LADSON, S.C. - Almost three years ago, about a dozen people working in a largely empty factory turned out one of a new breed of armored vehicle called the Cougar each month.
Now, Force Protection Industries Inc. employs 385 people in three buildings, and each day they build one of the large mine-resistant vehicles that are preserving the lives of soldiers and Marines in Iraq.
And more workers will be lining up on the assembly floor soon. BAE Systems Land & Armaments Operating Group has been awarded a $445 million contract to build light armored vehicles for the Iraqi Army, the Defense Department announced last week.
Force Protection is a subcontractor on the contract, which initially calls for 378 Cougars at $180 million, said Michael Aldrich, the vice president of sales. Eventually, as many as 1,050 could be built.
"The bad guys don't like these vehicles," Mr. Aldrich said. "We are coming up on three years, and we have not had close to a fatality. The worst we have had is a broken wrist."
The Cougar and its cousin the Buffalo, which is about twice its size, have V-shaped hulls designed to help deflect the blasts of land mines and roadside bombs.
Most combat deaths in Iraq are caused by roadside bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
A 4-foot-by-4-foot Cougar weighs about 12 tons and is equipped with tires that will run even when flat.
It can resist force equivalent to 30 pounds of TNT under any wheel and 15 pounds of TNT exploding beneath its hull, according to its specifications.
There are more than 130 Cougars and Buffalos in Afghanistan and Iraq. The vehicles have taken about 1,000 IED hits without a loss of life, said Wayne Phillips, a company vice president in charge of Marine Corps programs.
Building a mine-resistant vehicle is about more than putting steel armor on a frame.
When a mine or IED explodes, a vehicle accelerates straight up or to the side, said Greg Gordon, a Force Protection engineer.
"If it's too high - especially in really light vehicles like unarmored Humvees - that acceleration can be enough to kill you. It breaks your neck or tears your heart away from all the veins in your chest," he said.
The design of Cougars, including the seats and the floor, helps counter the effects of such acceleration, he said.