Unlike jet fighters, no one ever talks about 4th or 5th generation military vehicles.
Trucks, wheeled and tracked combat systems have tended to be on a more evolutionary than revolutionary path when it comes to new technologies.
These steps have been painfully slow, and in some cases, have failed to materialize at all. The Army’s Future Combat Systems was cancelled and the Marine Corps expeditionary fighting vehicle shared the same fate. It took the Corps 25 years to find out that its dream of a new ship-to-shore troop transporter would come to naught.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has waded into this problem. Its Adaptive Vehicle Make program announced last year seeks to reinvent the way vehicles are designed and built. It is looking to revamp and speed up the entire acquisition process, from the drawing board to the assembly line.
The DARPA program will not come to fruition in time to assist efforts to develop the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, a replacement for the Humvee, and the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle. Both acquisition programs are moving at the usual pace: more like a Sherman tank than a Ferrari.
Nevertheless, some experts believe a revolution may be on the horizon. It may not come in time for these two ongoing programs, but future vehicles have a chance of being radically different from what they are today.
All the military has to do is scrap its moribund acquisition system, said James Canton, CEO and chairman of the Institute for Global Futures, a San Francisco-based think tank.
“Let’s blow up the paradigm of what vehicles are about,” he said. “We need to rip up the blueprints we have now. If you don’t have a design in six months, what’s the point? I mean, there are lives at risk. Twenty-five years to produce something is just not acceptable,” said Canton, who is also a consultant to defense contractors and the U.S. military.
Canton has a vision for agile, morphable, intelligent, autonomous vehicles. They may or may not have drivers. They have suites of sensors connected to a cloud. They can operate in water, and perhaps, fly or jump over rough terrain.
Canton is a futurist, but the future is now for these concepts, he said.
“A lot of that technology is here today,” he said. He has looked at designs for amphibious vehicles made by companies that are small and entrepreneurial, and “they can’t get the light of day” from the military. The system keeps away innovation unless it is produced by the “usual suspects list,” he said.
Representatives for two of the military’s vehicle manufacturers, Navistar and Oshkosh, agree as far as the acquisition process. Both took part in the unprecedented effort to bring mine resistant ambush-protected trucks from concepts to prototypes in less than a year. Roadside bomb tactics utilized by poorly funded, but innovative insurgents forced the military to rapidly field a new vehicle.
Oshkosh started with no design, just some off-the-shelf truck parts, and produced the Afghan variant of the MRAP, the M-ATV, within six months, said Chris Yakes, the company’s vice president for advanced products.
DARPA took notice and Oshkosh engineers have briefed the Adaptive Vehicle Make program managers on how it accomplished the task, he said.
“We went from paper to vehicle in six months,” Lou Torres, Navistar senior product development manager, said of the MRAP program. Now the Army is returning to the more traditional methodical acquisition processes that “really are slow for whatever reason,” he said.
The MRAP program was a move in the right direction. Six months is the goal to shoot for, Canton said. “I think they should be given opportunities to do it again,” he said of the manufacturers.
DARPA’s program is good but it doesn’t go far enough, he added. The new model should be what the agency has done in the past: challenges and prizes.
The DARPA challenges in the middle of the last decade had teams competing on autonomous vehicle courses. The X Prize, which was not affiliated with DARPA, offered millions to the first team that could launch and reuse a space vehicle in a set amount of time.
The way forward for next-generation vehicles — and most other military acquisition programs — are these prizes and competitions, Canton said. They should be the norm not the exception. This is how the nation unleashes the power of the innovative, entrepreneurial class, he said.
“If the Special Operations Command vision of the more agile warrior is the future of the military — and I believe it is — then you’re really going to need to play hurry-up and deliver the next generation of armor or vehicles that can be deployed for different kinds of environments,” Canton said.
The enemy, meanwhile, nonconventional or conventional, is more nimble. Al-Qaida in Iraq took off the shelf technology to construct the bombs that forced the military to create the MRAP. African rebels take Toyota pickups and adapt them for their purposes. If there is ever a confrontation between Iran and the United States in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran is more likely to use unconventional methods such as small boats to attack Navy destroyers, Canton said.
When it comes to research and development, “we are actually constrained by having too much money. … Having a big budget doesn’t mean you get big innovation,” Canton said.
