The Taliban had them surrounded. It was a clear moonlit night on March 28 in Dangam district, in the Kunar River valley in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. Army patrol, from Battle Company, Second Battalion, 503rd Infantry, was caught on a narrow road between two mountain peaks teeming with Taliban fighters.
“They hit us from both sides,” First Lieutenant Cris Gasperini, the patrol leader, would recall a few days after the battle. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPG s), weighing five pounds and tipped with high explosives, lanced from the peaks toward the American vehicles. In quick succession, three rounds struck one vehicle, each exploding with a blinding flash and a thunderclap that left ears ringing. The Taliban might have imagined, for a moment, that they had scored a major victory against the Americans. But when the noise and light had faded, the vehicle bore only dents and streaks of soot indicating it had been hit at all.
That March night was an early combat test of the U.S. military’s latest tactical truck, a fifteen-ton, 370-hp, four-wheel, five-seat bruiser built by Oshkosh Defense and known to the troops simply as “the ATV.” The $500,000 Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected, All-Terrain Vehicle, or M-ATV to the Pentagon, was designed for precisely the scenario that Battle Company faced in Dangam: caught in the open on hilly terrain, outnumbered by heavily armed enemy fighters. In those circumstances, the M-ATV stands the best chance of bringing our soldiers home in one piece.
The protection comes at a cost. The M-ATV is heavy, expensive, not at all roomy, and, at this early stage in its career, prone to breakdowns. Soldiers in Afghanistan’s more peaceful districts, which rarely see combat action, tend to hate the top-heavy, temperamental beast. But to combat veterans like those in Battle Company, the M-ATV is a soldier’s best friend. Usually.
In a rare exclusive, Automobile Magazine spent more than a month in the war zone with the M-ATV’s lovers and haters, plus the soldiers who fix the finicky beast and the Air Force logisticians who have the unenviable job of hauling the bulky machines from the United States to land-locked Afghanistan.
What we learned not only sheds light on the pluses and minuses of the Pentagon’s latest battle buggy — it also reveals the high-stakes calculus that factors into military vehicle design. In conceptualizing the M-ATV, officers had to weigh mobility against protection — and purchase and delivery costs against the value of a trooper’s life. The M-ATV embodies the military’s thinking on a wide range of life-or-death issues. It’s a direct reflection of the American way of war.
Plus, it looks mean as hell.
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After months of using mostly RG-31 MRAPs, the battalion got its first M-ATV in early 2010, courtesy of the aerial porters. Despite the military’s best intentions, the truck arrived before any of its spares — and before anyone at the battalion motor pool had received any formal training on the new vehicle.
The mechanics promptly broke the M-ATV during an oil change. Staff Sergeant Daron Collins was on duty that day. “There’s a nut on the inside of the oil pan,” he explained. The nut, welded to the pan, holds a bolt that keeps the pan in place. When Collins and the other mechanics removed the bolt, the nut fell off. “It wasn’t properly welded.” Now there was no way to hold the oil pan in place. Just to replace the pan, the motor pool had to order up an entire replacement power pack and swap it in. A single bad weld cost the Army and the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars and kept an M-ATV sidelined for weeks.
Collins said he doesn’t blame the M-ATV’s design. He likes the M-ATV. “It’s very easy to work on. The parts are fairly big. For a big person like myself with big hands, it’s easy to locate parts on the vehicle.”
“It’s soldier-friendly,” Collins continued. “There’s not much cushion in an MRAP. But there are lots of modifications to this vehicle to make the guys comfortable on eight-hour patrols. And it’s got a lot of power, so you can go wherever you need to go.”
That’s no small thing for units like Battle Company, whose vehicles absorbed Taliban gunfire and rockets during that March 28 ambush. Two days after the attack — enough time for the company’s mechanics to more or less repair their damaged trucks — Cris Gasperini led a mission into Dangam to try to figure out who exactly had tried to kill them that night and failed thanks in part to the M-ATV . . .