BAGRAM, Afghanistan — The U.S. military's new all-terrain vehicle doesn't look all that different from its lumbering predecessor. It's painted desert sand, and reaching the cabin still means climbing a couple of steps.
On Afghanistan's rough dirt roads, however, the new $500,000 to $1 million Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicle is a major improvement over the massive Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle it's replacing, soldiers say. The M-ATV is tailored to Afghanistan, at least parts of it, and the Pentagon is sending about 5,000 of them to the battlefield.
For soldiers who had grown accustomed to bruising trips through rural Afghanistan, their first M-ATVs, which have just been introduced in the field, were a gift. Seemingly without effort, the vehicles climb mountains at angles that approach 45 degrees, and they glide across the country's rocky roads.
In the cities, the M-ATV's lighter frame can make sharp turns and maneuver through Afghanistan's lawless traffic much better than the hulking MRAP can.
Introduced in 2007, the MRAP was the Army's answer to the Iraqi insurgency's deadliest weapon, the improvised explosive device. What worked in Iraq hasn't worked as well in Afghanistan, however.
Iraq has a network of smooth roads on flat terrain. In Afghanistan, most roads are paths of rocks and dirt, and the MRAP is ill suited for navigating the mountainous environments.
Worse, McClatchy reported last month that Afghan insurgents had found vulnerabilities in the MRAP, attacking convoys with explosive charges that punched projectiles through the vehicle's hull. IEDs have caused more than 60 percent of the coalition fatalities from hostilities in Afghanistan so far this year.
The military says the new M-ATV's lower weight won't mean less protection. Like the MRAP, the M-ATV's hull is V-shaped to deflect explosions from the vehicle's crew, but the military is withholding further details of the M-ATV's counter-IED capabilities.