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 (RPGs), 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 only indication that the vehicle had been hit were some dents and streaks of soot.
That March night was an early combat test of the U.S. military's latest tactical truck, a sixteen-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 soldier'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.