Afghanistan: Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham: Update

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last month, I wrote about the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicles (MRAPs) that are specially designed for warfare in Afghanistan. According to InsideDefense, "The first seven M-ATVs arrived in theater [Afghanistan] earlier this month." The manufacturer Oshkosh said "two field service representatives are also arriving in Afghanistan." However most of the first hundred MRAPs Oshkosh has produced are being sent to troops stationed in the United States and Germany.

This represents a change in Army strategy. Previously, MRAPs were delivered to troops in theater where it took two weeks to train them. Now, by delivering them to troops bound for Afghanistan we can reduce the training time to "less than a week." Again, according InsideDefense, the training change was credited to "Oshkosh's delivery rate...The company's 'production rate is so high that we will quickly get to the point where will have vehicles available to us because we really can't introduce them that fast into Afghanistan', Fahey said, noting the challenge of distributing vehicles in the country." (Kevin Fahey is Army's program executive officer for combat support and combat support service.)

That's the problem. Oshkosh is doing a good job slightly ahead of schedule, and is "confident it will continue to meet the schedule," which calls for more than 2,000 vehicles by the end of December; it's very difficult to get them there. Most of the routes in and out of Afghanistan are unsafe, and Kabul airport was recently mortared. I assume that the troops training with the MRAPs now will fly them in with their other equipment as they enter the country. I hope this doesn't mean by dribs and drabs.

The Army has recommended that 40% of the MRAPs be put in "actual formations of units, we think will have enduring requirement to have to operate on routes that are predictable, that need mobile armored protection for the soldiers..."

These formations would include those associated with route clearance, convoy protection, and medical evacuation. In plain language -- clearance means, preventing ambushes and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Convoy speaks for itself--protecting troops and supplies, and medical evacuation means we need heavily armored ambulances. Performance of these duties has been necessary in Afghanistan, certainly for the last two years, and we have suffered heavy casualties because of the lack of them. It took the election of a new President to get the DOD to move fast, and the DOD seems to have done its job very well. Nevertheless, our 60,000 troops in "theater" are still living and dying without the MRAPs best suited to Afghanistan.

It should be noted here that the response to the needs to the troops in Afghanistan by the Gates DOD has been far superior to Donald Rumsfeld's reaction. When Rumsfeld's DOD was begged by troops and officers in Iraq to provide them with better armored vehicles than Humvees, a DOD Assistant Secretary responded to Congress that the cost of death was less than the cost of Cougars or Strykers, and refused to take immediate action. When better vehicles were finally ordered, the contracts went to small companies unable to meet the immediate need in Iraq. The Gates DOD, on the other hand, has delivered a MRAP that seems to meet Army and Marine specifications, within ten months of its RFP (Request For Proposal), and awarded it to a competent American mass production company that is turning out better vehicles ahead of schedule. But, given the situation in Pakistan, the problems of delivering them grow greater every day.

Then there is an overarching question--even as we buy and produce new MRAPs, train the troops to use them and look for ways to deliver them, the President and the DOD are still attempting to define our strategy for how we will wage the war in Afghanistan. What is our major objective and how many troops will we need? It seems ridiculous to spend billions of dollars producing equipment to fight a war that we may decide to transform into a Special Ops covert operation. Nevertheless, it's better to have the equipment and not need it, than to need it and not have it. It's about time we sacrificed something to the necessities of war.