ANDREA SEABROOK, Host:
The MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, is designed to deal with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. These roadside bombs are now responsible for more than 70 percent of all casualties in Iraq. The U.S. military reported three more soldiers were killed today when an explosion occurred near their vehicle.
This week, Congress authorized $4 billion for the MRAP project, and yesterday, the top Marine commander, General James Conway, called it his top priority for troop safety in Iraq.
JAMES CONWAY: We know that the MRAP saves lives. We have yet to have a Marine killed in the al-Anbar province who was riding inside an MRAP.
SEABROOK: In a few minutes, Nathan Hodge of Jane's Defence Weekly talks about the MRAP. First, NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz tells us what makes the vehicle so special.
GUY RAZ: It's busier than Santa's workshop on Christmas Eve here at Force Protection Industries in Charleston, South Carolina. The factory workers are hammering...
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)
RAZ: And grinding...
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL GRINDING)
RAZ: And welding. All these things are being done...
TOMMY PRUITT: As fast as humanly possible.
RAZ: Tommy Pruitt shows me around the factory floor at Force Protection Industries. It's a company that was struggling to build 10 MRAP vehicles a year, just a short time ago. But today, it's rolling out 200 a month.
PRUITT: It's hypergrowth.
PRUITT: It's nothing like I've ever seen before.
RAZ: Hiring a lot of new people?
PRUITT: Hiring 25, between 25 and 40 new employees every week for the past two years.
RAZ: The war has been good to Force Protection Industries. In just two years, the company has gone from being a backwater munitions factory to a multi-million dollar defense contractor.
Today, it's the second biggest employer in Charleston, and its stock price, well, that went from around 70 cents a share to $24 a share in less than two years. And all because of a single product line that...
RAY POLLARD: Fundamentally, you look at it, it's a very simple vehicle. It's a capsule.
RAZ: This is Ray Pollard. He's a top executive at Force Protection Industries. Pollard explains that the technology behind the MRAP isn't really technology but something more like physics.
Think about two boats. One of them has a flat-bottomed hull, and the other boat has a V-shaped hull. When the flat-bottomed boat hits a swell or a wave, it flies right up into the air. But a V-shaped boat, well, it slices right through the wave.
The energy from the wave is diffused by that V-shaped bottom. And on a vehicle hit by a mine, it means a survivability rate of around 95 percent. Oh, and by the way, it's a concept that's been around for almost four decades.
POLLARD: The genesis of this was in South Africa where they had been fighting land mines, road mines for years.
RAZ: To be precise, it was the apartheid government in South Africa and it was waging a brutal campaign against the anti-apartheid resistance. Now one of the founders of the South African MRAP project was Vernon Joynt. He's considered the world's foremost expert on anti-mine technology, and Force Protection Industries hired him a few years ago.
Now the Pentagon considers Dr. Joynt so important and even a potential terrorist target that the department has asked Force Protection Industries to keep him out of the media spotlight.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
RAZ: Back inside the factory, Tommy Pruitt passes by the Cougar. It's a patrol and transport vehicle. It's one of two models the company makes. The other is called the Buffalo. It's a hulking mass of steel, about the size of a small house. It's designed to clear mines.
PRUITT: We've got a couple of Buffalo hulls being developed right here, being integrated with the automotive components. It has this giant arm and that arm is basically designed to clear away these bombs.
Right, it's designed to investigate any suspicious-looking objects or areas that the soldiers or Marines operating the vehicle spot with their eyes.
RAZ: Now the thing about the MRAP is that it's not proprietary technology. In other words, it can be made by any defense contractor, and with $4 billion up for grabs for more MRAPs, it's the defense industry's version of this season's Tickle Me Elmo. Everyone seems to be making the MRAP.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD FOR GOLAN)
MRAP: The evolving reality of asymmetric warfare and low intensity conflicts creates the need for mine-resistant and ambush protected combat vehicles. Introducing the Golan MRAP.
RAZ: This is an ad for an Israeli version of the vehicle; it's made by Rafael. At least two dozen American companies are developing their own versions, but it could take more than two years to build enough MRAPs to protect all of the U.S. troops in Iraq. And by then, most of them may already be home.
Guy Raz, NPR News.