How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
An MRAP parked in Afghanistan in July. (Lucas Jackson / Courtesy Reuters)
In “The MRAP Boondoggle,” Chris Rohlfs and Ryan Sullivan argue that mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles are a colossal waste of money. To be sure, the MRAP program is a big, almost irresistible target -- apparently for economists as well as insurgents. But the logic for the deployment of MRAPs, like the vehicles themselves, withstands attack. Our own research and a close look at the authors’ methodology put Rohlfs and Sullivan’s findings in doubt.
The authors claim that the $45 billion MRAP program is excessive because MRAPs “did not save more lives than medium armored vehicles did despite [costing] roughly three times as much.” This argument is suspect for several reasons. Rohlfs and Sullivan’s findings are skewed because they measure the value of MRAPs by comparing fatality rates among units that “faced similar baseline levels of violence.” But in Iraq, a baseline of violence is hard to establish: troops met all kinds of attacks – improvised explosive devices but also small groups of insurgents, snipers, and indirect fire. The greatest comparative advantage of the MRAP over medium armored vehicles is its success protecting soldiers specifically against IEDs. Aggregating all unit combat experience thus skews the data against the vehicles.
More important, in evaluating the MRAP’s effectiveness, the authors consider only fatalities and not wounded soldiers. By 2008, the casualty rate (killed plus injured) for troops in MRAPs was six percent, compared with a casualty rate of 15 percent for the M1 Abrams tank and a 22 percent rate for the up-armored Humvee. In other words, up-armored Humvees are far less effective in safeguarding soldiers against IEDs. And that is no small thing: protecting soldiers is far cheaper than replacing them. It costs about $500,000 to replace an enlisted soldier and between $1 million and $2 million to replace an officer, depending on their occupational specialty. Therefore, the average light tactical vehicle with one officer and four enlisted personnel is protecting about $3 million of Defense Department funding. Moreover, the military pays billions of dollars in other long-term, casualty-related costs, including rehabilitation for the wounded and survivor benefits for the deceased.
The MRAPs are worthwhile for other reasons that are not so easily quantified but should also be taken into account. Tactically, they complicate insurgent efforts, arguably requiring IED makers to use explosives that are more powerful and put themselves at greater risk when attempting attacks. They also have psychological and political value. In Iraq, fielding MRAPs assured the U.S. public, its troops, and enemy combatants that Washington would do whatever possible to safeguard its forces and was likely to stay the course.
The authors acknowledge their data sample is from a period of relative calm, but they do not appreciate how much this affects their findings. It is not useful to measure the value of a military capability after its peak period of demand. That is similar to assessing the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima after the first week of fighting and concluding that the United States could have saved a lot of money on amphibious assault vehicles. The authors should have considered the likely impact of deploying MRAPs earlier during the period of escalating violence. Data presented to the U.S. Congress in 2007 showed that the few MRAPs in Iraq at the time were “up to 400 percent more effective than up-armored Humvees in reducing injuries and deaths.” Thus, our research found that if the Pentagon had promptly acted on requests from field commanders in 2005 to deploy large numbers of MRAPs, the loss of 1,609 lives and countless other casualties might have been prevented.
The authors also criticize the Pentagon for introducing MRAPs “at the wrong time (when IEDs were declining) . . . to units that did not see heavy combat.” This argument suggests that the Pentagon should have anticipated the decline of IEDs and other attacks that the MRAPs were designed to withstand. But faced with resolutely rising U.S. casualties from 2005 through 2007, the Pentagon had every reason to believe that further delaying the purchase of MRAPs would have compounded the error it had already made. The late response was better than no response at all, not only because the MRAPs did help in Iraq but also because new and improved versions, the M-ATVs, have been immensely valuable in Afghanistan, where IEDs accounted for 70 percent of all U.S. casualties in 2009 and continue to plague troops.
Lastly, the authors suggest that the Pentagon is throwing good money after bad by buying more MRAPs. They give the misleading impression that the Pentagon is about to launch an MRAP spending spree, noting that it has the authority to purchase at least 5,244 more MRAPs in the future. In reality, the Pentagon is doing now what it should have done before: ensuring that there are enough MRAPs to meet future demands of irregular warfare. This is normal procurement behavior for modernizing MRAP technology over time and meeting evolving military needs in Afghanistan. Tim Goddette, a U.S. Army spokesperson, said in May 2012 that the Pentagon intends to put around 60 percent of the MRAP fleet in prepositioned stocks or storage, deploy 30 percent to units, and use ten percent for home-based training purposes. There is also speculation about giving some to other local military forces or selling unneeded vehicles for scrap.
It is important to carefully examine the value of every defense dollar, especially in a time of fiscal austerity. And it is true that the MRAP program is expensive, in part because the vehicles were deployed in a rush after unnecessary delays. Yet, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in reference to MRAPs: “if you’ve got this stuff left over at the end, so be it . . . you also have left over a lot of living kids.” Indeed, even if the United States drove all its MRAPs lemming-like into the Euphrates upon departing Iraq, the vehicles still would have been a bargain, not a boondoggle.