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.
The first M-ATVs arrived in Afghanistan in the belly of a C-17 cargo plane in October 2009. But the vehicle’s roots go back much, much further. In the 1960s and ’70s, an African rebellion turned what is now Zimbabwe into a deadly battleground. Ambushes on the country’s roads were particularly brutal. By the mid-’70s, white colonials living in the war zone began traveling in heavily armored convoys escorted by specialized vehicles with sloped hulls designed to deflect the blasts of buried bombs.
After the violence in Africa settled down, the Namibian and South African companies that manufactured these blast-resistant trucks found eager buyers for the vehicles among the government agencies and nonprofit groups dedicated to clearing out buried land mines from the world’s former war zones.
In May 2003, a U.S. Army convoy in Iraq was struck by the war’s first improvised explosive device (IED) to claim an American life. The soldier was PFC Jeremiah Smith, who was scouting the route in a Humvee well ahead of the transports. IEDs quickly became the weapon of choice for outgunned Iraqi insurgents and, later, tribal fighters in Afghanistan. By 2006, these bombs accounted for about half of all Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That year, the Pentagon scrambled to come up with a technological solution to the bomb problem. The military already owned a handful of African-style slant-hull vehicles, including the RG-31 built by General Dynamics using South African blueprints. These were mostly issued to bomb-disposal teams. The top brass decided to buy similar vehicles for all frontline troops.
Thus was born the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle (MRAP). In May 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared the MRAP to be his “highest priority.” The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, John Young, claimed to have a “blank check” to buy more than 15,000 of the vehicles at a cost of up to a million dollars apiece. Congress, reeling from mounting war casualties, was happy to oblige.
Tenders went out to truckmakers and defense contractors across the country. Half a dozen firms snagged production contracts, and almost all of them licensed African designs as the basis for their vehicles. The first wave of MRAPs reached Iraq in early 2007. Others made their way to Afghanistan just a few months later. The push to buy MRAPs was “the biggest military vehicle mobilization since World War II,” one industry official said.
MRAPs are tough. Real tough. Not only do their slanted bodies deflect explosions, but thick windows and side armor offer superior protection against gunfire and RPGs. MRAPs have saved hundreds of American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, shrugging off all but the most determined attacks.
In October 2009, in Afghanistan’s Logar province, a 200-pound Taliban bomb exploded directly underneath a MaxxPro MRAP built by Navistar. The blast dug a six-foot crater in the road, shattered the vehicle’s engine compartment, and rattled the five soldiers inside. But no one was hurt. The truck’s occupants escaped to safety under covering fire from the other MaxxPros in the convoy.
Thousands of American troops have stories just like this one. But they also all have stories reflecting the MRAP’s major weakness. In the aftermath of the October ambush, one Army crew tried to skirt around the bomb crater by crossing into an adjacent fallow field. Their MaxxPro sank a foot into the dry earth and refused to budge. The Army had to send in a wrecker to winch out the mired truck. The process took hours, during which the patrol was exposed to possible attack.
At an average gross weight of twenty tons, with dimensions close to those of a small school bus, MRAPs are just too big and too heavy for many battlefields, especially in mountainous Afghanistan. Due to their African roots, MRAPs “were designed to operate on relatively flat terrain, savannah, or roads,” explained retired Army colonel and military analyst Douglas Macgregor. In Afghanistan, the hulking trucks cause bridges to collapse, get stuck in soft earth, and threaten to roll over on anything steeper than a gentle incline.
The 82nd Airborne Division Special Troops Battalion, deployed to Afghanistan in the spring of 2010, found this out firsthand when one of their RG-31 MRAPs rolled during a mission in Parwan Province. Everyone survived, but rescuers found the vehicle’s gunner dangling upside down from his nylon harness. Another occupant thought he was unhurt until he woke up the next day and discovered that he couldn’t walk.
“We roll, and I’m going to kick you in the teeth,” PFC Kory Duncan, a Special Troops Battalion soldier, told his driver on March 11. The battalion was driving its MRAPs to a meeting with some local elders in Parwan. The route took them over steep hills and across streambeds, and Duncan bounced in his seat when the RG-31 plowed through a deep mud hole.
MRAPs take some getting used to, Duncan said. “The first couple weeks, your back hurts, your ass hurts.” He sighed. He might be somewhat inured to the pain, but that hasn’t improved his opinion of the truck. “I hate riding in the backs of these things.”
