By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 12, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates got a firsthand look today at production of the newest all-terrain vehicles slated for Afghanistan, and praised the modern-day Rosie the Riveters he credited with saving American lives. Gates toured Oshkosh Corporation's production line for the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle known as the M-ATV, specifically designed for Afghanistan's rugged terrain.
He donned safety glasses and walked along rows of chassis, engines and other vehicle parts to chat with factory workers amidst the roar of machinery, the thump-thump-thump of power tools and the beeps and whistles of moving vehicles.
Gates also visited the company's test track facility where he watched a demonstration simulating off-road driving conditions warfighters face in southern Afghanistan.
The M-ATV climbed a 30-degree incline, coming to a full stop before resuming its ascent. It demonstrated the same capability, in reverse, during its descent. From there, it traversed sideways across a 30 percent slope, then sloshed through a muddy, water-covered track.
Gates told the assembly of workers he believes the M-ATVs have the features troops need in Afghanistan, and thanked them for the role they are playing in speeding up the delivery of the life-saving vehicles.
Few other projects have such a direct and immediate impact on warfighters, he told them.
He shared testimonials by soldiers and Marines in Iraq, who told the secretary they believe they're alive because they were in MRAPs.
"With every vehicle you complete, you are saving American lives," he told the workers. "There aren't many places in manufacturing in America where you know the vehicle you are working on today is going to save some soldier's or Marine's life tomorrow."
The Defense Department contracted with Oshkosh in June to produce more than 6,600 M-ATVs, 41 of which have already been delivered to Afghanistan. The first of them arrived by air transport Oct. 22.
Another 841 M-ATVs have been built and are being outfitted at the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command integration center in Charleston, S.C., for shipment to Afghanistan.
To meet demand for the new armored vehicles, Oshkosh Corp. moved the assembly line into overdrive, bringing on 750 additional employees to cover two eight-hour shifts, said John Daggett, the company's communications director. As a result, the company went from producing 46 M-ATVs per month in July to more than 660 projected for this month, to a peak of 1,000 in December.
The vehicles are being built here, as well as by JLG Industries, an Oshkosh subsidiary, in McConnellsburg, Pa.
In the event that President Barack Obama decides to send additional troops to Afghanistan, Gates said even more M-ATVs are likely to be needed.
Gates credited private industry for its responsiveness in producing both standard MRAPs being used in Iraq and the M-ATVs for Afghanistan. Never since World War II has a military acquisition program gone from concept to full-scale production in less than a year, he said.
Gates also praised private industry with stepping forward so quickly to overcome the engineering challenges posed in producing M-ATVs.
They're lighter than the MRAPs used in Iraq -- about 25,000 pounds compared to as much as 60,000 pounds – but offer about the same level of troop protection.
M-ATVs also feature an independent suspension and shorter wheel base that make it more adaptable to Afghanistan's rocky hills. Their V-shaped hulls protect up to four passengers and a gunner from underbelly blasts.
"All of those features made it a difficult engineering assignment, because we wanted to maintain the same level of protection for the troops in the cab as the MRAPs we have in Iraq, but at the same time, have greater off-road agility," Gates said.
Gates conceded that no vehicle will provide complete protection for U.S. troops. "We know that going in," he said. "But this is a ... a significant improvement over what we already have."
In Kandahar, the M-ATV is generating a lot of enthusiasm. "It's got very good suspension systems, and everyone raves about how well it functions in the field." said Anthony Deluca, the Kandahar site lead for MRAPs.
Workers at the Oshkosh plant said they're happy to be part of such an important effort.
"It feels very good, like we are contributing to the war effort," said Ben Jacobs, a general assembler who's worked for Oshkosh for five years. "We're doing something that's good for the military, and making a really good product."
Jerry Decker, an assembler for three years, said news of Gates' visit sent ripples throughout the sprawling facility. "It's pretty exciting," he said. "People have been talking about it all day."
Shawn Neubauer, an administrative assistant with the company's defense aftermarket group, said Gates' visit here sends an important message to her and her coworkers.
"It means we are doing our job to protect our soldiers," she said. "It feels amazing to know we are protecting them, and saving their lives."