When the Defense Department in July 2007 requested nearly $1.2 billion from Congress and asked for an influx of MRAPs for troops in Iraq, BAE Systems was one contractor that answered the call, a response that culminated at the facility here this week.
“The question was how many can you build and how fast can you build them?” said Paul Mann, the MRAP joint program manager at BAE, which capped off its end of production with a retrospective feting yesterday.
The MRAP’s unique V-shaped hull diffuses blasts away from the vehicle’s underbelly, which has proven an effective countermeasure against the roadside bombs that have killed and injured scores of troops since operations began in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Invoking Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ plea to industry for an additional 2,650 MRAPs, Mann said that when the Defense Department made force protection its No. 1 acquisition priority, it spurred workers here into action.
BAE responded by kicking into high gear, more than doubling its production from about 15 Caiman trucks per day to roughly 35. In total, it has produced more than 5,000 MRAP vehicles — 2,868 Caimans and 2,182 RG33s — under Army and Marine Corps contracts over the past 22 months.
“The quality and quantity of your commitment to this mission will never be forgotten by the armed services,” Mann told the Sealy plant workers gathered in a facility room for the day’s event.
A news report in June cited roadside bomb attacks and fatalities in Iraq as decreasing by almost 90 percent since June 2007, according to Pentagon records and interviews with military leaders.
Dennis M. Dellinger, BAE’s president of mobility and protection systems, spoke from an unarmored 5-ton medium tactical vehicle that doubled as a stage in a facility warehouse.
“Today’s celebration is about the fact that there are scores of soldiers that will be able to come home in one piece because of the work you’ve done,” he said.
Dellinger said it’s “no coincidence” that the MRAP program led to a decline in combat casualties.
“A number of factors went into that, but one certainly was putting the right kind of protection into the vehicles that they traveled around in,” he said. “It was an amoeba if you will, in that we kept adjusting as the threat adjusted.”
Praising the people involved in the push — from the concept and design teams, to the manufacturers, testers, and government assessment personnel — Dellinger said everybody who contributed to the process should be proud.
“[This] was something that probably was not matched anywhere else in military production history since at least World War II,” he said of the speed of production that met time and cost requirements.
Chris Chambers, the vice president of medium/heavy vehicles department of mobility and protection systems, described the encouraging track record of the Caiman vehicle, the last of which rolled off the Sealy lot this week.
The vehicle, which holds up to 10 troops, has been targeted in hundreds of attacks — everything from small-arms fire to smaller roadside bombs — including significant attacks that involved large makeshift explosives, he said.
“They’ve done very well,” he said of the vehicles’ resilience to attacks. “They’re very reliable.”
Providing an eyewitness account of the Caiman’s durability under fire was William Thibaux Jr., an equipment operator who serves as a petty officer 2nd class in the Navy Reserve. While serving in Iraq last year, Thibaux said, he saw the effects on a convoy of Marine MRAPs hit by a makeshift bomb.
“Of the seven that were in that vehicle, only one walked away with a broken leg,” he recalled. “If you would have seen the vehicle, you would have thought everyone would have died, … but everyone survived.”
Besides its contribution to force protection, BAE has other ties to the military. It is a recipient of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve award, a Defense Department honor that highlights employers who convey exceptional levels of support to National Guard and Reserve forces on their payrolls.
The company also employs retired servicemembers like Bob German, an inventory control supervisor here. German, a retired Marine Corps corporal, has a son who recently enlisted in the Army and is likely to deploy within the next year, he said.
“Knowing that lives actually do depend on the vehicles we build here, and that we are actually saving lives, is phenomenal,” German said. “I get a knot in my throat every time I think about it. You never know if the vehicle we build could be carrying my son or friends of my son’s or kids I watched grow up.”