Duncan swayed as his MRAP lurched to a halt. The lead vehicle had unexpectedly stopped at the top of a steep slope; the other MRAPs accordioned behind it. The driver in the first vehicle had eyeballed the 30-degree incline and decided not to risk it. The convoy turned itself around – no mean feat with bus-sized vehicles on a soft dirt road. The battalion would have to find another way around. The lifesaving MRAP was now dictating patrol routes, and not for the first time.
ENTER THE ATV
By late 2008, the Pentagon brass knew it had a problem with the MRAPs in Afghanistan. On December 8 of that year, the military issued a request for proposals from the automotive and defense industries for a better MRAP. “Basically, they had three key performance parameters,” recalled Ken Juergens, an Oshkosh vice president. The new MRAP had to match the armor protection of the old version, carry five people, and – most important – “they wanted it to be less than 25,000 pounds” before add-ons, Juergens said.
Companies had just five weeks to design a vehicle and another month to assemble two prototypes. That’s practically light speed in the world of military production. Oshkosh made the deadline. So did several other companies. The military put the prototypes through the ringer at Aberdeen Proving Ground in rural Maryland. Then there was another test. To make sure the companies could build trucks quickly, in April the military asked for three more copies. “We had ’til May or something to deliver them,” Juergens told us. On June 30, 2009, the Pentagon named Oshkosh the winner and issued a $1 billion contract for 2244 vehicles. Follow-on contracts boosted the total to 8079 trucks by early 2010.
It turns out that Oshkosh had a head start on the competition, because the company began designing the M-ATV before the government even asked for it. “We knew it was going to come down the pipe, so we tried to look at what vehicles we thought could meet that need,” Juergens said. He and his team picked the company’s tried-and-true MTVR, an eighteen-ton Marine supply truck, as the basis for the M-ATV. The key was the MTVR’s TAK-4 independent suspension. The TAK-4’s design was based on the assumption that it would spend 70 percent of its time off-road. By comparison, the Humvee’s suspension is rated for just 30 percent off-road use – and that’s the closest any other vehicle comes to matching the MTVR, according to Juergens.
Oshkosh stripped an MTVR down to its frame, added a new front end for the 7.2-liter Caterpillar C7 turbo-diesel engine, a new pickup-truck-style back end, and what Juergens described as “this cocoon, made up of armor, that was in the middle, with, of course, a V-shaped hull underneath.” As for manufacturing capacity, “that’s what Oshkosh is – we’re a specialty truck manufacturer for military vehicles; it was very easy with our in-house capabilities.” No joke. By November 2009, Oshkosh was churning out a thousand M-ATVs a month. Secretary Gates dropped by to tour the factory. “Never since World War II has a military acquisition program gone from concept to full-scale production in less than a year,” Gates told workers. “With every vehicle you complete, you are saving American lives.”
Such rapid production can have all sorts of unintended consequences. Three years ago, MRAPs arrived in Iraq and Afghanistan ahead of their tools and spares kits. In the early days, when you broke an MRAP, it stayed broken. The military tried to do better with the M-ATV. “They ordered the spare parts ahead of time,” Juergens said. “Those were actually fielded in theater before some of the vehicles even showed up.”
BUT FOR A SINGLE WELD, GO I
Tell that to the 82nd Special Troops Battalion’s motor pool, a gang of mechanics of the sort the Army affectionately calls “wrench turners.” Working out of a garage on a dusty corner of Bagram Air Field, the largest NATO base in Afghanistan, it was the motor pool’s job to fix broken and battle-damaged vehicles and train drivers.
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 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.
RIDING FOR VENGEANCE
Gasperini had a date with the local chief for the Afghan government’s National Directorate of Security. The route to the chief’s office was a treacherous one: along narrow, winding mountain roads, down a steep slope, and across an exposed, rocky riverbed. On several occasions, the Taliban had ambushed Americans crossing that 100-yard open space. It was everything the Army hates about Afghanistan’s terrain condensed into one five-mile trip. And it was the perfect, real-world proving ground for all the military’s current vehicles.
To ensure he had his butt thoroughly covered, Gasperini brought a little of the past, some of the present, and a touch of the future. That is, some up-armored Humvees, a handful of MaxxPro MRAPs, and his personal M-ATV, just patched up from the three RPG hits.
The MRAPs would serve as the patrol’s stiff backbone, handling what the Army calls “overwatch,” perched on the high ground to cover the other vehicles with their guns. The MRAPs, each with seating for eight, would also carry most of the manpower. The Humvees and the M-ATV, each with five people aboard, were the skirmishers; they would tumble down the slope, plow across the riverbed, and edge up close to the district center to deliver Gasperini to his meeting. The M-ATV’s electronic systems were acting up, so it would stick close to the utterly dependable Humvees, whose systems, as befitted a thirty-year-old design, worked just fine.
