An MRAP manufactured by Navistar International. Nearly 8,000 have been produced. (david_axe / flickr)
Last summer, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the Pentagon's Joint Program Office for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (JPO-MRAP), a $45 billion program to design, manufacture, and deploy 27,000 heavily protected vehicles into Iraq and Afghanistan, had saved "thousands and thousands of lives." The Joint Program Office drilled down a more specific figure: MRAPs, as they're known in military jargon, saved the lives of 40,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, without MRAPs, the number of combat deaths from those wars would be comparable to the number killed in Korea or Vietnam.
The Joint Program Office put a specific number on what was becoming the conventional wisdom on the new military machinery. Over the past few years, media outlets, including the Boston Herald and USA Today, repeatedly reported on the life-saving power of MRAPs. The Pentagon underscored the news with its own official releases. Purchases of MRAPs have declined recently due to the withdrawal of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Defense Department continues to focus on the vehicle -- it recently awarded a contract for more MRAPs, with the authority to purchase another 5,244 of them in the future. Just last week, an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal argued, "the success the Army and Marines have had with [the MRAP] shows what happens when the Pentagon throws out the bureaucratic rule book and takes on a more World War II-style business model."
But data from the battlefield does not support the claims that MRAPs are highly effective in decreasing the number of U.S. causalities. We recently conducted a study using For Official Use Only (FOUO) Pentagon data, which the Defense Department provided in response to a research request. We found that, relative to light and unprotected tactical wheeled vehicles, those with "medium" amounts of armor plating and mine protection were highly effective at reducing the fatalities in units exposed to heavy combat. For infantry