WASHINGTON Monthly production of new armored vehicles designed to protect U.S. troops from roadside bombs should reach over 1,000 by year's end, and more than 1,500 should have arrived in Iraq, Pentagon officials told lawmakers on Thursday.
John Young, the Pentagon's acting chief arms buyer, said 563 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles were already in use in Iraq and the number was rising every day.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made the program his top acquisition priority and is closely monitoring efforts to field more of the vehicles, which have a V-shaped hull to disperse the impact of bomb blasts.
Gates has vowed to have at least 1,500 in Iraq by year's end to help save the lives of U.S. troops.
"I think we will do much better than that," Young told a hearing of the air, land and seapower subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee, although he declined to give details. "I think it's significantly more than the 1,500 number."
Spurred by Congress, the Pentagon has ordered a total of 8,800 MRAPs, and plans to order 6,500 more in December, once Congress approves an emergency spending bill for the war.
The vehicles are being built by three teams, Force Protection Inc, which has a joint venture with General Dynamics; BAE Systems Plc; and Navistar International Corp's International Military and Government LLC.
In July, Pentagon officials initially predicted that over 3,400 MRAPs would be in Iraq by the end of the year, but those estimates were quickly revised downward.
Young said industry will have built over 3,600 vehicles by the end of December, an extraordinary accomplishment given that overall capacity was just 10 a month a year ago.
Deliveries to Iraq take longer because the government then installs electronic equipment before shipping.
U.S. Navy Capt. Cloyes Hoover, commander of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, in Charleston, South Carolina, said his goal was to install radio frequency jammers, communication systems and other items on the MRAPs in just seven days. That process took about 21 days in October, he said.
Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the seapower subcommittee, said he remained concerned about the center's ability to process the vehicles once industry reaches peak production of 1,300 a month.
"I hope I'm dead wrong. I hope there is not a train wreck on the way," Taylor said at the hearing. "I'm still not convinced that we're doing everything that we can do."
Hoover told reporters the center had proven it could rapidly expand its capacity during an earlier drive to add armor to Humvees. A second facility was prepared in South Carolina as a backup, in case a natural disaster or other issue closed the Charleston facility, he said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa, Editing by Tim Dobbyn)