As last MRAP heads home, is an era over?

The last of the heavy Army vehicles to serve in Iraq is on its way home to Texas. Was it the last hurrah for US 'surge' capacity?

As these words are written, the Army’s last Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle to serve in Iraq is making its way west across the Mediterranean aboard a cargo vessel called the Ocean Crescent. According to DoD, the MRAP will go on display at the 1st Cavalry Division Museum at Fort Hood, Texas “and represent the end of an era.”

The MRAP era isn’t completely over, of course, as the vehicles are still serving in Afghanistan and probably will continue there for some time. But if everything goes as well as hoped, the Army won’t need to buy large numbers of them, and it certainly won’t need to move mountains to get them downrange yesterday.

If it is the “end of an era,” there are reasons to celebrate its passing. There’s a case to be made that the MRAP represents the worst kind of defense procurement — begun as a crash effort well after the start of the war, necessitated by battlefield developments that commanders never anticipated, and requiring huge outlays in order to compensate. Then, having spent some $44 billion on its fleet, DoD finds little use for it after the war, so new vehicles go right into storage. The services wind up spending billions more on an entirely new fleet of Joint Light Tactical Vehicles.

This does not take into account the thousands of lives the MRAP fleet saved in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor does it give the Army and Marine Corps credit for the vehicle-building lessons they’ll likely incorporate into their JLTVs. (We often hear that no defense program is truly a failure since it always informs what comes after; “it’s all sausage — it all goes somewhere” as writers say.) The MRAP experience happened, it was what it was, and the military-industrial-congressional complex has absorbed it.

Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, however, draws an even bigger — and bleaker — lesson from the end of the MRAP. He wrote that not only does the return of the last vehicle mark the end of its own chapter in the history of ground vehicles, it is the end of America’s ability to be an “arsenal of democracy.” Goure argues the MRAP saga is a success story for government and industry, then goes on to ask:

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.

In short, Austerity America will kill, if it hasn’t killed already, the know-how and factories that made the MRAP story possible, Goure argues. Without a better outlook for the defense industry, the U.S. may never again be able to overmatch its opponents with superior numbers of vehicles or weapons, he warns, or respond quickly to urgent needs like the roadside bomb epidemic.

Maybe — but if the core lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is “Don’t fight more wars like Iraq and Afghanistan,” as many people believe, this might not be too big of a problem. And in the event of “full mobilization for a long conflict with a peer competitor,” there’d probably be a whole new era of accomplishments and mistakes.