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Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2008 - Continued

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


MILITARY CONSTRUCTION AND VETERANS AFFAIRS APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2008--Continued -- (Senate - May 22, 2008)

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Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, today we are voting on funding our troops on the front lines. We can disagree about whether we should be in Iraq at all and we can disagree with the President's failed policies, but as long as Americans are in harm's way, we need to give them the best possible protection this country has. To me, that is a sacred obligation. In terms of protection, there are a lot of reasons to vote for this funding--it provides $2 billion to fight deadly improvised explosive devices, it funds 25 C-130s to replace planes worn out by nonstop use moving people and supplies around the war zone, it gives more assets to families, it funds much needed military health care, and it provides $1.7 billion for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. That is a good thing.

Now in our fifth year of the Iraq war and the seventh year of the war in Afghanistan, it often seems that good news is hard to come by. But sometimes good things do happen here on the Senate floor. Sometimes we are able to profoundly improve the odds for American men and women fighting in those wars. For my colleagues, I would like to review one good story.

For me, this story begins in the summer of 2006 on one of my trips to Iraq. A Marine commander in Fallujah showed me a new vehicle they were using called a Buffalo. He told me that these Buffalos were saving lives and that they needed more of them. I was impressed. This Buffalo was a huge vehicle with a large claw arm, high off the ground, with a v-shaped undercarriage. I found out later that it was the largest of a group of vehicles called Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs.

So, when the next wartime funding bill came to the Senate, I looked into what was going on with these MRAPs. The most important thing that I found out was that military experts were starting to say that MRAPs could reduce casualties from improvised explosive devices, those roadside bombs also called IEDs, by two-thirds. At that time, 70 percent of all the casualties suffered by Americans were caused by IEDs. So even if MRAPs only worked half as well as the military claimed, they would have a tremendous effect reducing deaths and injuries.

In a March 1, 2007, memo to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Conway, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, emphasized the importance of the MRAPs, saying, ``The MRAP vehicle has a dramatically better record of preventing fatal and serious injuries from attacks by improvised explosive devices. Multi-National Force--West estimates that the use of the MRAP could reduce the casualties in vehicles due to IED attack by as much as 70 percent.'' He ended by saying, ``Getting the MRAP into the Al Anbar Province is my number one unfilled warfighting requirement at this time.'' Later that month, in testimony to Congress, General Conway told us that the likelihood for survival in Iraq was four to five times greater in an MRAP.

Two weeks after that memo was written, then Chief of Staff of the Army, General Schoomaker told the Committee on Appropriations of the funding shortfalls for MRAP procurement. I will be honest here. I was genuinely surprised. It was clear to me that this vehicle was essential and needed to be fielded as quickly as possible. I could not understand why funding was not already in the supplemental.

I looked into it and found out that in fiscal year 2006 and in the bridge fund for fiscal year 2007, there was a total of $1.354 million for MRAPs, but much more was needed because this was a new vehicle. Only one company was making MRAPs then, and the military was only ordering small amounts of them.

In February 2007 the military ordered and received 10 MRAPs. That is it. It became clear to me that we needed to do more to push this process.

The Marine Corps was running the program for all of the services. They told me that one issue was that the requirements in the field had changed dramatically--it started with a request for 185 in May of 2006, then another 1,000 were requested in July, the total went to 4,060 in November and to 6,728 in early February of 2007. By March, the total need was thought to be 7,774 MRAPs for all four services. The plan at the time was to spend $8.4 billion to build those 7,774 MRAPs--$2.3 billion in fiscal year 2007 and $6.1 billion in fiscal year 2008. The administration, however, had not asked for $2.3 billion. Despite this, my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee put $2.5 billion in their bill because they saw the need.

The Marine Corps believed that even that plan was not aggressive enough and that production could be accelerated if more funding was moved to fiscal year 2007. So I asked my colleagues to join me in adding another $1.5 billion to the wartime funding bill to produce and field 2,500 more MRAPs by December of 2007. I felt very strongly that we had to accelerate things. Some of you may remember that I came to the Senate floor in a tuxedo, to explain how vital the funding was the night before the vote.

