Friday, May 11, 2007

Where's the DOT before MRAP?

I'm really impressed by the quantity and quality of the debate over U.S. Army and Marine Corp plans to purchase and field a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected MRAP vehicle to replaced the venerable HMMWV. MRAP skeptics, including writers on the left and right of the Iraq debate, as well as my contemporary (or should I say 'blogging upperclassman') J. Sigger point out that the benefits offered by the MRAP in Iraq does not outweigh its hefty pricetag:

We're talking about making a multi-billion dollar procurement deal on a system that hasn't been run through any operational tests, to replace a system that cost about a fifth of the armored vehicle, and the military wants to rush production of "low rate initial production" vehicles through five contractors to meet the demand.

Now I know why the politicians will vote for this, because they've got a knee-jerk reaction to any issue that includes the term "protection from IEDs" in the title. But you have to ask, what the hell are the military leaders thinking by rushing these vehicles to the field? "These MVAPs have to work, because... because... if they don't, it's our asses." There's no excuse to short-cutting the operational testing of this vehicle, not when the consequences of failure are so high. My frustration with these kind of decisions is in part fueled by the continued demands by the military leadership to continue modernizing their aging equipment simultaneous with funding the high optempo requirements of the war, while the training and repair infrastructure in the United States continues to crumble.

While MRAP supporters, such as defense tech super-reporters Noah Schachtman and David Axe, acknowledge this issue, but present a set of compelling counterpoints:

Jason has a point. But, just to be clear, it's not like the things have no military track record. Engineers and bomb squads have been riding in 'em for more than a year, now. And they're based closely on South African designs which I understand performed just fine.

Also, let's not fetishize "operational tests" overmuch. After all, the Predator flunked its 2001 operational exam -- even as it was taking out Taliban in Afghanistan.

Still, there's reason to be skeptical. As the Standard notes, "'Eliminating the source' [of IEDs] is indeed the only way to stop the bleeding. MRAP is a stop-gap measure, [albeit] a good one."

While both side present compelling points, I tend to side with the MRAP skeptics for two reasons. First, physics is a hard mistress and she currently favors the insurgents. The competition over ever-improving Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and counter-IED tactics and technology has been a central theme of the struggle between U.S. ground forces and insurgent groups. While both sides have been forced to continually innovate, the marginal utility of technological innovation declines as the operational needs bump up against the laws of physics. It is not even really clear whether an car chasis can be hardened enough to stop an explosively-formed penetrator.

Second, whatever happened to the Doctrine, Organization, Training, Material, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities (DOTMLPF) process? For those unfamiliar with the term, the best description is found in Field Manual 1:

DOTMLPF is a problem-solving construct for assessing current capabilities and managing change. Change is achieved through a continuous cycle of adaptive innovation, experimentation, and experience. Change deliberately executed across DOTMLPF elements enables the Army to improve its capabilities to provide dominant landpower to the joint force.

The elements of DOTMLPF are organized in order of difficult, from easiest to change (doctrine) to most difficult (facilities). One thing that I have noticed about about U.S. operations in Iraq is a tendency to favor material solutions over doctrinal, organizational, and training solutions when a problem crops up on the battlefield. Just compare the $6 billion spent by JIEDDO on counter IED technology versus the years it took to the U.S. Army to role out a new counterinsurgency manual, despite the clear need for one.

Don't get me wrong, the military should replace part of its HMMWV fleet with MRAPs -- but not all of it. The Army will continue to need an medium-weight, all-purpose truck for missions that don't involve driving through a virtual minefield. Thankfully, it seem like the Pentagon is going to pick up just about the right number of MRAPs (15,000-20,000). In the meantime, I have a few radical proposals for doctrinal and organizational changes for the Army should meditate on:

1. If roadside bombs are such a problem for military supply convoys, why not consider sourcing some material locally? Laundry service, water purification and garbage collection, are could be outsources to local firms. The business will help build ties with the community and infuse some much needed cash into the local economy. As units build trusting relationships with the local population, they should consider outsourcing some functions that would involve a mild amount of risk, but employ important parts of the local economy. This would include preparing meals, mending uniforms and manufacturing basic consumables (batteries, non-sensitive spare parts, tires). Heck, if Iraq's oil ministry could get its act together, the U.S. Army's fleet of generators and trucks would be thirsty, high-paying customers.

2. If you can't make armored cars tough enough to resist IEDs then walk, or at least disperse Brigade Combat Teams into the urban environment even more. If Joint Security Stations commanded at the battalion level, some of them subdivide them into company-sized or even platoon-sized posts. The ultimate goal would be to saturate the security districts with small posts that aren't far apart and don't have to move much. Remember the painful lessons of the Kuomintang's early anti-communist campaigns -- insurgencies require space (or base areas). Slow and methodical encirclement is a proven way of starving insurgents of their space.

3. Abandon the idea of 'focused logistics.' The idea of 'tailored supplies' or 'just-in-time' delivery are not compatible with stability operations. When your mission is to provide 24-hour security to a town, you need to be preparing for everything. Building a 'mountain of metal' may be inexpensive or inefficient, but the opportunity cost of failing at your security mission can be even larger.

These ideas may seem risky, but successful stability operations often requires a wholesale abandonment of the military's conventional wisdom about the elements of operations -- like the 'battlefield,' the 'enemy,' and the whole idea of 'operations' itself.

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