RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – To our veterans, a salute.

If you didn’t take time on Sunday, the official Veterans Day, then do so today. After all, without our vets, we would not be able to enjoy all the freedoms so many of us take for granted today.

Free enterprise is crucial to the support of the U.S. military, and technology developed by Force Protection in Ladson, S.C. is emerging to be of crucial importance to American and allied forces in Iraq as well as Afghanistan.

That technology are the “mine resistant ambush protected,” or MRAP, armored vehicles the company is building. The huge Buffalo and Cougar vehicles are specially designed with armored protection, weapons and high-tech defensive measures to shield occupants from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and land mines that have killed so many U.S. and allied troops.

In fact, demand is so high for the vehicles that Force Protection has taken some hits for not building the vehicles fast enough. The firm’s recent decision to build a production plant in Person County for a new type of vehicle is a reflection of its commitment to increase production.

Gordon McGilton, chief executive officer of company, which is based just outside of Charleston, testified before a House subcommittee last week about the firm’s efforts. In his testimony, he outlined just how quickly the company has grown in less than two years.

“Force Protection Industries was incorporated in early 2005,” he noted. “At that time we employed 200 people and occupied 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space in South Carolina. By the end of 2005, we had expanded to 250,000 square feet of space and 350 employees. Most importantly, we had delivered 60 vehicles.

“By the end of 2006 we had nearly quintupled the number of vehicles delivered to 296. In 2006, we also had expanded our manufacturing facilities to 450,000 square feet and added 400 employees for a total of 750. Today, Force Protection employs almost 1,300 workers and occupies nearly 1 million square feet of manufacturing space in four facilities in South Carolina and North Carolina.

“These manufacturing operations are supported by a significant Research and Development facility, and a 300-acre blast and ballistics testing facility.”

Nearly 1,400 vehicles have already been delivered, McGilton added. Here’s the breakdown:

• 146 Buffalo route clearance vehicles
• 153 Cougar Iraqi Light Armored Vehicles
• 28 Cougar Hardened Engineer Vehicles
• 216 Cougar Joint EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) Rapid Response Vehicles
• 108 Cougar Mastiffs for the United Kingdom
• 734 Cougar MRAP Category I & II vehicles

Force Protection has also formed a joint venture with defense industry giant General Dynamics to speed up vehicle production and has licensed some technology to BAE Ground Systems Division for further production.

Looking ahead, McGilton testified that the firm could produce more than 1,000 vehicles per month.

“Our exhaustive review of every production aspect, including availability and training of new employees and access to critical parts for the Cougar, led us to conclude that the Force Protection led team could produce 500 vehicles per month by April 2008 and 1,000 vehicles per month by July 2008, for a total of 12,100 MRAPs by the end of 2008,” he said.

But the process hasn’t been easy.

“The kind of growth we have been able to maintain is replete with challenges, which stem from establishing the requisite capacity, acquiring the necessary facilities, and deploying the needed processes and procedures to manufacture in a reliable, repeatable fashion,” McGilton told the committee.

Despite the challenges, Force Protection’s growth has produced multiple benefits, the primary one being the provision of better equipment for our troops. The economic ones include more jobs in the Carolinas.

And as production has increased, McGilton also noted that cost savings are being realized – enough to shave $150,000 per unit off the price of a Cougar to $490,000. The company recently received a $376 million orders for a mix of 4×4 and 6×6 Cougars.

Looking ahead, McGilton told the committee the company could use some help, specifically:

• “Provide more timely details about the long term plans for the program.
• “By the second half of this fiscal year, facilitate introduction of friendly foreign customers as a means of further stabilizing the program and allowing industry to achieve maximum utility for the capacity we are creating.
• “Provide timely funding that would enable our team to control costs by allowing us to order supplies in bulk and with long lead times.”

Any business executive can identify with those concerns. On point two, the expansion of Force Protection’s customer base could lead to even more growth – and more jobs.