New Armored Ride Will Protect Troops From IEDs in Afghanistan July was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began. Fortunately, after nearly eight years of fighting, Army infantry and Marines in Afghanistan will finally be getting a new vehicle that is designed to meet the challenges of the theater. By Joe Pappalardo Published on: August 3, 2009 Most of the damage to American soldiers in Afghanistan is done with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). These roadside bombs have proven to be a plague to U.S. and coalition troops, who load into convoys of mine-resistant heavy vehicles, called MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), that were designed to protect troops from blasts. The Pentagon, aided by an influx of Congressional funds, went on an MRAP-buying spree when Humvees in Iraq became targets of choice for insurgents. But the family of MRAPs produced for the Iraq war is not well-suited for Afghanistan. The vehicles' suspensions cannot handle the lack of paved roads. Top-heavy with armor, the vehicles can tip, especially along the steep, winding paths that lead to rural villages. Humvees are too lightly protected, and MRAPs too top-heavy. So the Pentagon just spent more than $3 billion on a vehicle that it hopes will be just right. About 5000 of these new vehicles, called the MRAP All Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV) are expected to be fielded by spring 2010. The Pentagon's contracts with Oshkosh Corp., one issued last month and a second issued today, specify that the company deliver all the M-ATVs by March 2010, but the first are expected in theater by October. By December, the company plans to make 1000 M-ATVS a month. The Oshkosh team met shortly after the Pentagon issued an emergency call for the vehicles, in an "urgent need" request that falls outside the traditional, sluggish procurement process, to plan a way to adapt an existing vehicle to the new terrain. "It's not as much of a challenge as you might think," says Dan Binder, Oshkosh's technical director for the M-ATV. "Our design is based on a modular concept." The company's plan revolved around removing an axle from the chassis of an MTVR, a six-wheeled, 7-ton truck they sell to Marines. The commonality between other vehicles is appealing to the Pentagon, which is always interested in streamlining logistics and training by using similar equipment. The M-ATV shares several parts with the Marines' 7-ton truck, including the drivetrain, dashboard panels and coil-spring suspension, which can clear 16 inches while carrying a normal load, as can the Marines' 7-ton truck. The specially built (and proprietary) suspension system is also being retrofit to other vehicles in the Army and Marine inventory. There is also a slew of protective features that make the vehicle a vast improvement on Humvees while keeping its weight and profile to a minimum. These include a V-shaped hull that deflects the force of explosions away from the vehicle's occupants; seats that are suspended from the ceiling with straps, instead of being bolted to the floor, so that explosive energy doesn't travel into the cab and cause leg injuries; energy-absorbing floor mats; wheels that are located away from where people sit so that pressure-plate-triggered IEDs do not detonate under the crew capsule; and tire rims can survive if the wheels are blasted away, at least long enough to escape the kill zone of an ambush. Oshkosh's Frankenvehicle strategy puts a premium on paying for research that can be applied to future contracts. And M-ATV is just the tip of the military-vehicle iceberg. The real prize, called the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, is meant to replace the Humvee for good. The future family of vehicles will include five armored versions, including infantry combat, command, reconnaissance and armored utility vehicles. Such a contract would easily total tens of billions of dollars in construction alone, not to mention funds for maintenance and field support services. The Trouble With MRAPs The MRAP family of vehicles are saving soldiers' lives in Afghanistan, but suffer from flaws that make replacements urgently needed. During the past seven years, the Pentagon has tried to adapt its MRAP fleet to better handle the rigors of combat. Flaw: Top-heavy vehicles are prone to tip over, which can be deadly along bridges, culverts and mountainous terrain. Stop-gap solution: The U.S. military is sending a vehicle rollover simulator to train deployed troops how to escape from a tipped-over MRAP. Flaw: The antenna of tall vehicles can touch power lines, risking electrocution for occupants. Stop-gap Solution: Soldiers use rope to tie down the whipcord antenna until they are needed. Flaw: Suspensions break when on bad or nonexistent roads. Temporary Fix: Oshkosh is replacing suspensions of more than 1500 existing MRAPs with its advanced TAK-4 system, which allows up to 16 inches of wheel travel. Also, this year the Pentagon and industry manufacturers started to modify MRAPs with central tire-inflation systems that deflate before the wheels hit an obstacle. M-ATV Details Wheels: Located away from where people sit so that pressure-plate-triggered IEDs do not detonate under the crew capsule. V-shaped Hull: The shaped underside deflects the force of explosions away from the occupants. Seats: Suspended from the ceiling with straps, instead of being bolted to the floor, so that explosive energy doesn't travel into the cab and cause leg injuries. Energy-absorbing floor mats: Oshkosh won't disclose what it's made out of, but the floor mats soak up bomb impacts that could break bones in troops' lower legs. Wheel rims: The rims can survive if the wheels are blasted away, at least long enough to escape the kill zone of an ambush. The driver can change an inflation setting of the tires from behind the wheel for on- or off-road driving, based on how much weight the vehicle is hauling. Armor: Bolt-on armor kits can be swapped out based on the mission, and replaced in theater instead of being shipped home. This includes defenses against explosively formed penetrating IEDs that can defeat conventional armor. Frame Rail: Is made from aluminum instead of steel to keep weight down.