On April 2, the 1st Sustainment Command, CENTCOM, Port of Ash Shuaiba, Kuwait announced with some pride that the last vehicle to leave Iraq, an MRAP, had been loaded aboard a ship bound for the United States. Built in 2008 by BAE Systems, this Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle is not destined to become part of the Army’s evolving force structure but for the 1st Cavalry Division’s museum at Fort Hood, Texas. Given the role of the MRAP in winning the war in Iraq and saving lives, this seems more than fitting.
But the departure of this last vehicle has far greater meaning than signifying the true finality of the withdrawal from Iraq. In fact, the most significant aspect of this event has nothing to do with MRAPs specifically. The return of the last MRAP signals the end of the era of the “arsenal of democracy.” The U.S. won all the major conflicts of the last 70 years by throwing mountains of stuff at the enemy. Even in the ones we did not win outright we exploited our advantages in industrial production to achieve a stalemate and force our opponents to the negotiating table.
In Iraq and Afghanistan the United States again called on its advantage in technology and manufacturing power to alter a losing situation on the ground. Between the time the MRAP program started in 2007 and the present, the Department of Defense spent $43 billion to build almost 30,000 MRAPs and M-ATVs and did it in record time. The ability of the defense industrial base to meet the needs of the warfighter has been nothing short of fantastic. Moreover, we are not just discussing the vehicles but all the equipment (CREW, CROWS, communications gear, etc.). In addition, there was an explosion in the number and capabilities of unmanned aerial systems, tactical surveillance platforms, ground robots and dozens of other new and improved military capabilities.
Is it likely that we will ever be able to do this again? I think not. This was our last hurrah as the arsenal of democracy under any conceivable scenario short of full mobilization for a long conflict with a peer competitor. Given long-term budget and demographic projections, the reduced state of the U.S. manufacturing base, availability of natural resources and the changing nature of military technology, our ability to repeat the success story of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in the future is questionable at best. Britain almost bankrupted itself fighting World War One. It had to approach the United States hat in hand to keep its war effort going in the early years of World War Two. With a deficit now surpassing 100 percent of gross domestic product, where will the United States find the resources to spend on the next version of the MRAP program? Who will finance our next defense surge?
In fact, as proposed defense spending cuts take effect over the next decade, we are in danger of losing technological and manufacturing advantages in critical areas relevant to even less stressful security challenges. The Army plans to mothball the nation’s sole tank production facility for four years starting in fiscal 2013. The Navy is considering delaying the start of the next nuclear-powered aircraft carriers by two years. In both cases, these decisions could result in a serious loss of skilled workers that will cost lots of money to recover. The last nuclear engineer with actual hands-on experience designing and building a new nuclear weapon retired a long time ago. In a way, this may be a good thing, but is going to be a real problem if we ever again are in need of new nuclear weapons. I could give another dozen or two examples of emerging problem areas.
The MRAP did its job in Iraq. Some of them, along with the new M-ATVs and double-V hull Strykers are saving lives in Afghanistan. Most of the MRAPs will go into storage awaiting the next Iraq-like conflict. Hopefully, it will be a long wait.
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