S.C. companies might benefit from push for armored vehicles

COLUMBIA -- Two Lowcountry companies could benefit from a Pentagon push to increase funding for them after senior officers said they are desperately needed to protect troops in Iraq.

The Pentagon said Wednesday it wants to transfer about $1.2 billion into its new armored vehicle program.

So far, the Pentagon has ordered more than 1,800 Force Protection of Ladson vehicles through the MRAP program. MRAP stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.

Protected Vehicles of North Charleston also is in the running for MRAP contracts, although Pentagon orders for its models have been much smaller.

The Pentagon did not announce which companies would receive contracts for the increased production. The Pentagon did not say when it would award additional contracts, but it would be soon because of the urgent need.

Already this year, Congress allocated $4 billion to the MRAP program. The Pentagon wants to transfer the additional $1.2 billion from other defense department accounts to pay for even more vehicles, said John Young, chairman of the MRAP task force. That would bring the total order to 6,415 vehicles for 2007.

The Pentagon wants to send nearly 4,000 of them to Iraq by Dec. 31, Young said.

Force Protection and Protected Vehicles are two of at least seven competing for the MRAP contract. The program to field the vehicles was started by the Marine Corps, but the Army also wants to add the vehicles to its fleet.

The solid steel vehicles are designed with V-shaped hulls which deflect the impact of landmines and bomb blasts under the carriage. However, the vehicles are very heavy, which makes them difficult to transport, and they get low gas mileage.

Thus far, the Marines have issued contracts for MRAPs to at least five companies. It is testing different models submitted by eight companies and eventually will pick a favorite design. Meanwhile, no company has the capacity to produce all that are needed.

"There are no parking lots anywhere where we can go and buy lots of MRAPs," said Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan of the Marine Corps System Command, which is overseeing the MRAP program.

Force Protection was criticized earlier this month for missing deadlines to produce vehicles for contracts it won in 2005. However, the company said it has increased its production capacity in the past two years and is on schedule for current contracts.

Brogan said the Marines awarded contracts to Force Protection in 2005 without competition because the company had the only "hot" production line for the vehicles.

"I don't believe it was a mistake," he said. "We made a good choice."

Force Protection also bought last week a second manufacturing plant in Roxboro, N.C., north of Durham to meet production demands.