When did buying trucks become “rocket science?”
Unlike most other high-tech weapon procurements, trucks have been relative straightforward affairs. The issues typically involve cargo capacity, off-road mobility, fuel efficiency and other basic performance specs.
The latest Pentagon effort to acquire a replacement for the humvee, however, takes truck buying to a whole new level
What makes the joint light tactical vehicle such a tough challenge is that the Army and the Marine Corps are seeking to buy a “light” truck that is fast and agile, but that also can survive roadside bombs.
To some experts, that is a goal that defies the laws of physics. But it is an understandable one, given the catastrophic consequences of sending troops into Iraq in 2003 in unarmored humvees.
Army and Marine officials said they expect to begin the design and development phase of JLTV next year. To outside observers, the schedule is far too ambitious. JLTV already faces significant delays that resulted from new directives from the Defense Department’s acquisition chief, John Young. He told the services in late August to rewrite their JLTV wish lists based on what could realistically be accomplished with existing technologies. He also directed them to build functioning prototypes of their desired vehicles to ensure the designs worked as promised.
“Young is a firm believer in reducing complexity and ambiguity as early on as possible,” said Marine Corps Col. William E. Taylor, program executive officer for land systems. “He is trying to sift through all the ambiguity.”
In this case the ambiguity is more like an impracticality. The services want to build a light truck — which technically would weigh no more than 12,000 pounds — with the same level of ballistic protection that is found in the 40,000 pound mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) armored vehicles.
“You have physics working against you,” Taylor said in an interview. “There may be an unrealistic expectation that you can provide MRAP-like protection, but it’s a much more complex equation.”
The Marine Corps is proposing to buy possibly three or four variants of JLTV, each with a different weight goal, so that they can “address the entire spectrum” of protection requirements, Taylor said.
The Army has yet to settle on many of the JLTV specs and numbers of variants, but, like the Marine Corps, it is struggling with how to make the vehicle light and survivable at the same time.
“This is rocket science,” said Army Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, deputy chief of staff for programs and resources.
“Three years ago, we didn’t have requirements to protect against IEDs,” he said. “We are trying to balance performance, payload and protection.”
It’s supposed to be a light vehicle, so Marines can transport them by ship, sling load them from a helicopters and drive them through jungles. But if the vehicles also have to be able to protect the crew from roadside bombs, then JLTV begins to look a lot like MRAP.
“How do we make a light vehicle that is not 40,000 pounds?” Speakes asked. “Technology right now tells us that to be survivable and light, a vehicle has to be 40,000 pounds. That’s a non-sequitur. What do we do with technology and design to move back to 15,000 pounds?”
The Army has spent at least five years and several million dollars testing truck prototypes as part of a program called the “future tactical truck system.” But none of those designs meets the JLTV protection requirements. “Young had concerns with that,” Taylor said. “He wants prototypes to address specific requirements.”
Taylor said the Marine Corps has a “little bit of an advantage” over the Army because it already has built a prototype “combat tactical vehicle” that is much more representative of the JLTV requirements.
Once they can settle on the performance specs, the services will have to submit an acquisition plan. Because of the rigorous prototyping that Young mandated, the procurement of vehicles will begin much later than originally planned, Taylor said. “As a result of the requirements for technology demonstration, it will add at least a couple of years,” he said.
Both services still expect to begin buying new vehicles between 2013 and 2018.
If the program is to ever get beyond the prototype phase, Taylor said, “we may have to reset our expectations with respect to a lighter vehicle’s ability to satisfy MRAP-like protection and fully satisfy all the other requirements. We may be asking too much.”
The MRAP program, meanwhile, is providing a valuable education for JLTV buyers, he said. “You can put a V-shape hull on a 10,000 pound vehicle but it’s not going to fare as well as a 40,000 pound vehicle.”
Many companies and government laboratories are creating new blends of composite armor to try to lower the weight, but the technology still is not able to deliver a light vehicle that also is survivable.
Budgets also could stall JLTV in the years ahead. The services may be hard-pressed to fund a new truck program when they are spending $20 billion on MRAP vehicles.
Some industry experts caution that the services are too distracted by what is happening in Iraq right now to be able to clearly articulate specifications for a future vehicle that may or may not have to operate in bomb-infested war zones.
The insurgents in Iraq are using bombs that would take out an M1 Abrams tank, so it’s unrealistic to think a JLTV is going to withstand those threats, one industry insider said. “It appears that they’re building a vehicle primarily based on the Iraq environment. The result is going to be a vehicle poorly suited to other future environments that we haven’t even thought about yet … The JLTV will never carry enough armor to suit everyone, and it’s going to be way too large and too heavy to accomplish the military missions that a light tactical vehicle has historically handled.”
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