Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles were rapidly acquired based upon an undeniable urgent operational requirement. In short, the rapid fielding of MRAPs was an absolute necessity. The use of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and beyond had become a clear threat after several years in the Iraqi theater. And, as the improvised shifted to de facto – becoming regularly developed and deployed explosive devices (RDDEs), the threat clearly had to be responded to on an urgent basis.
Luckily, the South Africans had developed the MRAP technologies and the United States was able to rapidly adopt and adapt its trucks and vehicles to MRAP standards. Today, it remains almost a given proposition that MRAP capabilities will remain part of the irregular warfare arsenal of the U.S. and its allies.
But is the manner in which the MRAPs were acquired a good model of acquisition – urgent or otherwise? This question is significant because, almost at the level of legend, many analysts and policymakers today are suggesting that the MRAP acquisition experience be applied in developing acquisition reforms, especially in rapid acquisition cases. And they may be on the verge of codifying the MRAP approach as a model.
According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), the “DOD use of a tailored acquisition approach to rapidly acquire and field MRAP vehicles was successful.” The GAO went on to argue that the success of the acquisition was built around “decisions to 1) use only proven technologies, 2) keep requirements to a minimum, 3) infuse significant competition into contracting, and 4) keep final integration responsibility with the government all led to positive outcomes and may be transferable.”
And this success was predicated upon a “buying into the market approach:”
“To expand limited production capacity, indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts were awarded to nine commercial sources, with DOD agreeing to buy at least 4 vehicles from each. Subsequent orders were based on a concurrent testing approach with progressively more advanced vehicle test results and other assessments.”
The difficulties with assuming that this was the best way to go about rapid acquisition are several.
First, the government bought the market; and defense industry firms invested into the marketplace in anticipation of continued opportunities to support the marketplace. U.S. defense firms were well-placed to invest significant funds “up front” after several years of record DoD budgets and defense industry revenues and profits; but when the government would later turn around and narrow down its choices of firms to support the acquisition in the future (e.g. in eliminating BAE Systems, Force Dynamics and Navistar in favor of a single supplier – Oshkosh – for the Afghan variant of the MRAP, commonly referred to as the M-ATV), the impact was clear. The losers of this competition were left either with millions of dollars of inventories or several dozens of completed vehicles (which they were forced to purchase and/or build to meet aggressive government fielding requirements in the event of winning the competition). Given this outcome, firms understandably will be reluctant in the future to spend their own capital to meet near term procurements for the government.
Second, the diversity of the 20,000 plus MRAP vehicle fleet (built by nine different manufacturers) has meant that logistics and sustainment are a nightmare. Indeed, the continued propensity to see acquisition as being about the initial buy with little or no thought to sustainability is highlighted by this acquisition. MRAP acquisition is a poster child for “logistics-free” procurement considerations.
Third, the ability to give MRAPs to the Iraqis as we leave theater is limited, because of the difficulty of maintaining the vehicles. As a senior ground officer has commented. “We will not be able to provide these to the Iraqis easily because we have a hard time maintaining them. It will be better to give them something else like the Bradleys which we know how to maintain.” So a quick acquisition with little or no thought about its usefulness to help build “partnership capacity” is perhaps not the best idea.
Fourth, the MRAPs are a platform within the context of a mission. The USMC for one has used the MAGTF approach to countering IEDs with the use of air assets in addition to ground assets. What this acquisition implicitly (and erroneously) states is that stove-piped procurement is the best way to go in meeting urgent operational requirements.
Fifth, the upgrading of MRAPs as they enter the mainstream of tactical vehicles now becomes a core consideration. These vehicles were bought with very little consideration to how they would be upgraded. So, now the cost of upgrading those vehicles going into the permanent inventory is higher than if consideration had been built in to how to most effectively build an upgrade path. Again, in this regard, MRAPs are a poster child for acquisition without regard to sustainment.
Dov Zakheim, a former Comptroller of the DOD, in his testimony to the House Committee lionizing the MRAP acquisition added some cautionary notes and set forth an intelligent alternative path.
“The Department needs to field militarily useful solutions more quickly. The current threat environment is one in which the enemy on the battlefield employs easily obtainable, off-the-shelf technology to undermine the effectiveness of US military operations.”
To deal with this Zakheim has suggested moving beyond “ad-hockery” as a procurement approach. He argued for “codifying and institutionalizing a separate set of rapid acquisition processes and practices that can be tailored to expedite the rapid delivery of capabilities that meet urgent warfighter needs.”
He then went on to argue for how this process could be crafted to ensure that needs are met but that they become integrated into an overall procurement effort. He argued for a new organizational home for rapid acquisition, which would be placed under the authority of the Office of USD (AT&L). The so-called Rapid Acquisition and Fielding Agency (RAFA) would “be a joint agency, organizationally similar to the Defense Logistics Agency or the National Security Agency.”
The advantage of the Zakheim approach is that it would deal with the shortfalls identified in this article with regard to the MRAP acquisition. RAFA would be part of OSD (AT&L) and its efforts would focus on spiral development with a modular open systems architecture,ensuring that fielding would include “training, sustainment and support in coordination with the services and combatant commands.”
In short, the rapid fielding of MRAP vehicles to meet an urgent operational requirement is clearly an important development; but as important is not lionizing it as an acquisition model without an in-depth understanding of its longer term impact and usefulness. To ensure that Americans and allies do not needlessly die on battlefields of the future, it is important not to blindly enshrine short term solutions as if they were sound long term methodologies.
This post was co-written by Robbin Laird and Robert Johnson.
 Christopher J. Lamb, et. al., “MRAPs, Irregular Warfare and Pentagon Reform.” Joint Forces Quarterly (4th quarter 2009)
 “Legislators Consider MRAP as Model for Rapid Acquisition Programs,” Inside the Army (October 12, 2009).
 Statement by Michael J. Sullivan, Director Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Rapid Acquisition of MRAP Vehicles (GAO, October 2009
 Zakheim’s proposals reflect the work of the Defense Science Board task force on the fulfillment of urgent operational needs
***Posted November 8th, 2009