Center for Strategic Communication

Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas Amsberry guides a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle through Shorabak, Afghanistan, June 28, 2012. Photo: Flickr/Soldiersmediacenter

In a saner world, the Pentagon wouldn’t throw itself a party to celebrate its purchase of thousands of bomb-resistant trucks it didn’t want in the first place. The story of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP) is a story of a bureaucracy that was first indifferent to the specialized, armored truck; then got pushed into buying it; and then congratulated itself for all the lives it saved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet on Monday afternoon, officers, bureaucrats, and even the vice president packed into the Pentagon auditorium to pat themselves on the back for the success of all the MRAPs the Pentagon resisted.

After a band played and flags waved, the head of the Pentagon’s office for buying MRAPs, Alan Shaffer, praised the “incredible effort put forward by everyone who came into contact with the MRAP program.” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said “there was no more important program for the Department of Defense in the last decade.” Vice President Joe Biden, an MRAP advocate at the Pentagon, reminisced about how “it’s not easy to push something this big through the system this fast, but you all did it.”

Not exactly. As Danger Room has reported since the blog’s inception, the MRAP’s success in saving lives and limbs came despite the initial inclinations of bureaucrats at the Pentagon, Army and Marine Corps. They slow-walked purchasing the trucks; worried about spending too much on them; retaliated against whistleblowers who talked up the MRAP’s acquisition woes; and learned to love them only after a leadership changeover made it clear that delays wouldn’t be tolerated.

One of the main virtues of the MRAP lies in its hull. Shaped like the letter V, it disperses the blast from homemade bombs that other trucks absorb — and which kill and wound the troops inside. Soldiers and Marines who rode in them in Iraq and Afghanistan reported that sometimes they didn’t even realize they had rolled over one of the bombs.

But troops almost didn’t get the chance to ride in them. In 2007, Danger Room acquired a Marine Corps memo that warned of an “immediate need for an MRAP vehicle capability,” due to the rising volume of deadly improvised explosive devices. The memo was written in 2005 and designated as “Priority 1 Urgent.” But the Corps didn’t actually issue a formal request for buying the vehicles for another year. That first request was for a grand total of 185 trucks. When USA Today noted that those MRAPs had survived 300 straight attacks in Iraq’s Anbar province, it shocked the Pentagon’s top officials into taking action to buy the trucks for everyone.

Even as the military began warming to the trucks once they trickled into combat, top brass worried what they would do with all the trucks when the wars ended. Within the Pentagon, many fretted that whatever value the trucks added in Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t translate to other conflicts, which presumably either wouldn’t be fought on land or feature roadside bombs. Biden joked that was like not buying landing craft for the D-Day invasion because they wouldn’t be used to sweep across Europe.

To be fair, though, that was a reasonable concern. But five years later, the Afghanistan war is still going on, and the MRAPs are still in Afghanistan, in an all-terrain variant. And not only are insurgents planting bombs in Afghanistan at a higher rate than when Conway worried about the MRAP, the Pentagon’s bomb-trackers frequently warn that the bombs have proliferated far, far beyond the war zones.

All that reasonableness seemed unreasonable to Robert Gates. When Gates came to the Pentagon in 2006 as defense secretary — describing his priorities as “Iraq, Iraq and Iraq” — he was alarmed to see that the Pentagon considered the MRAP just one of a number of programs the bureaucrats were intent on buying.

So Gates did an end-run around the bureaucracy. He called the MRAP his number-one purchasing priority, established a special office called the MRAP Task Force, and took extraordinary bureaucratic steps to move them from the assembly line to Baghdad. “Everything changed” after Gates came to the Pentagon, Biden reminisced: At the height of MRAP production, the military was sending 1000 trucks a month to Iraq. By 2011, when Gates left office, there were over 27,000 MRAPs at work in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military credits the trucks with keeping thousands of troops from being blown up. Gates credited the USA Today that picked up on Danger Room’s MRAP scoop with awakening him to the scale of the problem.

But even then, the MRAP didn’t have an easy path to acceptance — and the Pentagon punished its advocates. Franz Gayl, a civilian scientist inside the Marine Corps, warned legislators and reporters that the Corps dragged its feet on buying the vehicles. Biden, then a Delaware senator, wrote to Conway in 2007 warning that Gayl faced “adverse personnel action against him by his superiors,” action that should “bring dishonor” to the Corps. It wasn’t enough. In 2010, the Marines stripped him of his security clearance, effectively sending his career into deep freeze, for a minor infraction. (Gayl didn’t return Danger Room’s requests for comment.)

Not everyone agrees the MRAP program was a success. Two professors recently called the MRAP a “boondoggle” in Foreign Affairs, writing that the trucks “did not save more lives than medium armored vehicles did, despite their cost of $600,000 apiece.” Yet they didn’t disclose the sensitive Pentagon data they relied upon for reaching that conclusion, making it impossible to independently verify. For what it’s worth, the Pentagon sticks by its assessment of the MRAP as a lifesaver.

And to some degree, the spirit of the Pentagon’s initial objections to the vehicle showed up at the MRAP party in the Pentagon auditorium. The war in Afghanistan grinds on, but Monday’s ceremony announced that a joint emergency purchasing effort for the vehicles in the Army and Marines has come to an end. From now on, each of the services will have to purchase its own MRAPs, something Carter called merely the “next phase” of the program. But the Army, for instance, is already looking beyond MRAPs to its next-gen Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and Ground Combat Vehicle. Emergency apparently over, it’s now time for the military to figure out what to do with all its MRAPs — the very concern that made bureaucrats wary of buying them. Biden noted that had Gates not circumvented the bureaucracy, the first MRAPs would just be arriving in Iraq today — after U.S. troops departed.

Gates didn’t attend the Pentagon event. But while the ceremony congratulated the bureaucracy for embracing the MRAP, Gates sent a letter, addressed specifically to those who worked on the MRAP Task Force. “Unlike many in the Department of Defense,” Gates wrote, “your work truly saved the lives and limbs” of U.S. troops. That line received nervous laughter. But it didn’t stop the Pentagon’s self-congratulation.