Buffalo roams the battlefield to protect soldiers from mines

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — When U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Keith Kempke returns to Iraq to find and destroy land mines and improvised explosive devices, he’ll be supported by a growing fleet of new armored vehicles such as the Buffalo and the Cougar.

He’s already seen them in action.

“I saw the Buffalo going down Iraq’s Highway 1, which is normally where IEDs are planted,” said Sgt. Kempke, who has been training soldiers for bomb-disposal work at Camp Dawson, W.Va., since returning from Iraq last year. “That giant armored beast is no doubt saving lives.”

Indeed, what has been referred to as a “Humvee on steroids,” the Buffalo is a 24-ton mine-protective, countermine/IED vehicle with a long grappling arm that faces down bombs, removes them and withstands terrific blasts without harm to its passengers.

“It’s done so perhaps thousands of times,” said Mike Aldrich, vice president of sales and marketing for Ladson, S.C.-based Force Protection Inc., which manufactures the big Buffalo and its little brother, the 13- to 19-ton (depending on its individual configuration) Cougar. “We’ve only had one broken wrist in two years.”

Force Protection is under a $91 million contract to build its mine-protected vehicles for the Defense Department. About 100 Buffalos and Cougars are already overseas. That number is slated to double by February 2006.

“By the end of the first quarter of 2006, we will be producing two Cougars a day. Once we hit that number, we can quickly move to four if we have the orders,” Mr. Aldrich said.

What makes these vehicles “mine-protected” is the V-shaped hull design, similar to that of a boat.

“The force of a mine blast is diverted away from the vehicle, basically splitting that energy to the right or the left rather than having the vehicle absorb the blast, being lifted off the ground and killing the passengers,” said Force Protection spokesman Jeff Child.

Force Protection is not the only manufacturer of mine-protected vehicles, but it is the only American-based company producing them in the U.S. and shipping them to Iraq and Afghanistan. Other companies include General Dynamics, which manufactures the RG-31 in South Africa, and Textron Systems, which produces the German-made Dingo 2.

The generation of armored vehicles developed by Force Protection and its competitors are based on the design of the older South African mine-protected vehicles such as the RG-31 and the Casspir, still in use, but also a symbol of that nation’s apartheid struggle.

Many Americans have questioned why U.S. forces did not have adequate armor going into Iraq. Mr. Aldrich said the answer may be found in the post-Cold War military’s moving toward a faster, more flexible, strike force.

“I believe the Army thought that increased armor conflicted with that objective,” he said. “It was believed that up-armored Humvees would be sufficient to handle land mines and IEDs.

“But there is no way a flat-bottomed, 6-ton, up-armored Humvee is going to stay on the ground and protect people adequately against the current threat,” he said.

The new vehicles are both heavily armored and fast.

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