MOUNT AIRY, N.C.— Just a few streets down from the birthplace of actor Andy Griffiths sits a former textile manufacturing facility that today houses a start-up company that is aiming to challenge powerful military contractors.
If all goes well for Granite Tactical Vehicles in the next few months, this bucolic town, once better known as the inspiration for the fictional TV town of Mayberry, could become one of the Defense Department’s newest suppliers of tactical trucks.
The Army and Marine Corps are gearing up for a program potentially worth billions to modernize the Pentagon’s 25-year-old Humvee fleet. The utility truck was employed in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until roadside bombs became too deadly for the flat-bottomed vehicle. Though supplanted in recent years by the hardier mine-resistant ambush-protected, or MRAP, vehicle, the Humvee still comprises the bulk of the truck inventory in the Defense Department’s fleets. There are nearly 200,000 Humvees fielded throughout the services and the National Guard.
The Army and Marine Corps want to keep the workhorse Humvee in service longer until they can develop a replacement truck. They have already pursued a program to repair and refurbish thousands of war-torn vehicles. But there are still about 60,000 trucks in the Army, and about 4,000 Humvees in the Marine Corps that are considered too young for the scrap heap. They also are under-protected for fighting in future environments where roadside bombs will continue to be a threat. Both services want to recapitalize those vehicles and upgrade their underbelly blast protection so they are no longer obsolete and sitting unused in motor pools.
Companies including the original manufacturer of the Humvee — AM General based in South Bend, Ind. — have been designing and testing a variety of solutions to help the Defense Department breathe new life into the truck.
Granite, a newcomer to the tactical wheeled vehicle business, has developed a capsule that can be mounted on existing Humvees that company officials say will provide troops with better blast protection while reducing the weight of the vehicle.
“The objective was, let it be a Humvee, nose to nose, and you don’t realize it’s not a normal Humvee until it drives by you,” said Chris Berman, president of Granite Tactical Vehicles.
The company’s survivable combat team vehicle, or SCTV, comprises a Humvee frame encapsulated by a welded steel monocoque hull.
Officials invited National Defense to drive one of its production-ready vehicles around a two-mile off-road test track not far from its headquarters. Nestled on 60 acres of hillside property leased from a nearby rock quarry, the red-dirt trail winds its way past cornfields and forested glens, challenging the vehicles with hair-pin curves, four-foot high berms, smaller bumps and other suspension-rattling terrain.
Behind the wheel, the 16,500-pound vehicle is simple enough for a civilian driver to operate without prior training. Power steering and automatic transmission make it easy to handle, and the vehicle rides like a Humvee on steroids. It seems to float over the terrain as it maneuvers on the track. It eases over mounds angled so steeply that the bumper scoops up dirt when it bottoms out and the V-hull cuts a distinctive mark into the tops like an unforgiving barber.
Though the vehicle sits only a few inches taller than current uparmored Humvees, blast tests have shown that it offers MRAP-like protection to the crew. Compared to riding in a thin-skinned Humvee, the SCTV ride is smooth, the cabin is quiet, dust-free and contoured to prevent unnecessary nicks and bruises.
The capsule technology defies the problem that has confounded many manufacturers — how to make a vehicle blast-resistant yet lighter weight. Often those qualities stand at polar opposites.
“Since we got rid of the existing body, we didn’t have to work around the carcass that had weight to it,” said Berman. “The design allowed us to defeat the requirements without too much additional steel.”
The team reached into both the automotive industry in the Detroit area and the motorsports racing expertise in Charlotte, N.C., for insight as it pursued development of the technology.
“We don’t have a tool box. We just took a Humvee and made it about as good as you can possibly get, keeping the parts that are there,” said Berman, a retired Navy SEAL who started designing improved trucks in 2004 after a colleague was ambushed by insurgents in Iraq while riding in a security vehicle. The burned body was one of four that insurgents infamously hung from a bridge at the height of the war.
Berman founded Granite shortly afterwards and built vehicles for private security firms, all the while sketching and designing improvements for the Humvee. He compares his vehicle modifications to what is typically done in the off-road racing industry. “You take what exists. You improve it to the best you can, and sometimes you end up with better results than what you started with,” he said.
In addition to maneuverability improvements, the SCTV incorporates a number of safety features to reduce rollovers and mitigate fire hazards to vehicle occupants, said officials.
The company is focused on keeping as many parts as common as possible with the legacy Humvee components, Berman added. More than 80 percent of the vehicle remains the same and the 20 percent that has been changed have been relatively small items, such as brackets that support the air conditioning condensers — a known point of failure on Humvees.
“When the brackets that support this condenser fail, you end up losing a very expensive condenser,” Berman said. “You just caused a $3,000 to $4,000 loss as result of a $10 bracket. We change out brackets like that … That’s what the Humvee needed. It needed a tune up from bumper to bumper of the little parts that break.”
