Thursday, December 29, 2005

EDGEFIELD, S.C. — Engineer Paul Green wheels his company’s new fully armored combat vehicle over the clay roads and muddy streambeds of the South Carolina backcountry, guns the engine and races over one hill and then the next.

“This is designed to be what we thought would be a step up from the Humvee,” he shouts as he shifts gears. “This vehicle was never designed to be a direct replacement for the current armored Humvee.”

But the prototype — christened the MUV-R (Mine-protected Utility Vehicle/Rapid Deployable) by its manufacturer, Charleston, S.C.-based Force Protection, Inc. — may well be.

The Department of Defense has not publicly called for replacing the Humvee, yet several companies are developing more advanced armored utility vehicles in response to the deadly roadside bombs being used by insurgents against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, an Army public affairs spokesperson at the Pentagon, would not divulge whether officials desire an alternative to the Humvee, only saying, “soldier protection is our No. 1 priority. Everything we do is built around that priority.”

“As new technologies emerge, the Army is aggressively working with industry to develop, test, produce, and rapidly field the best possible equipment, and get it into the hands of our soldiers in the field as soon as possible,” Col. Curry said.

Although attacks by roadside bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices (IEDs), are decreasing in frequency since they became widespread in 2003 in Iraq, the sizes of the explosive charges are increasing.

“For the first 10 months of 2005, IED attacks accounted for 43 percent of U.S. fatalities in Iraq,” says John Pike, director of Alexandria-based, a defense and intelligence think tank.

The Humvee replaced the Jeep two decades ago, and has since performed well in the post-Cold War’s lighter, flexible army.

But Humvees, manufactured by AM General, were not designed to protect against mines, IEDs and missile threats.

Department of Defense efforts to add armor to its Humvee have been problematic: the additional weight strains the vehicle’s engine, and seams between armor plates are vulnerable to blast energy.

“Humvees also have unprotected engine compartments,” says Chris Berman, a Navy SEAL reservist and president of Kuwait-based Granite Global Services, which produces an armored urban (not off-road) combat vehicle known as the Rock. “One shot to the engine, the Humvee is stopped and subject to additional attack.”

In 2004, Mr. Berman was working as a Blackwater USA security officer when fellow Blackwater contractors in soft-skinned SUVs were ambushed and killed in Fallujah, Iraq.

After escorting their bodies home, Mr. Berman committed to building a vehicle that he says “would save lives.”

Today his new 7.5 ton armored “Rock” — in service with both private contractors and Department of Defense agencies — has been struck by at least five IEDs, and all passengers have survived without injury. It’s a different story for those soldiers and Marines who continue to travel Iraqi highways in up-armored Humvees.

When IED-attack reports first began streaming in, the Pentagon began looking into blast-protective designs similar to those of the old South African army and police vehicles. Those designs included seamless single-piece armor hulls with V-shaped bottoms that naturally provided better side impact protection from IEDs and below-vehicle blasts from mines.

Today, companies such as Force Protection, Granite Global Services, General Dynamics and Textron Systems are building similarly designed vehicles for tasks such as mine clearance and troop transports, and developing or conceptualizing prototypes to possibly replace the Humvee as the military’s utility vehicle.

AM General could not be reached for comment about Humvees.

There are about 120,000 Humvees in Army service and 20,000 in the Marine Corps.

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