In dire need to replace dilapidated jeeps, the U.S. Army in the
early 1980s bought commercial pick-up trucks and sent them to front-line
combat units in the deserts of Southwest Asia.
The results were disastrous.
These trucks essentially were run-of-the-mill pick-ups with camouflage
paint. They were not robust enough for off-road driving. So the
Army decided that the only light truck it would buy in the future
would be the Humvee (high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle),
which has become a mainstay of the Army’s fleet since it was
introduced in the mid-1980s.
Humvees are rugged, highly mobile and flexible for all-around combat
operations. In 1989, they became the “official” light
tactical truck of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.
But commercial auto manufacturers, working in alliance with the
Army’s National Automotive Center in Detroit, now claim that
they can deliver high-performance light trucks for military use.
They would not be able to match every capability in the Humvee,
but they believe they could provide most of what the Humvee offers,
at a lower price.
The National Automotive Center (NAC), which operates under the
Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, serves as a
liaison between the Army and the commercial auto industry, particularly
the Big Three in Detroit: DaimlerChrysler, the Ford Co., and General
Motors. One of the NAC’s missions is to help the Army modernize
its vehicles by adopting state-of-the-art commercial technology
from the civilian sector.
Thus emerged the Combatt program.
Combatt , or commercially-based tactical truck, began as a technology-sharing
project to facilitate the insertion of advanced components and subsystems
into the Humvee fleet. But during the past three years, Ford and
DaimlerChrysler, in a cost-sharing agreement with NAC, have developed
two prototype vehicles that many experts believe can meet most of
the Humvee operational requirements while providing comfort features—such
as air-conditioning, quiet cabs and cushy seats—that are common
in today’s commercial models.
Ford’s Combatt platform is an F350 4x4 four-door crew cab
pick-up truck. DaimlerChrysler’s is a Dodge 2500 4x4 four-door
General Motors Corp., which had been a participant in Combatt earlier
on, withdrew its Silverado truck from the program, but recently
came back after signing an agreement with NAC.
GM, to be sure, is not new to the military truck market. The company
makes the so-called commercial utility cargo vehicle (CUCV), which
has been sold to the U.S. military services since 1983, even though
the Army was disappointed by its performance in off-road operations.
When the CUCV failed to meet the Army’s expectations, the
service decided to purchase Humvees only.
During the 2001 National Defense Industrial Association’s
tactical wheeled vehicles symposium in Monterey, Calif., GM representatives
parked a Combatt prototype in front of the conference site.
That was seen as a clever marketing move by some industry executives
at the conference. But it did not go well with the Army’s
program office for light tactical trucks.
“To be advertising this capability as a Humvee-replacement
is off the mark,” said Nancy Moulton, who manages the Army’s
fleet of more than 100,000 light tactical wheeled vehicles. “The
commercial trucks are cheaper, but Humvees last three times as long
and do not fall apart like our CUCV program did,” she told
National Defense during the conference.
Commercial trucks, she added, “have potential as general
administration trucks but [are not suitable] for war fighting. We
are not going to sacrifice any war-fighting capabilities.”
One benefit that Moulton would like to see as a result of the Combatt
program is expanded competition in the industry, she said. Currently,
only AM General Corp., in South Bend, Ind., makes the Humvee. The
company also makes a commercial variant, called the Hummer. An upgraded
version of the Hummer, known as the H2, will be built by a partnership
between GM and AM General.
“When we competed the last Humvee buy, AM General was the
only bidder,” said Moulton. “We need more competition.
We hope the Combatt program will provide incentives for the Big
Three to want to compete in a light tactical vehicle program. ...
We would like to have the new capabilities, more competition and
She is not convinced that large auto-makers will want to invest
resources in vehicles that will only produce small runs. The Army’s
fleet of about 100,000 is pocket change for companies used to making
millions of vehicles.
Moulton acknowledged that Combatt trucks have improved their suspension
for off-road driving, but they are still not “at the Humvee
level.” Some day, she added, “they may be, but not now.”
An industry source, who did not want to be quoted by name, said
that Moulton “has been very antagonistic to the Combatt program
from the beginning.” According to this source, who works closely
with Army truck programs, Moulton was approached by NAC officials
to become involved in the program but she consistently has declined
When asked about the future of Combatt, the director of the NAC,
Dennis Wend, said the program is in a wait-and-see mode.
“We have to play out and see where that is going to go,”
he said. “We are in the process of getting a third vehicle,
from GM, at their own cost. ... People are looking at [ Combatt]
in different ways, and it would be premature to talk about it any
The NAC’s deputy director, Paul Skalny, characterized Combatt
as the Army’s “21st century light truck.”
Harrold L. Almand manages the program at the NAC. He said in an
interview that it is understandable for the Army to resist commercial
trucks after the CUCV experience. “The CUCV was an excellent
vehicle on road, but did not perform off road.”