On March 29, 2007, we spoke as one. The vote was 98 to 0 to add the $1.5 billion and give the MRAP program a total of $4 billion. This Senate should be congratulated for that decision.

We stood up and said, ``We can do better.'' We also made clear our agreement with General Conway, who called this effort ``a moral imperative.''

I know that some had doubts. They were concerned that the vehicles had not been adequately tested and that producers simply could not expand production lines quickly enough. But in the end we all agreed that we had to take a chance on American industry because our kids' lives were at stake.

When the bill went into conference, some of our colleagues in the House had not yet realized how critical this was and what a difference early funding could make to the production schedule. So, the total in the final bill sent to the President in late May was reduced to $3.055 billion. The additional funds were important, but equally important was the interest that the debate sparked in the press.

Secretary Gates has said that he first heard about the MRAP program after reading a USA Today article. After which, on May 2, he made the MRAP program the Pentagon's top acquisition priority. On June 1, he gave the program a DX rating, giving it priority for the acquisition of critical items like steel and tires that multiple military programs need. He also established the MRAP Task Force to work on any issues that might delay MRAP production.

Despite Secretary Gates's clear understanding of the need for MRAPs, the fiscal year 2008 wartime funding request from the administration was only for $441 million. Four point one billion was needed just to produce the 7,774 MRAPs. So, on May 17, I formally asked the Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee to provide the $4.1 billion needed. Again, to my colleagues' credit, 17 others joined those requests and both Committees responded with the $4.1 billion needed in the bills they presented to the Senate.

At almost the same time, we began to hear that the requirements in Iraq had grown again. GEN Raymond Odierno, commander of Multi-National Forces--Iraq, indicated that he wanted to replace all of the Army humvees in Iraq with MRAPS. That would mean the Army alone would need close to 17,700 MRAPs. The plan that we had been trying to fund included only 2,500 MRAPs for the Army. That now appeared to be 15,200 too few.

Given that MRAPs cost approximately $1 million per vehicle, that also meant that at least $15.2 billion more would be needed. We were now looking at a total price tag of over $23 billion for MRAPs, making the MRAP program the third most expensive in the entire defense budget.

It was clear to me, and to many colleagues here, that more needed to be done. Despite Secretary Gates's commitment to expedite production, there still seemed to be a lack of urgency in the administration and plenty of people were still saying that more MRAPs simply could not be produced quickly. So on May 23 I called on the President to personally engage so that the Nation could meet the needs of our men and women under fire.

I am sorry to say that we did not see the President engage. To this day, we must wonder how much faster we could have moved if he had.

Instead, in early July, the Army finally said publicly that they needed approximately 17,700 total MRAPs. The Joint Requirement Oversight Council, however, did not immediately approve that change. So, Congress was once again left knowing that the needs in Iraq were growing but not having a clear number or plan to meet the needs.

In speeches I made last year, I talked about some of the tensions within the military that slowed down the MRAP program, so I won't go into those details today. For now I will only quote Secretary Gates's analysis from May 13 of this year: ``In fact, the expense of the vehicles ..... may have been seen as competing with the funding for future weapons programs with strong constituencies inside and outside the Pentagon.''

Despite the frustration of not having a clear plan, some things were going well. The funding we had added to the supplemental combined with the hard work of the MRAP Task Force and MRAP program management team was making a difference. The Pentagon saw clear increases in production capacity and was ready to try to move faster. I told you that in February 10 MRAPs had been produced. In July, that number was up to 161--an amazing increase but clearly nothing close to the level needed to meet the requirement. The Pentagon asked Congress to approve moving $1.165 billion from other military programs to the MRAP program to try to keep growing the production. Congress agreed.

In July, I introduced an amendment to the Defense authorization bill to provide all of the funding that would be needed to get the Army 17,700 MRAPs and to deal with increased costs for the original 7,774 MRAPs that the committees had funded. I was also concerned that we were not moving fast enough to provide protection from explosively formed penetrators, EFPs, so I included funds for that work as well. The total amendment was for $25 billion, which included $23.6 billion for 15,200 MRAPs, $1 billion for cost increases, and $400 million for additional EFP protection. My goal at the time was very simple: to make absolutely clear to the Pentagon and to MRAP producers that Congress would provide all of the funding needed for MRAPs, up front and without delay, so that we could get these lifesaving vehicles to the front lines as quickly as possible.

