The Combat Development Command, which decides what gear to buy, treated the MRAP as an expensive obstacle to long-range plans for equipment that was more mobile and fit into the Marines Corps' vision as a rapid reaction force. Those projects included a Humvee replacement called the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and a new vehicle for reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
The MRAPs didn't meet this fast-moving standard and so the Combat Development Command didn't want to buy them, according to Gayl. The study calls this approach a "Cold War orientation" that suffocates the ability to react to emergency situations.
_ The Combat Development Command has managers _ some of whom are retired Marines _ who lack adequate technical credentials. They have outdated views of what works on the battlefield and how the defense industry operates, Gayl says. Yet they are in position to ignore or overrule calls from deployed commanders.
An inquiry should be conducted by the Marine Corps inspector general to determine if any military or government employees are culpable for failing to rush critical gear to the troops, recommends Gayl, who prepared the study for the Marine Corps' plans, policies and operations department.
The study was obtained by the AP from a nongovernment source.
"If the mass procurement and fielding of MRAPs had begun in 2005 in response to the known and acknowledged threats at that time, as the (Marine Corps) is doing today, hundreds of deaths and injuries could have been prevented," writes Gayl, the science and technology adviser to Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski, who heads the department. "While the possibility of individual corruption remains undetermined, the existence of corrupted MRAP processes is likely, and worthy of (inspector general) investigation."
Gayl, who has clashed with his superiors in the past and filed for whistle-blower protection last year, uses official Marine Corps documents, e-mails, briefing charts, memos, congressional testimony, and news articles to make his case.
He was not allowed to interview or correspond with any employees connected to the Combat Development Command. The study's cover page says the views in the study are his own.
Maj. Manuel Delarosa, a Marine Corps spokesman, called Gayl's study "predecisional staff work" and said it would be inappropriate to comment on it. Delarosa said, "It would be inaccurate to state that Lt. Gen. Natonski has seen or is even aware of" the study.
Last year, the service defended the decision to not buy MRAPs after receiving the 2005 request. There were too few companies able to make the vehicles, and armored Humvees were adequate, officials said then.
Hejlik, who is now a major general and heads Marine Corps Special Operations Command, has cast his 2005 statement as more of a recommendation than a demand for a specific system.
The term mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle "was very generic" and intended to guide a broader discussion of what type of truck would be needed to defend against the changing threats troops in the field faced, Hejlik told reporters in May 2007. "I don't think there was any intent by anybody to do anything but the right thing."
The study does not say precisely how many Marine casualties Gayl thinks occurred due to the lack of MRAPs, which have V-shaped hulls that deflect blasts out and away from the vehicles.
Gayl cites a March 1, 2007, memo from Conway to Gen. Peter Pace, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which Conway said 150 service members were killed and an additional 1,500 were seriously injured in the prior nine months by IEDs while traveling in vehicles.
The MRAP, Conway told Pace, could reduce IED casualties in vehicles by 80 percent. He told Pace an urgent request for the vehicles was submitted by a Marine commander in May 2006. No mention is made of Hejlik's call more than a year before.
Delivering MRAPs to Marines in Iraq, Conway wrote, was his "number one unfilled warfighting requirement at this time." Overall, he added, the Marine Corps needed 3,700 of the trucks _ more than three times the number requested by Hejlik in 2005.
More than 3,200 U.S. troops, including 824 Marines, have been killed in action in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. An additional 29,000 have been wounded, nearly 8,400 of them Marines. The majority of the deaths and injuries have been caused by explosive devices, according to the Defense Department.
Congress has provided more than $22 billion for 15,000 MRAPs the Defense Department plans to acquire, mostly for the Army. Depending on the size of the vehicle and how it is equipped, the trucks can cost between $450,000 and $1 million.
As of May 2007, roughly 120 MRAPs were being used by troops from all the military services, Pentagon records show. Now, more than 2,150 are in the hands of personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Marines have 900 of those.
One section of Gayl's study analyzes a letter Conway sent in late July 2007 to Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Kit Bond, R-Mo., two critics of delays in sending equipment to Iraq.
More heavily armored Humvees were determined to be the best response to the 2005 MRAP request, the commandant told the senators. He also said the industrial capacity to build MRAPs in large numbers "did not exist" when the request was submitted. Additionally, although the trucks had been fielded in small numbers, they were not adequately tested and exhibited reliability problems, the letter said.
The letter to the senators is evidence of the "bad advice" senior Marine Corps leaders receive, Gayl contends. The letter, he says, portions of which were probably drafted by the Combat Development Command, omitted that the urgent 2005 request from the Iraq battlefield specifically asked for MRAPs _ and not more heavily armored Humvees. It also ignored the Marines' own findings that armored Humvees wouldn't stop IEDs.
Conway's assertion there was a lack of manufacturing capacity to build MRAPs is "inexplicable," Gayl says. Manufacturers would have hurried production if they knew the Marines wanted them and any reliability issues would have been resolved, he says.
In late November, the Marine Corps announced it would buy 2,300 MRAPs _ 1,400 fewer than planned. Improved security in Iraq, changes in tactics, and decreasing troop levels allowed for the cut. But Marine officials also listed several downsides to the MRAP: The vehicles are too tall and heavy to pursue the enemy down narrow streets, on rough terrain or across many bridges.
If MRAPs arrived to Iraq late, or proved too bulky for certain missions, the Marine Corps should have come up with different and better solutions several years ago when the IED crisis was growing, Gayl contends.
A former Marine officer, Gayl spent nearly six months in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 as an adviser to leaders of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
His stinging indictment of the Marine Corps' system for fielding gear is not a first. He has been an outspoken advocate for non-lethal weapons, such as a beam gun that stings but doesn't kill and "dazzlers" that use a powerful light beam to steer unwelcome vehicles and people from checkpoints and convoys.
The failure to send these alternative weapons to Iraq has led to U.S. casualties and the deaths of Iraqi civilians, Gayl has said.
Gayl filed for whistle-blower protection in May with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. He said he was threatened with disciplinary action after meeting with congressional staff on Capitol Hill.
Biden and Bond rebuked the Marine Corps in September for "apparent retaliation" against Gayl.
Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report from New York.