CHARLESTON, South Carolina (AFP) — The US military plans to ship 500 roadside bomb-resistant vehicles to Afghanistan amid a reinforcement of 3,200 extra US troops to be deployed to fight Taliban militants.
While the mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles remain a top priority for Iraq, where US soldiers face frequent attacks from armor-piercing explosives, more MRAPs will be sent to Afghanistan, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"I think we are going to send more MRAPs to Afghanistan," Gates said Friday as he toured a military factory where every day 50 of those vehicles are equipped with electronic equipment.
But the defense chief emphasized that Iraq, where nearly 4,000 US soldiers have been killed since the 2003 US-led invasion, is still "the first priority."
"IEDs are the tactic of choice of our enemies," he said. "They are cheap and deadly and difficult to detect and they have been the biggest killer of our troops in Iraq."
The V-hulled vehicle "is a proven life saver on the battlefield and provides the best protection against these attacks," Gates told employees of the factory with banners reminding workers that "Your Work Contributes to the War on Terrorism."
Amid criticism that he was slow in sending equipment aimed at improving the security of US troops in Iraq, Gates made MRAPs a priority in 2007 after learning that no marine has ever died inside such vehicles.
Up to 1,200 MRAPs are built every month and 2,225 were delivered as of mid-January, most of them to Iraq, said John Young, the Pentagon's under secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Of those vehicles 1,508 are already being used by US soldiers in Iraq and while 45 of them are in operation in Afghanistan, he said.
But the number of MRAPs is likely to grow in Afghanistan, where 3,200 US reinforcements begin deploying to as early as March for a seven-month mission to help international forces battle a fierce Taliban insurgency.
The US government has ordered 500 RG-31 models from the military contractor General Dynamics. The 11.6-tonne vehicle is the lightest MRAP, whose heaviest model is the 25-tonne "Buffalo."
"It turns out that's the preferred vehicle (RG-31) for Afghanistan because they're a little lighter, a little more maneuverable" for the country's treacherous terrain, Young said.
The Pentagon has ordered 12,000 MRAPs from defense contractors and plans make more acquisitions in March to bring total orders to 15,400 vehicles with a budget of 22.4 billion dollars, Young said.
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