MRAP Production Facility Demonstrates Industry’s Commitment
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
LADSON, S.C., Jan. 22, 2008 As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was just a few miles away in Charleston last week, praising American industry for galvanizing to support deployed troops, modern-day “Rosie the Riveters” here were working around the clock moving mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles through the production line.
A worker at Force Protection Industries Inc. makes a Cougar H 4 X 4 MRAP vehicle at the factory in Ladson, S.C., Jan. 18, 2008. Production began in 2001 and increased significantly in 2006, as it became increasingly clear that the MRAP's V-shaped hull, which deflects underbelly blasts, was providing better protection for troops from improvised explosive devices. Defense Dept. photo by Cherie A. Thurlby
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The factory floor at Force Protection Industries, one of the biggest MRAP producers, buzzed with activity keeping up with demand for the vehicles Gates called “a proven lifesaver on the battlefield.”
The secretary spent Jan. 18 touring the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, where teams install radios, sensors, jammers and other equipment in MRAPs fresh off the assembly lines before shipping them to Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates compared workers there, who like those at Force Protection Industries are working 24-7 to speed MRAP deliveries to the combat theater, to their World War II-era predecessors. He praised the nearly unprecedented cooperation he said is enabling the MRAP acquisition effort he moved to the fast track to succeed.
“This has been a team effort, with many moving parts in the military and industry (and) elsewhere in the private sector,” he said. “Suppliers of steel, tires and other materials have stepped up, as have manufacturers – firms in the United States and in 10 foreign countries.”
“Since World War II, this really is the largest mobilization of industry to support the military that anyone has ever seen,” agreed Tommy Pruitt, public relations director at Force Protection Industries.
Pruitt pointed to the broad range of players involved: steel mills, automotive component manufacturers, parts fabricators and others. “They really have mobilized the country to do what’s best for the troops,” he said.
Support for deployed warfighters supersedes political beliefs about the war, Pruitt said.
“There’s an understanding that if we’re going to send these folks to do a job, we have to make sure they have the equipment they need to do it,” he said. “When it’s time for them to come home, let them come home. But we need to make sure they come home the way we sent them. So there’s a sense of urgency about getting MRAPs into the hands of the people who need them.”
One would be pressed to find more concrete evidence of that collaboration or sense of purpose than on the production lines at Force Protection Industries.
Since the company’s founding in 2001, when it began building Buffalo route-clearing vehicles and Cougar engineer vehicles – the first MRAPs – its work force has grown exponentially and its output has skyrocketed, Pruitt said.
Production began picking up in 2005 and “really ramped up in 2006,” when the company produced about 300 MRAPs. By 2007, that number had increased more than three-fold. Force Protection Industries celebrated the roll-out of its 1,000th Cougar vehicle in November. And while he hasn’t yet seen fourth-quarter production numbers for 2007, Pruitt said, the year’s overall MRAP production figures will reach “well over 1,000.”
Pruitt said he expects that trend to continue. Force Protection Industries, along with two other major MRAP manufacturers -- International Military and Government and BAE Systems Land and Armaments, are under contract to produce almost 12,000 more MRAPs.
Churning out those vehicles at Force Protection Industries is a work force that’s grown from about 10 in 2001 to more than 1,500 today. In addition to ramping up its work force and production capabilities, Force Protection Industries did something almost unheard-of among competing defense contractors to ensure it could keep up with demand, he said. It entered into a partnership with General Dynamics so the two companies could share resources and technical know-how to speed up production.
“That’s not always normal for defense contractors to work together like that,” Pruitt said. “But in this case, everything that’s being done is for the benefit of that soldier or Marine or sailor or airman. We’re all working together because we want people to be able to come home to their families, … and we want them to be able to come back in one piece to the same quality of life they had before they deployed.”
The MRAP’s distinctive V-shaped hull that deflects underbelly blasts has proven to be a lifesaver in protecting troops from improvised explosive devices. Until this past weekend, not a single servicemember in an MRAP had been lost to an IED. That perfect track record was broken Jan. 19 when an MRAP operating south of Baghdad was attacked by a powerful, deeply-buried IED, and its gunner was killed. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters today the attack only reaffirmed the MRAP’s survivability.
“The powerful blast did not penetrate the crew compartment, but the force of the explosion blew the MRAP into the air and caused it to overturn,” Morrell said. It’s not yet known whether the gunner, who was perched atop the vehicle, died from the explosion or the rollover.
What is clear, Morrell said, is that the three soldiers inside the vehicle escaped without life-threatening injuries. “Commanders on the ground estimate they would not have been so fortunate had they been traveling in a less-armored vehicle,” he said.
Stories like this motivate workers at Force Protection Industries as they work two shifts a day, six and sometimes seven days a week to keep up with the demand for MRAPs, Pruitt said.
“We love hearing back from Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen who write to thank us saying, ‘This vehicle saved my life,’” he said. The company circulates e-mails it gets from deployed troops and posts notes they send in the break room. “We share these stories with every employee who works here,” Pruitt said.
Earlier this month, a military medic just back from Iraq who was passing through Charleston gave the factory a call and asked if he could stop by to thank the workers personally. “He said the Buffalo had saved his life 13 times,” Pruitt said. “His call just came out of the blue, but that happens a lot with this company.
“That’s really why we’re here,” Pruitt said. “And that’s why industry has mobilized the way it has, because of stories like that.”
Workers on the production line said they get genuine satisfaction knowing they’re making a difference for troops in harm’s way. Rachel Blouch, a 21st-century version of World War II’s Rosie the Riveter, put her welding torch aside to say she feels a personal connection to deployed troops.
“It feels good working here, knowing that I’m helping make safe vehicles for them,” said Blouch, who’s married to Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Bradley Blouch.
“There’s a big sense of pride in this job,” agreed Ryan Griffin, a former Marine who joined the Force Protection Industries work force about six months ago. “I’ve got a few friends over there. The work we’re doing here could save my buddies. And even if I don’t know them, they’re still family.”