The Defense Department has been on a truck-buying spree for the past several years, and the demand will remain high for some time. In the next two years, the tab for new tactical wheeled vehicles could reach $18 billion.
But truck manufacturers don’t expect the good times to last too much longer. They predict tighter budgets for new vehicles, and pressures on the military services to keep their older trucks and fix them up, rather than buying replacements.
Senior officials have hinted that the Pentagon may be reluctant to fund expensive new truck programs given the tens of billions of dollars that already have been spent on armored tactical vehicles for the current conflicts.
Congress has asked the biggest military truck buyers — the Army and the Marine Corps — to put forth a long-term plan for how they will modernize their fleets of more than 300,000 tactical wheeled vehicles. Neither service has yet nailed down such plans. One reason is uncertainly about future budgets. They also are afraid of committing funds to vehicles that may not meet their needs years from now.
They are still smarting from the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, where both services were sent to fight with trucks that lacked adequate protection against roadside bombs and rockets. Before the wars, trucks were regarded as mere transportation. Now, they are treated as combat vehicles, which means they must be heavily armored and ruggedized for off-road use.
The pressing conundrum for the military is how to avoid the mistakes of the past and buy trucks that will still be useful decades from now, regardless of what conflicts might arise.
The perfect truck for the Pentagon would be light and agile, but have sufficient ballistic protection, burn less fuel and cost far below the nearly $1 million price tag of the mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) V-shape vehicles that have become indispensable in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Such dream vehicles don’t yet exist, although truck manufacturers vow that much of what the Pentagon wants is achievable, assuming it commits to a long-term program with steady funding.
“I think the critical thing is doing research and development early,” said R. Andrew Hove, executive vice president and president of the defense division of Oshkosh Corp., a manufacturer of tactical military trucks in Oshkosh, Wis.
“We have different materials, different energy and power sources that we can utilize in vehicle design going forward, so that we can build vehicles that are more adaptable and more flexible in the future,” he said in an interview. The military will need vehicles that are “scalable up and down, to different levels of threat,” he said.
Defense contractors traditionally have been accustomed to drawn-out programs that allow them to spend years and significant amounts of money designing and testing prototypes. Such projects run counter to the philosophy espoused by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who directed the Pentagon’s acquisition bureaucracy to focus on winning today’s wars and to deliver relevant equipment, quickly.
When it comes to trucks, the Army is “implementing Gates’ strategy of balancing for today’s fight,” said Chris Chambers, general manager and vice president of BAE Systems’ Sealy, Texas, operations. The company makes the Army’s family of medium tactical vehicles (FMTV).
“We see a concentration on enhancing current fleets and creating a bridge to future requirements,” said Chambers. “It’s that balance the Army is trying to strike.”
The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Conway, has been vocal in recent months about the difficulties of acquiring trucks that meet marines’ immediate ground-combat demands but also are functional in amphibious deployments that would require trucks to be moved by ships, helicopters and hovercraft.
For the Afghanistan war, the Defense Department is purchasing thousands of so-called “all terrain MRAPs” or M-ATVs. But some marines don’t particularly care for them because they’re not maneuverable in parts of that country’s rough terrain, Conway said. “Our preferred vehicle is one that we have sort of created,” he said. Marines retrofitted one of the MRAP variants, the Cougar, with the suspension of their 7-ton medium truck. “The 7-ton was a very popular vehicle with our marines, because it could get off road and go any place you wanted it to go … Instead of buying more MRAPs that one day we won’t need, we said, ‘Let’s take a look at those we’ve got.’”
The Corps now is building more than a thousand of those customized Cougars.
Conway also may consider an alternative to the current joint light tactical vehicle (JLTV) program, which seeks to build a replacement for the humvee light truck. JLTV designs now in the works by three contractor teams are too heavy for ship-based operations, Conway said. “As we look at our next set of vehicles, we want them to be helicopter transportable. We want them to fit in what we call ‘lower vehicle stow’ on the amphibious ships.”
