In remote areas of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, MRAPs such as this U.S. Army Cou
The first time I saw an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) I was simultaneously impressed and bewildered. Having just arrived in Baghdad, I had to catch a ride in one to get to the unit I would be covering-the U.S. Army 425th Civil Affairs Battalion-at the Victory Base Complex in Western Baghdad. The massive trucks arrived in a column, their electrically-operated gunners' turrets swinging wildly back and forth, scanning the horizon for threats. With huge antenna arrays and tall off-road tires, they looked like a cross between the baddest wheeling rig ever built and something from the set of RoboCop.
Although the air conditioning worked fine, riding inside of one was like being strapped into an airline seat bolted in the bed of a dump truck. As in many jacked-up rigs with limited suspension travel, occupant comfort depends upon where one sits-the guys up front, in their hydraulically cushioned seats, didn't have too many complaints.
One of the Army's Cougar MRAPs produced by Force Protection Incorporated in Orgun, Afghani
MRAPs are the military's personnel transportation workhorses in Iraq. Despite some problems getting stuck in Afghanistan's difficult terrain, having 4-inch-thick armor to protect occupants from hand grenades, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) has won out in most arguments about the truck's usefulness. "If you take a round through the engine and lose oil pressure, it'll keep running and get you outta there. [The designers] put a lot of thought into it," says Sergeant Mike Underwood, 36, a mechanic who keeps the 425th's MRAPs running.
The BAE Systems RG-32 in Afghanistan, unlike the RG-33, has steel plates instead of window
With heights usually clearing 9 feet, MRAPs have a tendency to roll over, but the 6x6 BAE Systems RG-33s that Sgt. Underwood usually works on can stay upright even when listing 30 degrees to one side. Also, despite weighing about 24 tons, the brakes will hold on an incline of up to 60 degrees. A 400hp Cummins turbodiesel moves the single-piece steel hull and mammoth axles like a Toyota pickup with a blown 350 crammed into it. This all comes at a steep price though. The Pentagon pays more than $600,000 for the newer RG-33s. Other models cost taxpayers about the same amount.
One of the RG-33s Sgt. Underwood worked on in Iraq, parked in front of the 5,000-year-old
As the U.S. military's focus has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, problems have arisen with the MRAP's performance off road. With their high center of gravity, the heavy trucks haven't necessarily adjusted well to a country with limited road access and mountainous terrain. Their scale is immense. Even in Iraq-when the main routes are closed due to attacks, maintenance, or many other reasons-the trucks often lumber down narrow side streets, ripping down wires from the tangle of low-amp lines that are the standard of a country still struggling with its electrical infrastructure.
But the concerns of the fighting men in Afghanistan are far from the thoughts of Sgt. Underwood, who-much to the delight of his wife and 12-year-old daughter-recently returned home to Parkersburg, West Virginia. Having to go back to work driving Mack 18-wheelers for R&J Trucking aside, there's no doubt he's eager to get back behind the wheel of his lifted '89 GMC Stepside 4x4, undoubtedly very far from any low-hanging wires or explosions.