GM’s director of military sales, George Baker, told National
Defense that the company is changing the name CUCV to “tactical
support vehicle.” The trucks are available on the GSA schedule,
he said, and feature enhancements such as central tire inflation,
skid plates and night-vision capabilities.
The Combatt truck, meanwhile, “is not another CUCV,”
Almand said. Most of the enhancements found in Combatt trucks were
designed to improve mobility, durability and payload capacity, he
explained. “It has the same tire footprint as the Humvee.”
Features such as central tire inflation and electronic shock absorber
controls help in off-road driving, he added.
Almand could not offer any predictions on whether the Combatt trucks
will ever become a full-fledged “acquisition program.”
More testing needs to be done to convince the users, he said.
“These vehicles are not meant to replace the Humvee, but
to supplement the light tactical vehicle fleet,” Almand stressed.
There are certain geographical areas, such as the Northwestern United
States and parts of the Korean Peninsula, where commercial trucks
would not make it because the boulder-plagued terrain is too rough.
Of interest to potential customers is that Combatt trucks are 30-40
percent more fuel-efficient than the Humvee, he said. The Air Force
and the U.S. Border Patrol, among others, have expressed interest
in these vehicles, he added.
Almand does not expect that the Army will replace Humvees with
commercial trucks, but he believes that they offer a less-costly
alternative to fulfill current shortfalls in the light truck fleet
that exist because the Army has bought about 20,000 fewer Humvees
than its stated requirement. “That presents an opportunity
The NAC completed the first phase of the Combatt testing program
last summer. The tests were conducted at the Nevada Automotive Test
Center, in Carson City, Nev. Almand hopes to begin phase II during
the next several months. To meet government qualification standards,
the latter phase would have to take place at a government site,
such as the Army’s Aberdeen Test Center.
The systems integrator who modified the Ford and the Dodge trucks
during the first phase (1998-2000) of the Combatt program was Veridian
Engineering, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“We did a lot of simulation and modeling for mobility, to
find out what we had to do to make these vehicles perform like Humvees
in cross-country mode,” said Richard Knox, director of the
automotive and transportation center at Veridian.
Cross-country operations tear down vehicles that are not built
and engineered properly, he said in an interview. “Large forces
[pounding] into the frame eventually destroy the vehicle. We avoided
that by tuning the suspension and shock system.”
Tuning shocks is a “black art,” he said. “You
have to run them in rough terrain with experts on board who know
what they are doing.
As part of the Combatt contract, Veridian also modified a baseline
Humvee truck and retrofitted it with advanced technologies to enhance
safety, reliability and overall performance. That upgraded Humvee
prototype was a “monster truck,” said Knox. “It
was very successful.”
The Army and AM General currently are evaluating these technologies
as potential insertions into a new Humvee variant, the A4. The company
is studying options for an A4 model under a research and development
contract awarded last August, said Craig McNabb, spokesman for AM
Last November, AM General was awarded a seven-year $2 billion contract
for 31,000 A2 vehicles. The A2s are the most capable Humvees available
today, said McNabb. There is an expanded-capacity variant, with
a heavier payload than the A2, which is used as a shelter carrier
and for the up-armored model.
An A3 version would be built under a yet-to-be-funded recapitalization
program to refurbish the old A0 models.
“The Army hasn’t yet defined what will be in the A4,”
said McNabb. “There are things that might be too expensive,”
such as an anti-lock breaking system, to prevent skidding, or sound-proofing
the interior of the vehicle.
The debate on whether commercial vehicles could offer a lower-cost
alternative to the Humvee is not new, McNabb said. “The idea
of buying commercial trucks gets brooded about from time to time.
They have tried that for decades in the military, and it almost
McNabb does not believe that Combatt was conceived “as a
way to provide additional vehicles. ... It is a technology insertion
program. We participated in it. There is no plan to buy any other
vehicles, other than Humvees.”
AM General joined the program, he explained, in order to identify
technologies available in the commercial automotive sector that
may be inserted into the Humvee. He noted, however, that “there
are other people with other agendas.”
Cost comparisons between commercial trucks and Humvees can be misleading,
said McNabb, because there is a wide range of prices for Humvees.
“We make a bunch of different models. Some cost more than
others,” he said.
According to an Army source, the average price of a baseline A2
model is $57,000. If the A4 model is built, it could end up costing
about $68,000 apiece, depending on what features are included, said
the source. Remanufactured Humvees, which the Army has not authorized
or funded, would cost half what a new one costs. The Combatt trucks,
said industry officials, would cost at least $48,000.
The vehicle price tag would be only one factor in the cost equation,
said Knox. If auto makers leased Combatt trucks to the Army, this
would be an attractive financial proposition for the service, because
it would allow them to pay for the lease with “O&M”
dollars, said Knox. O&M are operations and maintenance funds,
as opposed to “acquisition” dollars, which are harder
to come by in the Army today.
