Sep 20, 2023
Albania is donating to Ukraine 22 of its American-made MaxxPro armored trucks. It’s one small arms transfer among many in a wider war that, in 20 months of hard fighting, has seen thousands of vehicles change hands.
But these 15-ton, eight-person, machine-gun-armed MaxxPros are special. They and other so-called “Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected” trucks, or MRAPs, are favorites of Ukrainian forces. Where other armies tend to assign their MRAPs to infantry brigades as battlefield transports—but not as front-line fighting vehicles—the Ukrainians tuck them behind the tanks and send them directly into battle.
And for good reason. There are scores of MRAP designs, but most of them have one thing in common: thickly-armored hulls with V-shaped bottoms and big, fat tires that elevate the vehicles. These qualities work together to protect an MRAP’s occupants from mine blasts, and other explosions, coming from below.
It just so happens that Russian mines are among the greatest dangers facing attacking Ukrainian troops. Thus an MRAP’s ability to resist a mine blast makes it more survivable on a Ukrainian battlefield than is, say, a tracked infantry fighting vehicle. Even if that IFV is heavier than a typical armored truck is.
A traditional IFV might have better mobility than a wheeled MRAP does over soft ground—and it might also boast greater firepower, thanks to its armored turret and heavy autocannon. But Ukrainian forces—in particular, marines and air-assault troops—seem willing to trade cross-country mobility and firepower for protection.
The Ukrainian armed forces so far have received from their foreign allies around 1,200 MRAPs—and to date have lost around 200 of them in battle. MRAPs are the third-most-numerous type of vehicle, after light trucks and tracked personnel carriers, that Ukraine has received as aid.
This in part is an accident of circumstance. The United States and its closest allies, during their heights of their counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in the late 2000s and early 2010s, developed and deployed tens of thousands of MRAPs—specifically to mitigate the risk from insurgents’ roadside bombs.
As the counterinsurgency campaigns wound down, many thousands of surplus MRAPs went into storage. It was a simple matter for many NATO countries to replace the batteries and seals in a few hundred 15-year-old MRAPs and ship them off to Ukraine—far simpler than, for example, finding functioning main battle tanks for onward transfer to Ukraine.
Serendipitously, this MRAP windfall met changing circumstances in Russia’s wider war on Ukraine. As the front line stabilized last fall and the Ukrainians signaled their coming counteroffensive, the Russians dug in. The Kremlin’s engineers excavated three main trenchlines across southern Ukraine—and seeded the ground in front of and between them with hundreds of thousands of mines.
All of a sudden, Ukrainian forces needed vehicles that could withstand mine blasts. Lots of them. Today, maybe a third of Kyiv’s roughly 100 ground combat brigades have a battalion of 30 MRAPs. Almost all of the dozen or so air-assault and marine brigades have armored trucks.
The marines and independent air-assault forces have been eager MRAP-users. The entire Ukrainian marine corps—four brigades plus supporting units—has been fighting along the Mokri Yaly River Valley in southern Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast.
In the three-and-a-half months since launching their counterattack, the marines have developed special tactics blending T-80 tanks and ex-British Mastiff MRAPs in speedy assault columns.
The marines are pleased with their trucks. While talking to a reporter about his unit’s French-made AMX-10RC reconnaissance vehicles—vehicles the Ukrainians admit are too flimsy for direct assaults on Russian defenses—a major with the 37th Marine Brigade went out of his way to praise the brigade’s American- and British-made MRAPs.
The trucks’ hoods are a weak spot, the major said, but they can deflect a rocket-propelled grenade everywhere else. “In terms of protection, the vehicle is very cool,” he said.
If an MRAP rolls over a mine, “a wheel flies off” but the crew and passengers generally are fine. The same mine would obliterate a BMP fighting vehicle and its occupants, the officer stressed.
The marines also are fond of their MRAPs’ high road speed. A well-maintained MaxxPro might reach 70 miles per hour on a paved road, easily outpacing most other combat vehicles.
When the 35th Marine Brigade assaulted Russian positions in Makarivka in the Mokri Yaly River Valley in June, its T-80 tanks and ex-British Mastiff MRAPs led the way.
The trucks speeded right past Russian trenches, leaving them to the tanks to suppress. This confused and terrified the bypassed Russians. “They didn’t expect such speed from us, going on Mastiffs,” one marine noted after the 35th rolled into Makarivka.
The high speed that an MRAP’s wheels confer on hardened surfaces belies the utter disaster that can befall an MRAP on soft ground. The Ukraine army’s 47th Mechanized Brigade famously abandoned a bunch of MaxxPros in a muddy minefield south of Mala Tokmachka, in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Oblast, the first week of June.
Around the same time, a quartet of Ukrainian brigades—the army’s 23rd and 32nd Mechanized and a pair of territorial brigades—staged a cross-country assault on the Russian garrison in Novodarivka, 40 miles east of Mala Tokmachka. The brigades’ T-64 tanks managed the soft ground, but the MaxxPros got stuck.
To liberate Novodarivka, the Ukrainians had to leave behind their vehicles—and attack on foot. The lesson was clear: MaxxPros and other MRAPs work great in combined-arms formations with tanks. Even in direct assaults on Russian positions. Especially when the main threat is mines. But only where there are roads or the ground is firm enough for big, fat tires.
Surely no one involved in the development of MRAPs back in the mid-2000s expected the vehicles to replace tracked IFVs in combined-arms operations. But then, probably no one expected the Ukrainian army to fight a mechanized offensive campaign across some of the densest minefields anyone has seen in generations.
The 1,200 MRAPs Ukraine’s allies so far have donated to the war effort represent just a fraction of the MRAPs they have in their inventories. Expect hundreds more MRAPs to make their way to Ukraine. And expect the Ukrainians to make good use of them.