Retaining many of the parts in the current Humvee will reduce training requirements for operators and maintainers. It also will minimize impact to the logistics tail.
AM General, the maker of the original Humvee, is also planning to be a contender in the competition. Engineers have been designing various concepts for the past few years, and the company has spent millions of dollars researching technologies to counter the roadside bomb threat. It has partnered with two firms — Hardwire LLC, which makes a chimney technology to vent the energy from roadside blasts, and Plasan, an armor expert whose solutions are found in existing MRAP and M-ATV vehicles today. AM General is proposing two designs: One vehicle boasts the chimney component; the other takes a kitted crew capsule approach.
Both systems have been undergoing blast testing, officials said. The chimney solution in particular has garnered interest from military officials. But critics of the venting technology say that the system has structural issues. It would take up valuable compartment space and block off part of the cabin to the point where it would be difficult for the four crewmembers to communicate in the vehicle, said Dakota Wood, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based nonpartisan research organization.
AM General’s Chris Vanslager, executive director for program management, begged to differ. He told National Defense that the last time he rode in the chimney version at a test facility, he was able to communicate with all four passengers. “We were going 45 miles an hour on a test track. Everybody was having normal conversations,” he said. “It was much quieter in the interior than the early version of the Humvee,” he said.
The ride itself is similar to that of the all-terrain version of the MRAP, he added. “You’re sitting inside an armored structure, and it’s a heavy structure but the suspension and everything is tuned to it. I don’t think you’d notice that much difference within the armored vehicles.” But when compared to the original Humvee, the new designs’ differences are stark, he said.
Both the Army and Marine Corps are planning to hold competitions to narrow down the field of potential designs. They likely will select two or three competitors to build prototype vehicles for testing. Once they see how the vehicles perform, they will select a winning design to produce.
“Competition is king,” said Vanslager. ”We’re prepared for — and welcome — the competition.”
“We’ll provide the best solution that is most compliant and at a fair price,” he added.
BAE Systems and Oshkosh Corp. are also expected to submit bids.
In previous solicitations for information from industry, the Army indicated that it would like to recapitalize the Humvee for no more than $180,000 per vehicle. The Marine Corps’ threshold cost is higher, at $240,000, though its objective cost matches that of the Army’s at $180,000.
“At the end of the day, it always becomes a cost shoot out. We’re prepared to pick that battle and go compete today,” said Bill Kisiah, vice president for advanced military vehicle solutions at Textron Marine and Land Systems, which has partnered with Granite for the competition.
Berman said the company could manufacture the vehicle at price points that meet the military’s cost goals.
Though AM General has produced hundreds of thousands of Humvees since 1985, the original manufacturer is not necessarily a shoo-in for the competition, analysts said. However, it may have some leverage over the other companies looking to bid on the program.
“I think AM General does have an advantage. They have a lobbying apparatus that is pretty experienced, pretty well engaged, and pretty well resourced,” said Eric Lindsey, research assistant at CSBA. Other competitors like newcomer Granite, and even Textron, lack that political clout. But he warned against discounting competing technologies simply because of experience. “If the design does what it’s supposed to do, for less, that is going to be something that is valued by the services,” he said.
Given fiscal challenges, the services may not be able to fund production of large volumes of refurbished vehicles. The government previously requested companies to share how they would go about producing quantities of 800 to 1,000 vehicles per year, as well as their strategy for accommodating higher rates of production, of 3,200 to 3,500 vehicles per year.
Most companies would not have a problem with the high-volume production rate. But the low-to-medium volume might give one-stop shops more difficulty, analysts said.
In the case of Granite, its partnership with Textron enables it to meet both demands, said Berman.
Paul Mueller, Textron Systems’ program manager for the Humvee recap program, said, “We have a scalable production solution that meets the lower quantity rates to the highest unit-quantity rates, taking advantage of the capabilities here at Granite in Mount Airy and as well as production capacity that Textron Marine and Land has.”
In its 170,000-square feet of production facilities in Mount Airy, Granite is ready to produce anywhere from one vehicle a month to as many as 50, 60 or 70 vehicles a month, said Berman. Textron would handle larger quantities in its plant in Slidell, La., where the company currently is producing the Army’s armored security vehicle for the Afghan National Army. It has the space and capacity to add in additional assembly lines if the numbers called for it, officials said.
“Both of us have the ability to flip the switch tomorrow and go straight into production,” said Berman. “We have robotic systems, we have manual systems, we have everything in place. We just have dust gathering on it,” he added.
AM General did not give specifics about its manufacturing plans but Vanslager said that the company is ready to accommodate any numbers that the government may specify. “We have the ability to be able to not only build smaller quantities but also to accommodate surges,” as it did to support the war effort in the 2004 to 2006 timeframe, he said.