Tuesday, May 29, 2007

WINSTON SALEM, N.C. — Former Navy SEAL Chris Berman is building two versions of an armored combat vehicle competing for a piece of the MRAP pie.

MRAP is a U.S. Defense Department acronym for the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle design that soldiers want and contractors are bidding on to build in great numbers. Mr. Berman, who operates Granite Tactical and Granite Global Vehicles, is one such contractor. But he’ll argue, it’s not about money. It’s about saving lives on Iraq’s deadly highways.

On the morning of March 31, 2004, Mr. Berman — then a SEAL Reservist and Blackwater security officer — was driving in the south of Iraq near Umm Qasr when he received a satellite phone call that literally changed his life.

His friend, former SEAL Scott Helvenston, and three other Blackwater contractors — Wesley Batalona, Jerko “Jerry” Zovko and Michael R. Teague — were northwest of Mr. Berman’s position escorting a convoy through the city of Fallujah. Driving in two unarmored thin-skinned Mitsubishi Pajeros (the same type of vehicle Mr. Berman was in), they were ambushed by insurgents.

The four men didn’t have a chance. Their sport utility vehicles were riddled with small-arms fire then doused with gasoline and torched. The bodies were then dragged from the vehicles and mutilated. Two were hanged on a bridge over the Euphrates River.

The shocking attack led to a subsequent U.S. Marine-led assault on Fallujah.

Mr. Berman had originally been scheduled to be with the ill-fated team in Fallujah but was reslated at the last minute to another detail escorting civilians to Camp Bucca.

“That would have been me,” he says. “Instead, it was Scotty and my other friends.”

Mr. Berman escorted the remains home, flying all four bodies to Dover Air Force Base, Del. Before Mr. Helvenston’s funeral in Florida, Mr. Berman stopped by a Ford dealership and asked to look at a Ford F-550. He then crawled beneath the truck for a peek at the heavy duty frame and chassis he thought might be used in the development of a fully armored vehicle. It would be a truck for service by defense contractors and perhaps U.S. troops in Iraq.

“I knew I had to try and save lives,” he says.

Today, Mr. Berman operates Granite Tactical in North Carolina and Granite Global in Kuwait, two companies building three types of fully armored combat vehicles: One, “the Rock” (his original vehicle produced in Kuwait, which sells for $175,000 and is currently in Iraq service with private contractors and the Defense Department), and the other two — “The Rock Security Vehicle” and “The Rock Mine Ballistic” (both produced in North Carolina, at $300,000 and $450,000, respectively).

Granite vehicles include heavy armor and a V-shaped hull for mine and blast protection; rocket-propelled grenade and nuclear, biological and chemical protection; ballistic glass; heavy twin machine-gun top-mounts for 360 degrees of fighting capability; interior space for eight to 10 armed soldiers with all of their equipment, and plenty of speed — capable of cruising at between 65 and 75 mph with bursts up to 85.

“The two we’re building in North Carolina … exceed the specifications of many of the armored vehicles currently in Iraq,” says Mr. Berman. “They are because we took a matrix of all the competition and designed something equal to or greater than. There really is an advantage to being the last boy in the game. We looked at the others’ race scores, and knew what we had to come up with to win.”

But the race isn’t over, and Granite’s vehicles aren’t the only armored combat vehicles and “gun trucks” currently running up and down the streets of Iraq. But Mr. Berman contends his vehicles have more blast protection than any vehicles in their class currently operational in Iraq. “We also have greater lethality because we have the ability to support more guns, and we have more speed and greater performance,” he says.

Other contenders competing to win lucrative Pentagon contracts to build MRAP vehicles — perhaps hoping to replace up-armored Humvees for the military — include Force Protection, which manufactures the Cougar and the Buffalo; General Dynamics with its RG-31; and Labock Technologies with its Rhino Runner. Textron Marine and Land Systems’ Armored Security Vehicle (ASV) was recently excluded from the MRAP bid program after military testers said it failed to meet certain requirements. Textron, however, plans to continue developing the ASV in hopes of getting back in the process.

“MRAP is a response to one dimension of a very complex threat — mine blast — that’s being presented by a very intelligent and agile foe,” says Clay Moise, Textron MLS’ vice president of business development and strategic planning. “Protection is only one of the critical dimensions in the formula — protection, mobility, transportability and lethality — that ultimately makes up a relevant vehicle for our soldiers.”

During a Pentagon briefing on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said, “There are several different companies that have produced different kinds of MRAP vehicles,” and that they were undergoing testing at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

The systems at Aberdeen, he says, are “heavily instrumented so that they can … make sure they test every vehicle on the same soil so that that variable is removed in terms of the impact. And they’re looking even at, in some cases, perhaps the seat for the troops in one kind of vehicle are better in a different kind of vehicle.”

Mr. Gates added, “The only requirement that’s important to me now is to produce as many of these vehicles and to get them into the field as fast as possible, and to ramp up, to make selections and get the production under way and get these things into the field. In terms of what the long-term plan will be, I want to deal with what we can get done in the next six to 12 months first.”

Mr. Berman’s vehicles have yet to be tested at Aberdeen, but they have been thoroughly tested in combat: Hit multiple times by improvised explosive devices and small-arms fire, no passenger has ever been killed or wounded by either in a Granite vehicle.

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