WASHINGTON – Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan have devised ways to cripple and even destroy the expensive armored vehicles that offer U.S. forces the best protection against roadside bombs by using increasingly large explosive charges and rocket-propelled grenades, according to U.S. soldiers and defense officials.
At least eight American troops have been killed this year in attacks on so-called Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, and 40 more have been wounded, said a senior U.S. military official.
The insurgents’ success in attacking the hulking machines, which can cost as much as $1 million each, underscores their ability to counter the advanced hardware that the U.S. military and its allies are deploying in their struggle to gain the upper hand in the war, which entered its ninth year last month.
The attacks also raise questions about how vulnerable a new, lighter MRAP, the M-ATV, which is now being shipped to Afghanistan, is to the massive explosive charges that Taliban-led insurgents have been using against its bigger cousin.
The insurgents are also hitting MRAPs with rocket-propelled grenades that can penetrate their steel armor, according to U.S troops in Afghanistan, several of whom showed McClatchy Newspapers a photograph of a hole that one of the projectiles had punched in the hull of an MRAP.
The Pentagon has spent more than $26.8 billion to develop and build three versions of the largest MRAPs, totaling some 16,000 vehicles, mostly for the Army and Marine Corps, according to an August report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Another $5.4 billion is being spent to produce 5,244 M-ATVs, the smaller version that U.S. defense officials contend offers as much protection as the large models do but is more maneuverable and better suited to Afghanistan’s dirt tracks and narrow mountain roads.
“The traditional MRAP was having real problems … off-road in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. “And clearly we have to do a lot of work off-road. And these new vehicles will provide our forces the ability to travel more safely off road – certainly off paved roads – than they would have been able to do with other vehicles.”
Defense officials acknowledged the growing problem of successful attacks on MRAPs, and said the U.S. military is constantly developing improvements for the vehicle that include better sensors and tactics.
“It’s not all about the armor. We can’t build something that is impervious to everything,” said Navy Capt. Jack Henzlik, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We are using a comprehensive strategy to try to provide for the protection of our forces.”
The issue was the subject of a high-level meeting convened on Wednesday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who made the production of MRAPs his highest priority in 2007 as U.S. troops in Iraq were suffering massive casualties from roadside bomb attacks.