That bill got delayed, but in the end, there was unanimous approval on September 27 for my amendment adding $23.6 billion to purchase 15,200 more MRAPs. The final bill, passed by the Senate on October 1, also raised the basic amount from $4.1 billion to $5.783 billion to address the increased costs for the 7,774 MRAPs already planned.

Three weeks later, October 23, the administration finally came to Congress and asked for $11 billion for 7,274 additional MRAPs for the Army. This officially made 15,374 the total request for all services and was approximately 8,000 MRAPs less than the Army appeared to need. However, at that time, Army leaders were telling us that they believed it was important to get MRAPs into the field and see how well they worked before committing to the much larger number. Concerned about this, I went to the floor again when it was time to debate the Defense appropriations bill. Mr. President, $11.6 billion was included for MRAPs, and Senator Inouye promised on the Senate floor to closely monitor the Army needs and he personally guaranteed that if those additional vehicles were needed, they would be funded.

By this time, production was truly ramping up. In October, 453 MRAPs were produced. By November we were up to 842, and by December we were at 1,189 MRAPs. That means we got a total of 3,355 MRAPs produced in 2007 even though in February, industry could only make 10 per month. In the span of 18 months, this program went from trying to meet a requirement for 185 MRAPs to meeting the requirement for 15,374 MRAPs. This Senate stepped up and said we will meet the need. We provided over $22.4 billion to give industry the ability to ramp up their production ability.

When I argued in March that we could deliver close to 8,000 MRAPs to Iraq by February of 2008, some said it was impossible. We came close. Five thousand seven hundred and twelve MRAPs had been produced by the end of February.

As of this week, just under 8,300 MRAPs have been produced. More important, 4,664 are fielded and in the hands of front line forces in Iraq and 456 are fielded in Afghanistan. The rest are on the way, and we are producing well over 1,000 per month.

Let me go back to where we started. Something profoundly good happened on this Senate floor last year. Last year, we made it clear that we would provide the best possible protection to our troops. We recognized that this was a matter of honor and a matter of life and death. The results have been phenomenal.

Secretary Gates said last Tuesday, ``MRAPs have performed. There have been 150-plus attacks so far on MRAPs and all but six soldiers have survived. The casualty rate is one-third that of a humvee, less than half that of an Abrams tank. These vehicles are saving lives.''

MG Rick Lynch, commander of Multi-National Division--Central, which operates south of Baghdad, told USA Today just over a month ago, ``The MRAPs, in addition to increasing the survivability of our soldiers from underbelly attacks, also have improved force protection for EFP attacks as well. So I've had EFPs hit my MRAPs and the soldiers inside, in general terms, are OK.'' He also pointed out that he had lost 140 soldiers, many in up-armored HMMWVs or Bradleys hit by IEDs and said, ``Those same kind of attacks against MRAPs allow my soldiers to survive. I'm convinced of that.''

And soldiers know it. On April 4, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted SSG Jamie Linen of the 3rd Infantry Division talking about using MRAPs in the Baghdad area. He said, ``It is the one vehicle that gives us the confidence to go out there. Nothing is invincible here. You got tanks with three feet of armor getting blown up. But the MRAPs give us a sense of security.''

MRAPs have not only saved hundreds of lives, they have also saved limbs. The additional protection MRAPs provide usually means that injuries are less severe and complicated. That means more soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines coming home and able to return to the lives they left behind. There is really no price too high to get this result, so again, I want to congratulate this Senate. What we did last year to support the MRAP program was not all that had to be done--the program managers and producers also had to do their part--but it was essential, and today, every day, it is literally saving American lives. What we did today continues that effort.

We have no higher obligation than to give those fighting for us the best possible protection. It is a sacred duty. Today and last year, with the MRAP, we fulfilled that duty, and I congratulate my colleagues.

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