Beyond the acquisition processes, tactical and combat vehicles of the future will be different, Canton and the company representatives said.
Oshkosh and Navistar continue to spend their own internal research-and-development dollars on a variety of new concepts. Both were reluctant to drill down into details that might tip off the competition. But Yakes and Torres agreed that autonomy is coming, and the two manufacturers are investing accordingly.
“The revolution that is really coming on military vehicles that has yet to be recognized is the autonomy technology that is being developed by a variety of different manufacturers,” said Yakes.
Automatic braking systems and active stability controls are sneaking into new truck designs and are just first steps, he said.
“You can also make it safer, more capable by letting the vehicle take over some of the functions,” he said. Oshkosh has prototypes of robotic vehicles that are already running full mission scenarios at normal speeds.
“We have spent a significant amount of our own dollars on autonomous technology development,” he said. Oshkosh is working toward having these types of functions “when called upon” by the military.
Navistar, which has a large footprint in the nonmilitary truck market, is leveraging similar demands for robotic technology in the commercial market, Torres said. Experiments in driverless vehicles are occurring throughout the world.
“Autonomy will be playing a bigger role on the commercial side as well as the military side,” Torres said.
Navistar is also looking at new concepts for drive trains. New trucks may no longer have them directly beneath the cabin. He did not want to provide details, but said the changes the company is considering for a truck’s inner workings would indirectly allow it to rethink cabin configurations. They could be more comfortable for drivers, and more ergonomically correct. More important for the military, this would allow engineers to make crew compartments more survivable.
“We will better be able to manage the blast energy,” he said.
Navistar and Oshkosh continue to work on exportable energy. Ground forces want their vehicles to serve as mobile generators, they said.
“Hybrid-electric, and exportable power is a topic that is near and dear to the military. We need to provide them more power in a more compact and more reliable way,” Torres said.
Future vehicles also need to take advantage of the information technology revolution, Canton said. They should be deployed and utilized more like unmanned aerial vehicles. They should not only be tele-operated or autonomous, but they should act as sensors, connect to computer grids, and access cloud computing. They should be able to do self-diagnostics and download fixes remotely.
At least one Army official shares this vision.
Army Chief of Transportation Brig. Gen. Stephen E. Farmen held up an iPhone while addressing the subject at the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement’s annual tactical vehicles summit.
“How do we put the kind of power and technology like this into a wheeled vehicle and hit the right price point?” the general said. The Army needs to channel the same ingenuity and creativity that went into building the iPhone to develop the trucks of the future, he said.
He called them iTWVs — wholly integrated platforms where maintenance, training and other activities are intertwined like apps on an iPhone. The Army needs to build intelligent systems where all of the relevant data is at the fingertips of an operator, Farmen said.
“An Audi A8 can drive down the road and make 3,000 decisions in a mile of travel,” Farmen said. “How many decisions are the next generation of wheeled vehicles going to be able to make?”
The vehicles driven by soldiers today aren’t like they used to be. And the drivers themselves have much more on their plates. Today, they are asked to be intelligence gatherers, sensors, diplomats and more, Farmen said.
In the future, all of these tasks could be performed with app-like ease.
Farmen urged contractors to think about truck operators as they engineer electronics packages for vehicles.
One of the goals of the JTLV program is to give the crew better situational awareness.
Officials say this can be done by using a more open electronics architecture that can facilitate the integration of future sensor, communications and navigation systems.
“Our vehicles are dumb,” Canton said. The good news is, “as we move forward, Moore’s law is our friend.”
Agile on-demand foundries are coming that can set up and start producing vehicles in 24 hours, Canton said. There are revolutions under way in nanotechnologies, data analytics and information technology that can converge in the next-generation military vehicle. The Army and Marine Corps have to leverage the rapid progress being made in these fields.
The military has already shown that these visions can be accomplished. It did so with the MRAP program, Canton said. It also showed flexibility by rapidly integrating unmanned aircraft and their sensors into war theaters, Canton said.
“Let’s stop thinking it has to be a $20 billion or $30 billion project, blow up the whole procurement system and try an X Prize competition. You might end up with a couple of designs that are amazing,” he said.
Additional reporting by Eric Beidel.