It’s conventional wisdom back in the Pentagon that nobody rides into combat in Humvees anymore. “The traditional Humvee can’t leave the forward operating bases,” Juergens insisted. But on the front lines, where the finer points of a vehicle’s performance can mean the difference between life and death, soldiers don’t rigidly adhere to the brass’s expectations. They use the right trucks for the right job. For now, that means Humvees, MRAPs, and M-ATVs rolling into battle together, each type playing the role it’s best suited for.
Gates and Juergens and other senior members of the military/industrial complex might love the M-ATV categorically, but combat soldiers love it only for what it can actually do. And what it can do is pretty impressive, in the right context. After the seven-ton Humvees with their low centers of gravity slid down the hill, rattled across the rocky riverbed, and churned through the water toward the district center, Gasperini’s M-ATV took its turn.
C7 motor roaring, the military’s latest battle buggy leaped down the slope, bounced over the rocks, its TAK-4 suspension flexing hard, and dove into the river like an eager Labrador retriever. Water arced in high fountains on either side. In seconds, the M-ATV was across the danger zone and squatting menacingly right outside the Security Directorate office.
The Pentagon organized an unprecedented airlift campaign to deliver the M-ATVs to Afghanistan – fast. From Oshkosh’s factories in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the M-ATVs were moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where a Navy electronics command fitted them with radios and some classified systems. From there, the M-ATVs made the short dash to Charleston Air Force Base, home to a wing of Air Force C-17 cargo planes. Crammed into the bellies of the C-17s, as well as larger C-5s and chartered 747 freighters, the M-ATVs were flown into Bagram and other Afghan bases at a rate of up to thirty per day.
At Bagram, small teams of Air Force ground handlers, called “aerial porters,” have the unenviable job of easing the hulking vehicles out of the airplanes and preparing them for handover to the combat units. On the evening of March 21, a porter team led by Staff Sergeant Vinton Velez rode out to a remote apron at Bagram Air Field to meet a 747 freighter that had just landed. Crowding the plane’s cavernous hold were five M-ATVs, lashed to the deck, bumper-to-bumper.
Getting the M-ATVs out of the 747 took two hours. The porters and the plane’s civilian loadmasters shoved the trucks along the rollers installed in the deck and then angled each truck to squeeze it through the side cargo door, like maneuvering a sofa through the front door of a studio apartment. With smaller, lighter vehicles, the job would have been easier, but the M-ATVs were too heavy for the floor rollers’ tiny motors, which are meant to make a load feel lighter to the porters pushing it. Each time Velez got an M-ATV lined up to slide out the cargo door, the clearance on both sides was no more than a couple inches.
A telescoping loader vehicle gently lowered each M-ATV to the ground. It was dark by the time the porters steered the five trucks to the base’s cargo yard, where Army units like the 82nd Special Troops Battalion would pick them up. Airman First Class Brandon Arleith, behind the wheel of the last M-ATV in line, breathed deeply and noted the new-car smell. “It’s just five M-ATVs,” he said, as though manhandling these hulking beasts was no big deal at all.
Engine: Caterpillar 7.2L turbo-diesel I-6
Power: 370 hp
Torque: 925 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
L x W x H: 247 x 98 x 105 in
Wheelbase: 155 in
Weight: 32,500 lb (fully loaded)
est. Fuel Range: 320 miles
M240 7.62 NATO machine gun
M2 .50-caliber machine gun
MK19 40-millimeter grenade launcher
BGM-71 TOW antitank missile
Counter I.E.D. systems:
Duke radio-signal jammer
Two-ton mine roller
Engine: MaxxForce 9.3L turbo-diesel I-6
Power: 375 hp
Torque: 1250 lb-ft
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
L x W x H: 254 x 102 x 120 in
Wheelbase: 153 in
Weight: 53,000 lb (fully loaded)
Est. Fuel Range: Confidential
Maximum angle of departure/approach: 40/42 degrees
Rording depth: 36 inches, without preparation
Turning circle: 62 feet
AM GENERAL HUMVEE
Engine: General Engine Products 6.5L turbo-diesel V-8
Power: 190 hp
Torque: 380 lb-ft
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
L x W x H: 194 x 91 x 78 in
Wheelbase: 130 in
Weight: 13,450 lb (fully loaded)
Est. Fuel Range: 250 miles
Units That Have Seen Active Duty for U.S. Forces: 200,000
Time in Service: 25 years
Countries that have purchased Humvees: About 50