The three industry teams — AM General and General Dynamics Land Systems; Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems’ Armor Holdings division; and, BAE Systems of York, Pa., and Navistar — are testing prototypes in hopes of being selected for the next phase of the program.
Conway said JLTVs currently weigh around 22,000 pounds, which makes them almost as heavy as the 25,000-pound M-ATV. By comparison, a fully armored humvee is less than 10,000 pounds. “We ask ourselves, ‘Is [JLTV] the vehicle that we need to be buying?’” Conway added.
Now the Corps is pondering other options. Officials said a future light truck should not weigh more than 13,000 to 14,000 pounds.
Conway and other officials have criticized JLTV for over-promising high-tech features that may not be attainable in the foreseeable future. The vehicle, said Conway, “was dependent upon technology to give us composite or plastic armor or something that would be light and yet serve the same purpose as steel … Well, it just hasn’t happened.”
The Corps is considering a near-term “bridge,” such as upgrading current trucks. “We’ve got tens of thousands of up-armored humvees out there,” Conway said. One idea being contemplated is to modify the flat bottom of the humvee, so it is farther up from the ground. Humvees now are eight to 10 inches off the ground. “We need something two or three times that for blast mitigation,” said Conway. “With a V-shape bottom, that would have a protective compartment for the crew. And there are some manufacturers out there that think they can do that, for about a tenth of the cost of a new vehicle.”
The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., is now blast-testing a prototype of a V-shape humvee, and will compare its performance to JLTV and M-ATV.
Lab engineers are evaluating the concept of an “integrated capsule on a humvee chassis to provide increased protection for these vehicles,” said lab spokesman Victor Lopez. He said it is premature to speculate on future production of this vehicle. “It is currently in the concept investigation stage,” Lopez said. The experiments will continue through the spring.
Building trucks that can survive bomb blasts will remain a top priority for the foreseeable future, officials said. But it will be difficult to make vehicles that are both survivable and as lightweight as marines would want. So far there is no miracle weightless armor than can replace steel, industry experts said.
“It’s not likely that we’ll ever get completely away from armor steel,” said Gary Farmer, vice president of Ultra International, a Shelby, N.C., supplier of truck armor.
The use of aluminum and composites has helped achieve “drastic weight reductions,” Farmer said. But military-approved steel is still the best material around for survivability. “With landmines and IEDs, it’s better to be heavy,” he said.
Future trucks will need to rely on innovative designs to compensate for the protection they would not get from heavy armor, said Tom Draper, Ultra’s director of marketing. “I think we’re seeing a balance between armor weight and the ability to dissipate blast. Flat bottom vehicles get thrown up in the air regardless of their weight, whereas the blast dissipation can lower the weight and still protect the occupants,” he said. “Being thrown around in the vehicle is what’s causing a lot of casualties.”
Fuel efficiency, which has not been a critical consideration for military trucks in the past, is now becoming more significant as the Defense Department increasingly is feeling the pain of rising oil prices and the logistical burdens of transporting fuel to combat zones.
“Fuel is everything to the army, right?” noted Archie Massicotte, president of truck manufacturer Navistar Defense, in Warrenville, Ill. The company runs its own engine laboratory where it is testing new, greener systems that will comply with 2014 emissions standards, he said.
BAE Systems designed a new armored truck, called the “global tactical vehicle,” and one of its main selling points is fuel efficiency. The international market demands greener engines, Chambers said. European militaries must buy vehicles with much tougher emission requirements than U.S. buyers, he said.
