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Marines Defend Delay In Fielding Bomb-Resistant Vehicles

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In February 2005, Marine units in Iraq asked for vehicles capable of withstanding the most severe roadside blasts. The request went unmet, military officials said Wednesday, because no company could quickly supply such a heavily armored fleet.

A ``Priority 1 Urgent'' request called for nearly 1,200 mine resistant ambush protected vehicles. In response, the Marine Corps bought more than 2,900 Humvees fortified with extra protective plating to blunt improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades.

That decision proved to be a short-term solution, however, as insurgent forces in Iraq began using more powerful weapons the Humvees could not deflect.

``The (upgraded Humvee), at the time, met the needs for the warfighter in theater,'' said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, who approved the urgent request. ``The insurgent adapted to the way that we armored our vehicles.''

Over the past two years, the industrial capacity necessary to build the mine resistant carriers has evolved and the Marine Corps plans to buy as many as 3,700 of the vehicles, which feature a V-shaped hull that pushes the blast outward.

``There's a lot more out there in the marketplace,'' said Tom Miller, a civilian acquisition official with Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va.

But Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said Wednesday the delay has led to unnecessary deaths and injuries in Iraq. Roadside bombs account for 70 percent of the casualties in Iraq and the new vehicles are expected to sharply reduce that number, he said.

``There are troops that have been and will be killed or become serious casualties until all the troops are riding around in these vehicles,'' said Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a 2008 presidential candidate.

Biden rejected the claim that not a single company was capable of building the vehicles in substantial numbers. The vehicles have been made in South Africa, he said, and in increasing quantities by Force Protection, Inc. of Ladson, S.C.

According to Biden, Force Protection initially had 12 workers making one vehicle a month in 2003. A year later, the company had 400 employees turning out one vehicle per day.

``The idea that other companies out there could not have ramped up similarly, I find incomprehensible,'' he said.

Michael Aldrich, Force Protection's vice president for marketing and government relations, said the company now has 900 employees and makes about 100 vehicles a month.

``We can't run any faster than we're running,'' he said.

Aldrich sided with the Marine Corps' assessment that the capacity did not exist two years ago to build the vehicles in larger numbers., an online news service, first reported the contents of the urgent need statement on Tuesday.

Hejlik, who was a commander in Iraq from June 2004 to February 2005, and the other Marine Corps officials cast the urgent need statement as more of a recommendation than a hard and fast demand for a specific system.

The term mine resistant ambush protected vehicle ``was very generic'' and intended to frame a broader discussion of what type of vehicle would be needed to defend against the changing threats troops in the field faced, Hejlik said. He now heads Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command at Camp LeJeune, N.C.

``I don't think there was any intent by anybody to do anything but the right thing,'' he said.

Biden said the language in the request was unambiguous and highlighted the urgency of fielding a vehicle that would have saved the lives of Marines.
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