GOOSE CREEK, South Carolina Defense Secretary Robert Gates took a first-hand look on Friday at the production of bomb-resistant vehicles for U.S. troops, saying the lives they were saving in Iraq and Afghanistan made it an emotional issue for him.
Gates made the vehicles the Pentagon's top priority last year in a bid to reduce high U.S. military casualties in Iraq from insurgents using roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
The $22 billion program has already saved lives among U.S. service members in Iraq, who previously were sometimes forced to weld scrap metal to the sides of their thinly armored Humvees for protection.
"There were a couple of times today when I was a little overwhelmed," the 64-year-old defense chief said after touring the Navy installation near Charleston, South Carolina, where the sand-colored trucks, personnel carriers and patrol vehicles are outfitted.
Unlike his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, Gates personally writes to the families of dead troops and quickly made it a top Pentagon priority to get the better-protected trucks.
"There have been so many aspects of this war where government and others have been subject to criticism. This is something that really went right," he said.
The facility has shipped out 2,225 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, in less than a year. The vehicles have a V-shaped hull that disperses the deadly force of roadside bombs.
The IED has proved to be the deadliest insurgent weapon to date against the U.S. military, which has lost 4,395 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan overall.
The Pentagon requirement is for 15,374 MRAPs, despite indications that falling violence levels in Iraq have reduced demand for the vehicles.
Gates said MRAPs will be needed beyond U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan because IEDs have shown themselves to be cheap and effective insurgent weapons.
"My guess is once our needs are met, there will be other countries that will be interested in acquiring these vehicles as well," he said.
(Editing by Stuart Grudgings)