It was a war we thought we’d won. But after eight years of escalating violence, the Afghanistan conflict has morphed into something perhaps unwinnable. U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda, a goal we’ve largely achieved. But in years of occupation, Washington has apparently conflated counter-terrorism with nation-building. Now the U.S., NATO and their allies are struggling to destroy a deeply-rooted insurgency in country with a corrupt, ineffective government, poor infrastructure and few prospects for everyday people, but to fight. David Axe visits U.S. forces to see for himself.
by DAVID AXE
Improvised bombs took the U.S. military by surprise in the early years of the Iraq war. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Pentagon pledged an initial $15 billion for vehicles designed to resist the bombs. These so-called Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected trucks, or MRAPs, are now a common sight in U.S. wars. On October 21, an MRAP built by International Truck protected its crew from a 200-pound buried bomb in Logar province, Afghanistan. The blast tore the front axle off the vehicle, but the crew was unhurt.
For all their effectiveness, there are some Army folks — top brass, especially — who don’t really like MRAPs. Not from a force-planning perspective, at least. They’re tailor-made for Iraq, and to a lesser extent the more road-poor Afghanistan, so what do you do with them after those wars have ended? By now, the military has invested more than $20 billion in the vehicles, if you count the latest All-Terrain Vehicle version. That investment alone is a strong argument for keeping MRAPs around, even after current wars wind down.
To be sure, the soldiers on the ground are finding creative ways to use their bomb-deflecting battle wagons. In Logar, MRAPs sport a bewildering mixture of modifications. Besides the ubiquitous .50-caliber machine gun turrets and radio jammers, for thwarting signal-detonated bombs, I’ve seen mods including front-mounted mine rollers, infrared sensor turrets on the cab and on the turret and even TOW anti-tank missile mounts in place of the machine gun. To turn a regular MRAP into a TOW MRAP, units tear out two of the infantry seats in the back and install missile racks in their place.
Then there’s the MRAPs fitted with the remote-controlled CROWS turret, which makes for a useful surveillance device in its own right. Those, too, have fewer infantry seats, to make room for the turret operator and his console. And you can turn a standard MRAP into a mobile mortar unit by stuffing a 60-millimeter mortar and its one- or two-man team in the troop compartment.
Three years into the MRAP age, the lumbering trucks are beginning to rival the stalwart Humvee in terms of versatility. Whatever the generals decide regarding the MRAP’s fate, soldiers will adapt the trucks to suit their needs, for as long as they’re told to keep them.
(Photo: David Axe)
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