The #2 spot in my series on the best war techs is a tie between blast-proof trucks and small aerial drones: two life-saving technologies that, despite their proven capabilities, have been neglected by a Pentagon bureaucracy that prefers to grow its own super-expensive programs than to invest in existing systems that the troops know, love and want more of.
Roadside bombs are the biggest killers of U.S. troops in Iraq, claiming around 2,000 so far. Most of the victims were riding in slab-sided Humvees that were never designed to go into harm’s way. If you’re going to get bombed, you want a slanty hull that literally channels the blast up and around. That plus lots more armor. Enter the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected family of vehicles. MRAP designs — including the Buffalo, Cougar (pictured right), RG-31 (below) and MaxxPro — all share V-shaped hulls and novel armor mixes, and have excellent track records against roadside bombs. Several hundred MRAPs have been fielded in Iraq on an experimental basis; these have been in hundreds of bombings. Reportedly, no Americans have died in either Buffaloes or Cougars, and only 8 have died in attacks on RG-31s.
Despite the MRAP vehicles’ excellent performances and repeated requests for more from the troops, the Army and especially the Marines dragged their heels on buying large numbers, as they feared MRAP might steal cash from the super-huge Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program intended to replace the Humvee. Only now, four years into the war in Iraq, has the Pentagon placed big orders for MRAPs. If Congress ponies up the cash, we’ll see as many as 17,000 enter service in the next few years. Insurgent bomb-makers will eventually figure out how to kill MRAPs, of course — perhaps with better shaped-charge warheads — but at least they’ll be playing catch-up instead of winning the race by a wide margin like they are now.
Same story with small drones, such as the Army’s Raven. These birdies give over-stretched infantry battalions badly needed eyes in the sky and can help catch bomb-makers in the act. “We had one commander’s team find an IED on its first mission, and the commander has been sold ever since,” one officer told Military.com.
The Army has been pretty good about getting drones to its soldiers. But not the Marine Corps. The Marines have a larger drone called Scan Eagle that is even more capable than Raven — and the troops love it. But Scan Eagle has suffered the same bureaucratic waffling as MRAP. Seems the Marine Corps brass prefers to develop a brand-new drone than buy what’s already working.
Goes to show you: just because it works and the troops want it doesn’t mean it’s going to find favor at the Pentagon. Weapons buys have a nasty way of getting more political even as they become more urgent.