MRAPs – Attack of the Big Trucks

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Caiman MRAP of the Minnesota National Guard rolls into Kuwait as the unit redeploys from Iraq

NATO’s armies spend several decades – from the 1940s to the early 1990s – getting ready to fight a high-intensity war against the Soviet Union. It was obvious that, if that war ever happened, infantry were going to need armoured transport to have any hope of survival. By the 1990s several generations of armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles had been developed, and NATO’s infantry were equipped with machines like the Bradley, Warrior and Marder. These powerful tracked vehicles had all the features required to survive and fight on the mechanised battlefield; low profiles, heavy frontal armour,  turrets armed with heavy automatic weapons and anti-tank guided missiles. They were rugged, fast and lethal – and they proved to be almost useless in the war NATO actually ended up fighting.

FV510 Warrior IFV

IFVs like the Warrior had serious issues in low intensity conflicts

British Warrior IFVs had been deployed extensively in the Balkans during the 1990s and had proven well protected against small arms and RPG fire. They also turned out to have restricted mobility, though. Their large size made them difficult to manoeuvre in the often narrow streets of Bosnian towns. In a general European war that wouldn’t have mattered much – a Warrior can easily demolish a house that’s blocking its path – but it was a serious disadvantage for peacekeeping operations. The vehicle’s weight also left it unable to cross many bridges and the mine threat was a serious problem. With NATO and Soviet tank divisions clashing and thousands of men dying every day a few mine strikes could have been easily overlooked, but in the lower intensity environment of the journalist-infested Balkans it was an unacceptable risk; NATO’s vehicles were largely confined to the roads. Unfortunately tracks aren’t very good for roads, and the Warriors soon became unpopular with locals as they chewed up the surface and turned main routes into rutted swamps. As the fighting died down and threat levels decreased armoured fighting vehicles were replaced by 4×4 utility trucks; where some protection was needed the British Snatch and American up-armoured HMMWV came into widespread use. Based on this experience, when the next wars – Afghanistan and Iraq – moved past the initial combat stage, 4x4s were rapidly shipped in to replace the heavy fighting equipment. This time the policy swiftly turned into a disaster.

Unlike the relatively benign environments of Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq quickly became notorious for the threat from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs.) The Snatch – designed to survive small-arms fire and petrol bombs during riots in Northern Ireland – and HMMWV proved hopelessly vulnerable to these weapons and casualties swiftly mounted. Various new vehicles were tried – the Viking and the Pinzgauer Vector were two examples – and just as quickly rejected. The US Army’s new (and extremely expensive) Stryker turned out to be just as vulnerable to IEDs as anything else. Luckily, before the search for a solution became too expensive, someone remembered that it had already been found.

Leopard MRAP

Rhodesian Leopard mine protected vehicle, an early MRAP ancestor.

In the 1970s the Rhodesian Army had faced similar problems to those surfacing in Iraq and Afghanistan; while they dominated the ground militarily they were losing a steady stream of men to landmines and short-range ambushes. The response was to develop mine-protected vehicles based on a V hull design. The principle is that if the vehicle sets off a mine or IED – whether it detonates under the wheel or under the belly – the blast will be deflected out and away from the crew compartment. While the vehicle might be immobilised by the explosion its occupants will survive.

The basic V hull design was refined and developed by the South African Defence Force (SADF) through the late 1970s and early ’80s. A series of vehicles like the Casspir and Buffel APCs led eventually to the fearsome Ratel IFV. Heavily armed with a 20mm cannon and multiple machineguns, it incorporated angled belly armour and large armoured windows for improved visibility. It was also significantly higher than most tracked vehicles, which again improved visibility. The lighter Mamba APC also became popular with UN peacekeepers, as it protected troops from mines and small arms fire but looked less aggressive than a conventional APC.

Casspir APC

South African Casspir mine protected APC; the MRAP design is now clear.

Early this century Land Systems OMC, a South African subsidiary of BAE Land Systems, began marketing a range of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, protected APCs based on the Casspir and Mamba. The basic design stayed the same but weight increased as extra armour was added; Remote Weapons Stations (RWS) for machineguns and grenade launchers were frequently added, as was slat armour to protect against RPGs. Many also have integrated CCTV cameras to improve situational awareness and ECM systems to defeat radio-controlled IEDs. MRAPs looked like a tailor-made solution to the IED threat.

MRAPs began to enter service in large numbers with the US Marine Corps, which started ordering Force Protection’s Cougar in 2004. Orders for OMC’s RG-31 Nyala, an upgraded Mamba, followed, then more orders for other OMC vehicles like the RG-32 and RG-33. The UK bought 400 Mastiff APCs based on the Cougar, and suddenly every army involved in peacekeeping wanted a fleet of MRAPs. The German Dingo has found favour with some European armies, but most orders have gone to South Africa and the USA.

Cougar MRAP

Cougar MRAP with HMMWV in Afghanistan

The sudden purchase of huge MRAP fleets has been extremely expensive, but unusually for a defence project it’s been an instant success with no teething problems. In some areas of Iraq and Afghanistan the introduction of MRAPs led to an immediate 90% fall in IED casualties. That’s a pretty good sign that something is working. IEDs that would have blown a Snatch or HMMWV to scrap left MRAPs battered but still rolling. Even when they were destroyed most of their occupants crawled, bloodied but alive, from the wreckage. The vehicles aren’t as overtly aggressive as a tracked vehicle or anything with a  large turret, either, although their sheer size can be intimidating. The Taliban in Helmand Province gave nicknames to British military equipment; WAH-64 Apaches were “wasps,” for example, and the chunky Viking APCs were “frogs.” When the Mastiffs arrived they were just “big trucks,” and the Taliban were terrified of them and their apparent indestructibility. Of course they can’t stand up to an anti-tank missile or a tank main gun round, but where the opposition have small arms, RPGs and IEDs an MRAP is pretty hard to kill.

There has been criticism of the cost of MRAP programmes, and questions about what will be done with the vehicles when the current operation in Afghanistan winds down. The British, at least, seem to feel that the next wars will resemble Iraq or Afghanistan. The planned new structure for the British Army has a battalion of Mastiff-equipped “Protected Mobility Infantry” in each reaction force brigade. The big trucks, apparently, are going to have a place on the future battlefield.