Oshkosh officials predict that hybrid engines will be key to future tactical vehicles, not just to save fuel but also to generate “off-board” electricity to power weapons systems aboard vehicles. The company developed a diesel-electric hybrid drive that uses ultra-capacitors to store energy that is created by regenerative braking and delivers that power to the wheels during acceleration. “It increases fuel efficiency and the way we store power,” said Hove. Off-board power is an “area where we have a lot of focus,” he said. “We’ve developed ways of retrofitting that back onto existing systems.” One of the programs being targeted is the Marine Corps’ 7-ton medium tactical vehicle replacement (MTVR) truck.
The company’s JLTV prototype, which was eliminated from the competition earlier on, had a different diesel-electric engine. It did not have the ultra-capacitors because at the time the technology was deemed immature. Oshkosh has since improved the batteries and installed the hybrid drive in prototypes of the Marine Corps’ heavy expanded mobility tactical trucks (HEMTT) A3 version.
Hove also believes that robotics technology will be part of the next generation of trucks. Autonomous navigation is achievable, he said. Most robotic systems today are teleoperated, so someone must remotely drive it with a joystick. The next most difficult challenge is having a robot follow another truck. The toughest one is having a completely autonomous system, driving itself with a sensor package, control algorithms and an onboard processor. The company so far has seen success with this technology in various trials. “We can adapt the technology to new vehicles but also are focusing on how to deploy the technology through a retrofit kit or building it into new vehicles,” Hove said.
Electronic systems that can predict mechanical failures will be sought by military buyers, Hove said. Oshkosh already equips fire trucks with those systems. “It costs a lot less to fix a transmission if you know it’s about to fail and you fix it before it does fail,” he said.
Hove said the company plans to be “more aggressive” about developing new technology, and “giving the military customer more ways of using the same basic tool,” he added. “Our assumption is that the military probably is as sophisticated a customer as you’ll ever deal with.”
Which brings up the issue of how much the Defense Department will be willing to pay for these advanced future vehicles.
When JLTV was launched five years ago, the speculation in industry circles was that these trucks would cost up to $1 million each. But then MRAP, with a similar price tag, came into the picture. Once the Pentagon completes its current orders, it could end up with an inventory of maybe 20,000 to 30,000 of the heavily armored trucks.
Initially the military services had assumed that the MRAPs were only an interim solution to get through the current wars, and envisioned moving on to JLTVs or other advanced trucks once the conflicts ended. But Secretary Gates directed the Army to incorporate the MRAPs as standard equipment for all combat brigades. The thinking now is that MRAPs will be essential pieces of hardware for years to come, and that the Pentagon needs to leverage the $18 billion, and counting, that it committed to those vehicles.
Members of Congress have for some time been demanding a long-term forecast from the Pentagon of how it plans to modernize its truck fleets. “The Defense Department does not have a unified tactical wheeled vehicle strategy that considers timing, affordability and sustainability,” said a September 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office. Auditors also noted that the introduction of MRAP, M-ATV, and eventually the JLTV, creates a potential risk of “unplanned overlap in capabilities; a risk that needs to be managed.”
The Army and Marine Corps each has multiple studies under way that address different aspects of truck modernization, but the Defense Department still needs a comprehensive plan that takes into account current and future vehicle needs, said GAO.
In an October 2009 draft “investment strategy” document, the Army anticipates that it will own an “uneven mix” of new and old vehicles. It already has concluded that it can’t afford to replace its more than 150,000 humvees with JLTVs. The medium- and heavy-truck fleets are smaller and, from a budget standpoint, more manageable.
JLTV contractors and other companies in this sector are taking a wait-and-see approach, until they see a more definitive plan. Neither the Army nor the Marine Corps has indicated that JLTV may be cancelled, but some officials have hinted the numbers of trucks in the program could be curtailed.
“In the near term, we may be forced, depending upon what the defense topline is, and how pressing new needs are, to make trades in which JLTV is potentially reduced or trimmed in some way,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes told reporters in October, before he retired as the Army’s deputy chief of staff for requirements. He noted that the Army purchased most of its current humvees between 1990 and 1992. “That force needs to be modernized” over the next 10 to 20 years, Speakes said.
