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US Military Races To Protect Troops

As it seeks to reduce the dangers faced by American troops in Iraq, the U.S. military is turning to technology originally devised by the apartheid-era government of South Africa to counter similar threats.

The Pentagon is racing to test, acquire and field new armored vehicles that provide better protection against the deadly explosive devices being employed by Iraqi insurgents.

Production and procurement of the machines, officially called Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles - or MRAP's - has been made the Pentagon's "highest priority". Malcolm Brown reports.

The American military calls them "lifesavers." Here at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Test Center in the state of Maryland the military is working around the clock to refine the vehicles. The urgency is driven by the continuous rise in American casualties. One recent independent study attributed nearly 40 percent of U.S. fatalities in Iraq to the use of so-called improvised explosive devices.

In that environment, Aberdeen Test Center commander Colonel John Rooney calls the MRAP a "vast leap forward" in protection. "I know that there are many people today that will live because they are in this vehicle."

That life-saving ability comes in large part from the V-shape of the hull, designed to deflect blast. The basic principle was devised in South Africa decades ago.

Marine Brigadier General Michael Brogan, who serves on a special Pentagon MRAP task force, is mindful of that history. "We have leveraged very much off the design of those vehicles we have taken some of those lessons learned, rolled them back to our vendors and made some improvements in the platform."

Dakota Wood,a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., has written about MRAPs. He says the use of "mature" technology allows for rapid deployment. "This is a commercially available vehicle, that has proven its worth in protecting occupants against blast and fragmentation; you know, mine-like devices."

With all that it is doing, the U.S. military still faces criticism for the speed at which it is getting these vehicles to troops in the field.