By Emelie Rutherford

As the Defense Department assesses an urgent request from theater for smaller mine-deflecting  vehicles, the Marine Corps is planning to place the final order next month for the current Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle effort, according to an official steering the high-profile program.

Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM) Commander Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan said in an interview the final 800 vehicles in the current MRAP program will be ordered in September for the Army, as part of the effort’s Low Rate Initial Production 13 (LRIP 13).

The Marine Corps, which is managing the MRAP effort for all the services, had funds readied last month to order 1,610 MRAPs after the program entered LRIP 12–which was expected to result in the program’s final order. However, officials at the time opted to order just 813 vehicles, most of which were General Dynamics‘ [GD] RG-31s for the Army in Afghanistan. Brogan said officials delayed ordering the approximately 800 other MRAPs until next month because they received requests for smaller vehicles from theater, where the hefty MRAPs have encountered problems including becoming entangled in power lines.

“It was … clear that the direction [personnel in Afghanistan and] even Iraq wanted to move was to stay with the current menu but make changes to it that allowed a lighter vehicle, more-maneuverable vehicle, optimally a less-wide vehicle and lower,” Brogan said Monday in his office in Quantico, Va.

“But they were clear also they didn’t want a whole new vehicle,” he said. “They wanted to stay with the maintenance concepts, with the parts with everything they had. Had we awarded all 1,600 vehicles to GD, production would’ve [dragged] out way too long to have satisfied the warfighters’ need. So we awarded the ones for Afghanistan to GD, and at the same time are conducting a competition among our current vendor base for those [800 other] vehicles.”

That competition for the 800 lighter MRAPs is between the five companies that have been tapped to build the vehicles since the program launched in November 2006: General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada, Force Protection Industries [FRPT], International Military and Government (IMG), and two BAE Systems divisions–BAE-Tactical Vehicle Systems in Sealy, Texas, and BAE Systems Land & Armaments’ Ground Systems Division in York, Pa.

Next month’s order is expected to bring the total number of MRAPs ordered to approximately 15,000, with 12,000 slated for the Army. Brogan said the final batch of vehicles would take approximately 10 months from September to deliver–meaning the rapid-acquisition program that Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year designated the Pentagon’s highest acquisition priority could wrap up deliveries in July 2009.

“It is my expectation that, given everything that I know today, that LRIP 13 will be the last production order for MRAP as we now know it,” Brogan said.

However, a potential new mine-resistant vehicle effort is brewing, which some observers have dubbed “MRAP 3,” a phrase Brogan himself does not use.

A Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement (JUONS) was submitted in the Central Command (CENTCOM) theater of operations for lighter, more-maneuverable MRAP-like vehicles that are less prone to roll over, Brogan confirmed.

“Nothing has been approved by CENTCOM yet,” he said. “Has theater crafted something? Yes. But it’s still making its way through the chop chain.”

The effort does not yet have a name, and it’s not clear the trucks would even be dubbed MRAPs, Brogan said. The vehicles requested would be smaller and weigh less than MRAPs, something “survivability-wise very similar to MRAP, but size-wise approaching JLTV,” which is the future Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, he said.

“There is nothing in the current MRAP menu” that meets the needs described, he said.

“We’re watching what happens with that [JUONS] and we’ll and see, does a no-kidding certified requirement come out of Central Command?,” he said. “Does it get approved by the JROC [Joint Requirements Oversight Council]? And then who will they assign to do the procurement activity?”

The vehicle effort could possible be assigned to the MRAP Joint Program Office, or, because most or all of the vehicles could go to the Army, it could be sent to an Army operation such as the Program Executive Office Combat Support and Combat Service Support at the Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), Brogan said.

“There are more questions than there are answers right now,” he said.

The Army issued a request for information (RFI) this summer to industry seeking input on the lighter mine-resistant vehicles. Brogan said he and Kevin Fahey, the Army’s program executive officer for ground combat systems, are in contact, and are “both being positioned in case we’re tasked to perform the effort.”

Meanwhile, Brogan said the so-called MRAP 2 effort launched in the summer of 2007–intended to produce vehicles better able to withstand explosively-formed penetrators (EFPs)– is “clearly on hold.”

MARCORSYSCOM last December tapped two companies–BAE Systems and a team of Ideal Innovations, Oshkosh Truck [OSK], and Ceradyne [CRDN]–to build MRAP 2 prototypes, though no follow-on orders were ever placed. Since the MRAP 2 effort got underway, more heavily armored EFP- configured MRAPs and EFP-capable versions–onto which EFP kits can be backfitted–have been fielded to theater.

Brogan said he would be speculating if he said whether or not the MRAP 2 effort is “dead.” But he acknowledged the movement “in theater is clearly away from heavy.”

“The sheer weight of the vehicles is a concern, and that’s what made theater be very specific that, ‘Hey, we love all the attributes of MRAP 2, the great protection that it offers, but it is just too heavy for the operations that we’re currently conducting,'” Brogan said.

MRAPs have rolled over in theater after traveling on poor road networks over dikes and embankments near bodies of water, he said.

“The sheer weight of the vehicle crushes the road bed and caused the vehicle to roll down an embankment into water,” he said. “That is of serious concern to the folks in theater.”

MRAP accidents have also occurred when “a vehicle hits an unexpected large bump, and then the driver overcompensates, and the sheer high-center-of-gravity of the vehicle causes it to fall over on its side,” Brogan said.

Brogan said the EFP-configured MRAPs delivered to theater since May are performing well, are providing the proper level of protection, and will continued to be fielded.

In total, more than 11,000 MRAPs have been delivered to the government, and over 7,500 are in he hands of operators in theater, Brogan said.

Preliminary steps to transition some MRAP oversight responsibility from the Marine Corps to the Army–the service with the vast majority of the vehicles–are being taken, with TACOM starting to place sustainment contracts, Brogan said. Yet overall program management responsibility will not transfer to the Army until production and fielding are complete, he said.

“So we’ve got a long time to sort out the details,” he said.

The Marine Corps also may maintain sustainment responsibility for the Force Protection-built MRAPs, which make up the vast majority of the Marine Corps and Navy’s MRAP fleets, Brogan said.