Contractors suggest that the Army, as it ponders the design of a new truck, should take the necessary steps now to avoid sticker shock in the future. “To get more capability and not increase cost, you have to be intelligent about how you do system design, as opposed to add on,” said Chambers, of BAE Systems. “That said, you come to a stark reality at some stage that more capability is going to cost more.”
The Army also has to acknowledge that a truck is no longer just a truck, noted Dennis Morris, BAE’s president of global tactical systems. Trucks are tactical wheeled vehicles. “It sounds like semantics but it’s what it is, a fairly complex system designed for many uses,” Morris said. “The Army has to wise up to this. It has a tendency to commoditize, and buy a truck as a commodity to lower the cost, but you’re not buying a commodity.”
Chambers said: “Could you imagine buying a tank as a commodity? Yet in the tactical wheeled vehicle world, people make that mistake all the time, saying it’s just a truck.”
Any future modernization plan, it is fair to assume, will be based strongly on the recapitalization and refurbishing of current vehicles, said Morris. That approach will help the Army afford across-the-board upgrades to the fleet, he added.
Truck manufacturers also will be watching closely how the Army manages the industrial base. A case in point is the Army’s decision last year — successfully protested by industry — to end BAE Systems’ status as the sole producer of the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles and award a contract to Oshkosh.
The political firestorm sparked by the FMTV award revived the old debate of whether there can be true competition in the market. For decades, the Army has bought its light trucks exclusively from AM General, its medium trucks from BAE Systems and heavy trucks from Oshkosh. Awarding the next order for 23,000 trucks to Oshkosh was a shock to BAE Systems. The company, along with Navistar, challenged the decision and GAO sided with the protestors. But GAO’s ruling was not based on industrial base concerns. It stemmed from factual mistakes in the Army’s evaluation about the capabilities of the competing bidders, and a flawed assessment of the contractors’ past performance.
The Army is now reexamining the proposals and will make a new award that it hopes will be protest-proof.
The industrial base implications of a Defense Department award usually are not sufficient to mount a legal protest, although BAE officials insist that, in the FMTV case, they should have been taken into account.
“We heard [Pentagon acquisition chief] Ash Carter say industrial base considerations need to be made in acquisition decisions,” said Morris.
The Army has not made “split buys” in the past, Chambers added. “The Army has never awarded a humvee contract to anyone but AM General. HEMTT contracts only have been given to Oshkosh. FMTV orders only have gone to Sealy, Texas.
“We see a dichotomy between what defense officials are saying and the implementation of it,” Chambers said.
The three locations for each family of trucks have built skilled work forces and facilities that are specialized for that particular vehicle, he said. In awarding Oshkosh an FMTV contract, the Army chose to compete the vehicle as a commodity, to the lowest bidder, Chambers said. “It was easy with FMTV because the vast majority of the design is owned by the government.” That is not the case with other military vehicles whose designs are owned by the manufacturers.
“The government has to sort out its strategy,” Chambers said. “Are they going to be serious about industrial policy?” The Army has to choose whether it wants full and open competition, or a controlled industry, he said. “There’s a problem with the two working together in the same marketplace.”
Companies such as Navistar, which make vehicles for the military but rely mostly on commercial sales, are less concerned about industrial policy and instead are watching the Pentagon’s budget trends in order to make their future plans.
“When you look at the U.S. budgets, if you’re not sitting on a program of record, or you’re not sitting on an urgent buy right now,” the next step is to try to boost foreign military sales, said Massicotte, of Navistar. “We’re going after a whole lot of foreign military sales right now.”
Singapore is buying MRAPs. The United Kingdom is buying an M-ATV like vehicle. Israel is seeking a new cargo-troop carrier. The Canadians are buying utility vehicles and troop carriers, he said. “That’s what we do in the commercial world.”
Grace V. Jean contributed to this report. Additional reporting by Stew Magnuson.