GAO says armored vehicles could get costly

Ladson-based Force Protection Inc. is among the producers of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (being produced above), which are in high demand by the military in Iraq.

WASHINGTON — The accelerated pace the military has used to buy and deploy thousands of heavily armored, mine-resistant vehicles for Iraq and Afghanistan could lead to problems with maintenance and cost overruns on the top priority project, according to congressional investigators.

Congress has appropriated $22 billion to acquire more than 15,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, also known as MRAPs, to protect troops from roadside bombs and other insurgent ambushes, according to the Government Accountability Office report. Defense Secretary Robert Gates designated the program as the department's highest priority acquisition last year.

That meant testing of safety and performance occurred while the vehicles were being bought, raising the possibility costly errors would be uncovered after the fact. More than 100 vehicles the military paid for were not fielded because of problems discovered after their purchase, according to the GAO report made public Wednesday.

"While the department's concurrent approach to producing, testing, and fielding the vehicles has provided an urgently needed operational capability, it has also increased performance, sustainability and cost risks," the GAO concluded.

The MRAP program has so far fielded 6,600 vehicles for the Army and Marines. They are made by contractors that include Ladson-based Force Protectoin Inc.

The MRAP vehicles have been in high demand from commanders in Iraq since 2005 after insurgents began to use explosives that could penetrate the armor of troop carriers and other vehicles. An even more durable version, known as MRAP II, is under development.

Cheryl Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, said the Pentagon had received the GAO report and would respond.

The GAO also said the number of contractors involved in building MRAP vehicles could prove costly and create delays. Using a wide range of vendors might lead to problems finding parts for the different types of vehicles each contractor produces, and the military is still in the early stages of training technicians to repair them all.

The purchase of MRAPs has been funded largely through supplemental defense budgets, emergency spending measures the GAO said can obscure the cost of long-term maintenance.