WASHINGTON The Defense Department will send close to 800 more bomb-resistant vehicles to Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban has military leaders developing plans to add thousands of U.S. troop reinforcements.
The hulking vehicles, known as MRAPs, protect U.S. personnel from the powerful blasts of roadside bombs, the No. 1 cause of combat deaths in injuries in Iraq. The improvised explosive devices are a growing threat in Afghanistan where 36,000 American troops are battling militant groups and training Afghan forces.
In violence Thursday, U.S. Special Forces and Afghan troops called in airstrikes during a raid on a militant cell in western Afghanistan, killing 15 insurgents while freeing 15 hostages, officials said.
NATO, meanwhile, said its troops in the south have killed a senior Taliban commander, while the U.S.-led coalition reported its forces along with Afghan security forces killed "several militants" in the same region.
MRAPs come in various sizes. One model, fully loaded, can weigh as much as 40 tons. Due to Afghanistan's mountainous terrain and unstable roads, defense officials have opted for the lightest and most maneuverable version, called the RG-31.
Of the more than 700 MRAPs already in Afghanistan, about 600 are the 9-ton RG-31s.
The RG-31 is produced by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada with a BAE Systems division in South Africa.
"It's the lightest. It has the tightest turning radius. That is the one that the commanders in Afghanistan want," said Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan, the Marine Corps officer who runs the MRAP program, in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.
General Dynamics received a $552 million order for the vehicles, the Pentagon announced Thursday. The work will be done in South Africa, Lansing, Mich., and Anniston, Ala. All the trucks are to be completed by the end of the year.
Faced with an increasingly sophisticated insurgency, particularly along Afghanistan's rugged border with Pakistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that sending more U.S. troops would help quell the increasing violence.
"I think that we are clearly working very hard to see if there are opportunities to send additional forces sooner rather than later," Gates told reporters. But, he added, no final decisions or recommendations have been made.
While the RG-31 is smaller, Brogan said that does not mean troops are less safe than they would be in much larger MRAPs, such as the Cougar made by Force Protection of Ladson, S.C., or the Caiman made by BAE Systems in Sealy, Texas. Regardless of size, all MRAPs have a raised chassis and a V-shaped hull that pushes an underbelly explosion out and away from the crew inside. Heavy steel doors and 1 inch-thick windows complete the package.
"You're splitting hairs," Brogan said of any differences in protection.
The varied sizes, a product of having several different vendors, give battlefield commanders choices. A larger MRAP may get the call to lead a convoy or clear a road, while the RG-31 might be used for patrols and reconnaissance missions.
Due to their design, MRAPs are far better at handling bomb blasts than the low-riding Humvee, even those with extra armor plating.
"An up-armored Humvee gets tossed around like a rag doll," Brogan said.
Brogan said the need for more RG-31s in Afghanistan has been part of a gradual evaluation by battlefield commanders and Pentagon officials.
"It's been over time," he said. "It's not been like yesterday they called and said, 'Hey, we need these."'
Dakota Wood, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said militants in Afghanistan understand how effective improvised explosive devices are. An upswing in those attacks combined with Afghanistan's dicey infrastructure makes the RG-31 the best option."The enemy forces seem to be using the same tricks of the trade that proved so effective in Iraq in Afghanistan," Wood said. "The smaller MRAP version is probably going to handle the terrain better and you're going to get that MRAP protection."