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Pentagon hopes new M-ATV is 'life-saver'

From Mike Mount, CNN Senior Pentagon Producer
The Pentagon is rushing to build M-ATVs to protect troops in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon is rushing to build M-ATVs to protect troops in Afghanistan.
  • Roadside bombs taking increasing toll on U.S. troops in Afghanistan
  • Pentagon made special vehicle to protect against roadside bombs in Iraq
  • New M-ATV is a lighter, more maneuverable version of MRAP used in Iraq

Washington (CNN) -- It looks likes a cross between a Humvee and a monster truck, and Pentagon officials hope it can save the lives of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon is rushing the M-ATV, the latest version of the U.S. military's blast-resistant vehicles, to Afghanistan as roadside bombs take a heavy toll on U.S. forces there.

"It will be a life-saver in Afghanistan," said the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, Ashton B. Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

October was the bloodiest month of the Afghanistan campaign, with 59 U.S. troops killed. At least 26 were victims of roadside bombs, also known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, according to Pentagon figures.

Since 2007, the number of roadside bombs in Afghanistan has jumped 350 percent, according to Pentagon statistics. Although many of the bombs are found before they detonate, the number of troops killed has increased by more than 400 percent, and the number wounded is up more 700 percent over the past two years.

The U.S. military has thousands of blast-proof Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles in Afghanistan. The MRAPs have been highly effective in shielding troops from roadside bombs in Iraq, but mountainous Afghanistan differs markedly from desert Iraq, where the MRAPs operated largely on paved roads and in open areas.

Combat operations in Afghanistan often involve unpaved roads and small mountain villages not suited to the bulky, 40,000-pound MRAP, Pentagon officials have said. And the military's ubiquitous and more maneuverable Humvees have proved vulnerable to roadside bombs during Afghan operations.

So the Pentagon quickly developed, and is betting on, the new MRAP-All Terrain Vehicle, or M-ATV, to protect troops.

With the weight reduced to 25,000 pounds, independent suspension and a better turning radius, the M-ATV gives the troops more power and maneuverability in Afghanistan's tight spaces, the Pentagon says. Officials say it will eventually replace the Humvee as a combat vehicle in rural Afghanistan.

"The terrain in Afghanistan is different from Iraq. It's more uneven; the roads are difficult to traverse. That's why we've had to create an all-terrain version," Carter said, standing next to one of the vehicles at the Pentagon this week.

Forty-one of the M-ATVs have been deployed to Afghanistan since late September, according to Pentagon officials. They hope to have at least 5,000 of the trucks there by March.

The first production order was given to Wisconsin-based manufacturer Oshkosh Corp. in June, according to Carter, and the factory in Oshkosh has been working feverishly to build them since.

Each M-ATV costs $437,000, but the price tag rises to more than $1 million each when all of the combat equipment is installed, according to Pentagon officials.

The M-ATV is primarily made of fiberglass and lighter metals, but the crew cab is designed with the same blast-proof qualities -- a V-shaped hull to disperse a blast away from the vehicle and blast-proof metal and windows -- as the older MRAP.

Each M-ATV stands about 6 feet wide and well over 12 feet tall with the top gunner mount on the roof. The top of the wheel well is about 6 feet off the ground. The wheels alone are 4 feet high. The windows are thick and dark because of the blast-proof technology.

"These new vehicles are urgently needed, because improvised explosive devices are claiming the lives of more U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan than ever before," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in September as the first M-ATVs were deployed to Afghanistan.

The M-ATV will start allowing more troops in small unit combat operations to move faster and more nimbly off-road, giving troops more route options to avoid danger or chase the enemy, officials say.

MRAPs will still be used in larger cities and areas where paved or improved roads exist.

The MRAP program started under the Bush administration in response to calls that the military was not sufficiently protecting U.S. forces in Iraq as roadside bombs became the weapon of choice by insurgents there.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates saw the MRAP as the answer, and he quickly pushed the vehicles into development and moved them to Iraq.