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.
"They can sprint 60 to 65 miles per hour," Mr. Aldrich said. "They can go for hours at 55 miles per hour. They are as mobile as anything else in the current [operating] environment. And they provide much greater protection for our troops."
So why weren't the vehicles put on the fast track once it was realized how great the IED threat was?
"I'm not sure that is an accurate assessment," said Lawrence J. Nee, chief of the countermine division of the Army's Close Combat Systems. "We've been in production and procurement of the Buffalo since 2002."
Despite their protective capabilities, the Buffalo and the Cougar are not designed to replace the "up-armored" Humvee. They can and have supplemented Humvees in urban operations, but the new vehicles' sizes don't afford them the same off-road capabilities of the Humvee.
Force Protection is developing a Humvee replacement, yet to be officially announced. Its prototype is known as the Lion. It could hit the ground in early 2007.
Force Protection also is involved in blast-protection research and development, as are various Defense agencies.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR), for instance, is developing an Ultra Armored Patrol vehicle (with similar hull-design characteristics) for testing purposes. "It is not being built as a Humvee replacement, but as a concept vehicle to test out various technologies," said Daniel S. Dayton, director of corporate communications at the ONR.
"One of the project's goals is to develop a prototype vehicle that demonstrates improved ballistic and mine protection technologies," he said. "An innovative survivable crew capsule, which utilizes new armor recipes, is mounted on a commercial truck chassis. Faceted crew capsule geometries are being tested as well."