One concept that had been considered by the Army was to lease the
vehicles, along with a logistics support package. These vehicles
would go to units that typically don’t see front-line combat:
division headquarters, corps headquarters, which spend most of their
time on hard road and don’t require the extreme cross-country
mobility of the Humvee.
“The Army does not have enough procurement dollars to modernize
the Humvee fleet,” said Knox. But it may have O&M dollars
to lease vehicles.
As to whether any of the Detroit Big Three auto makers would have
enough financial incentive to pursue low-volume Army leases, Knox
speculated that the main prize would be the “bragging rights”
associated with being the provider of trucks for the U.S. Army.
“GM has been selling CUCVs for years. It’s a niche
market,” he said. “If this program ever goes forward,
they would sell a lot overseas. A lot of overseas armies would love
to have a commercial-grade pick-up truck that could go cross-country
and carry two tons of weight.”
“There is a great aftermarket for these vehicles,”
Knox added. “Every deer-hunter in Michigan would love to have
As more capacity in commercial plants becomes available, given
the current consumer-buying downturn, “I think [the military]
is going to become a very lucrative market for the companies,”
The U.S. Air Force is particularly interested in purchasing commercial
pick-up trucks for troops who patrol missile fields in the Midwest,
he said. Those are 200-300 mile runs that would be made much more
comfortable in a soft-seat pick-up truck with heating/air conditioning,
Knox said. “They would like to have a Combatt truck with all
the amenities of a commercial vehicle.”
Any future role for Combatt trucks would not be on the front-lines,
but in the rear and garrison units, he said. They would not be robust
enough for a combat zone. Army mechanics only are trained to fix
Humvees. “When you are in combat, how do you get [a commercial
vehicle] repaired in the front lines? If a generator gets shot up,
does a Ford mechanic go in the line of fire?”
Knox believes that is one of the major considerations that is driving
the Army’s decision to buy only Humvees. “It’s
a valid concern.”
The Humvee is “still the top dog in its class for heavy duty
off road in the tactical scenario,” said John D. Weaver, the
Army’s former program manager for light tactical wheeled vehicles.
But, he added, “to take a line from the Oldsmobile commercial,
the Combatt truck is not your father’s CUCV.”
The original CUCV suffered a bad reputation for two reasons, explained
Weaver. First, the performance gap between the CUCV and the Humvee
was significant. Second, it was fielded to units that should not
have had it. It was new, the jeeps were old, so it went to front-line
units that needed a more robust and mobile vehicle.
Choosing between commercial trucks and Humvees “is not an
easy decision,” he said. “Cost, performance and politics
all play into a decision on how to maintain the light tactical fleet.”
To meet the needs of today’s force, Weaver said, the Army’s
buying strategy should include purchases of both new Humvees and
commercial trucks, as well as a development program for a follow-on
light tactical vehicle. “I don’t believe anybody has
enough information to make a decision on the proper strategy at
The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said Weaver, “needs
to revalidate the actual need for the Humvee-level performance for
all Army missions and the other services need to provide their input.”
For example, the Marine Corps may need the higher mobility, but
the Air Force may not. There are missions that the commercial vehicle
may just not satisfy.
There is a large volume of data on the life-cycle cost and performance
of the Humvee, he added, but little is available on the Combatt
vehicle. “The argument can only be truly settled if the services
make an investment to conduct performance and reliability testing
on the commercial vehicle as they did in 1981 with the CUCV, and
the potential suppliers of the commercial vehicles provide real
operational cost and reliability information.”
The only testing accomplished so far in the Combatt program was
done at the Nevada Automotive Test Center. Colin Ashmore, the center’s
director of engineering, said the tests focused on “reliability,
availability, maintainability and durability.” The trials
were run 30 percent on paved road, 30 percent on gravel and 40 percent
“We are doing this now so we have some data to work with,”
said Ashmore in an interview. Tests with the GM Silverado will go
on for another six to eight months.
“Our job is to get GM caught up on what had been done on
a Ford and Dodge chassis. GM paid for all the work to catch up,”
At the NATC, engineers took a basic 2001 Silverado truck and put
a lift kit on it to bring the body up higher. They fitted it with
Humvee-size tires (Goodyear 37x12.5R17) and an onboard central tire
inflation system, which allows the driver to inflate and deflate
the tires on the move. Lower pressures are required on sand and
gravel and higher pressures on highways.
“Combatt would meet 80 percent of the Humvee’s mission,”
said Ashmore. “It will never be a tactical truck that replaces
the Humvee. It’s to be used on military bases and non-tactical
Humvee-only missions would include, for example, fording, traveling
at high speeds on rough ground, carrying machine guns, go places
in the sand where a commercial truck will never be able to go, he
Given the number of miles that are accumulated in the military
environment, Ashmore noted, a Combatt truck probably would have
an average lifespan of 10 years, or half the life of a Humvee.