New Mine-Resistant Vehicles Aimed at Foiling IEDs

A Cougar Series mine-protected vehicle (left) and a Humvee. i i

A Cougar Series mine-protected vehicle (left) and a Humvee. Courtesy Force Protection Industries hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Force Protection Industries
A Cougar Series mine-protected vehicle (left) and a Humvee.

A Cougar Series mine-protected vehicle (left) and a Humvee.

Courtesy Force Protection Industries

Vehicle Specifications

Read more about the different MRAP models produced by Force Protection Industries.

An MRAP assembly line at a Force Protection Industries factory. i i

An MRAP assembly line at a Force Protection Industries factory. Courtesy Force Protection Industries hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Force Protection Industries
An MRAP assembly line at a Force Protection Industries factory.

An MRAP assembly line at a Force Protection Industries factory.

Courtesy Force Protection Industries
A Buffalo Series mine-protected and clearance vehicle.

A Buffalo Series mine-protected and clearance vehicle. Courtesy Force Protection Industries hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Force Protection Industries

This week, Congress authorized $4 billion for a project known by the acronym MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. Top Marine commander, Gen. James Conway, says MRAP vehicles are vital for troop safety in Iraq.

"We know the MRAP saves lives. We have yet to have a Marine killed in the al-Anbar province who was riding inside the vehicle," Conway says.

The MRAP is designed to overcome another acronym: the IED, or Improvised Explosive Device, responsible for more than 70 percent of all casualties in Iraq.

Force Protection Industries, an MRAP factory in Charleston, S.C., is busier than Santa's workshop on Christmas Eve. Factory workers hammer, grind and weld "as fast as humanly possible," says FPI spokesman Tommy Pruitt.

The war has been good to FPI. In just two years, the company has morphed from backwater munitions factory to multimillion-dollar defense contractor. A short time ago, FPI struggled to build 10 MRAP vehicles a year. Today, it rolls out 200 a month, and is the second-largest employer in Charleston. Pruitt describes it as "hypergrowth." He says FPI has been hiring 25 to 40 new employees a week for the past two years.

FPI's stock price has risen from 70 cents a share to $24 a share in less than two years. And that's attributable to this one product line.

"It's a very simple vehicle. It's a capsule," says Ray Pollard, top executive at FPI.

Pollard says that the MRAP is more physics than technology.

"Think about two boats. One has a flat-bottomed hull. And the other boat has a v-shaped hull," he explains. "When the flat-bottomed boat hits a swell or a wave, it flies into the air. But a v-shaped boat slices right through the wave."

The energy from the wave is diffused by that v-shaped bottom. On a vehicle hit by a mine, that means a survivability rate of about 95 percent. The concept has been around for almost four decades.

Pollard says MRAP vehicles started in South Africa. The apartheid government in South Africa waged a brutal campaign against an anti-apartheid resistance, and MRAPs were developed as a means of surviving land mines and road mines.

Dr. Vernon Joynt was one of the founders of the MRAP project in South Africa and is now considered the world's foremost expert on anti-mine technology. FPI hired Joynt a few years ago. The Pentagon now considers him so important —indeed, a potential terrorist target — that the Department of Defense asked FPI to decline media requests to interview Joynt.

Inside the FPI factory, Pruitt walks by the Cougar, a patrol and transport vehicle. It's one of two models the company manufactures. The other is called the Buffalo — a hulking mass of steel, about the size of a small house, that's designed to clear mines. A giant arm on the Buffalo is used to clear away bombs and, says Pruitt, "to investigate any suspicious-looking objects or areas that Marines operating the vehicle spot with their eyes."

MRAP is not proprietary technology. It can be made by any defense contractor, and with $4 billion up for grabs, it's the defense industry's version of this season's Tickle Me Elmo.

There are several competing versions of the MRAP. There's an Israeli version known as the Golan MRAP, made by Raphael. The ad for Golan MRAP says, "The evolving reality of asymmetric warfare and low-intensity conflicts creates the needs for mine-resistant and ambush protection combat vehicles."

In America alone, at least two dozen companies are developing versions of the MRAP. But it could take more than two years to build enough MRAPs to protect all of the U.S. troops in Iraq. By then, most of America's troops may already be home.

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