The Army is not known for its ability to rapidly acquire new technologies, and expensive, sophisticated platforms such as tanks, aircraft and trucks often end up on the chopping block when drastic cost savings need to be made.
The ultra light combat vehicle could be the exception to that rule. Although not yet a program of record, or even a stated requirement, Army officials believe they can move procurement efforts from first solicitation to initial operating capability in just three years.
If everything goes to plan, the Army could field about 300 ultra light combat vehicles by the end of fiscal year 2016, said Lt. Col. Kevin Parker, light branch chief of the mounted requirements division at the Maneuver Center of Excellence in Fort Benning, Georgia. The new trucks would give infantry brigade combat teams a brand new capability — the option of driving a vehicle from place to place rather than having to walk there.
But all of that relies on many factors, including when and if Army acquisition officials assign a program executive office to acquire a vehicle and whether the money is available in the fiscal year 2016 budget, said Carl Pignato, a light combat vehicle analyst at the mounted requirements division.
“If everything lines up and everybody’s on board as directed, we can move very quickly on this,” he said. “We have demonstrated that.” The Army put out a solicitation for a ULCV on Jan. 22, 2014 and conducted demonstrations six months later at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “That’s lightning speed in today’s acquisition world,” he said.
The Army wants to procure the first 300 vehicles to meet the “critical needs” of the global response force, a mission that is usually performed by the 82nd airborne division, Parker said.
“The way we’re going to deploy these is very similar to [mine resistant ambush protected vehicles],” he said. “The MRAPs aren’t resident in units. There’s a pool that they’re drawn from. We’re using that same kind of thought process for this. No one in the Army is interested in motorizing the infantry brigade combat teams. But we are interested in having the capability to selectively motorize when it’s required.”
The service is also considering the purchase of a second increment of ULCVs that would be stationed at Army installations responsible for training infantry. Whether that happens depends on the availability of funding, Parker said. The Maneuver Center of Excellence is in the process of determining how many vehicles would be needed and where they would be located.
Pignato and Parker said that the fiscal year 2016 IOC date is not set in stone. That was their best guess of how quickly the service could field a ULCV based on the vehicles they saw demonstrated.
“That clearly saved us several years of work, not only for the government, … but also industry,” Pignato said. “We told industry up front in a public notice, ‘Here are the threshold requirements,’ and we haven’t changed from the threshold requirements.”
In order to participate in the platform performance demonstrations, vendors were required to submit existing wheeled vehicles capable of transporting an infantry squad — nine soldiers and their gear — a range of at least 250 miles. They were not to exceed a 4,500-pound curb weight.
The Army wants a highly mobile vehicle capable of operating on paved roads, in urban rubble and off road during both day and night, the solicitation said. It must also be able to be transported internally in a CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter and sling loaded on a UH-60 Black Hawk.
Unlike most of the vehicles fielded during the past decade, the requirements for the ULCV focus on mobility, not on protective armor that restricts a truck’s ability to quickly move through varied terrain, Parker said.
According to the Army’s solicitation, the ultra light combat vehicle’s “base level of protection is provided by high mobility to avoid enemy contact.”
That the vehicle is light enough to be sling loaded by a UH-60 and transported at high altitudes and in hot conditions is another important point, Parker said. Battalion commanders have regular access to Black Hawks but cannot as easily get a hold of the Chinook helicopters necessary to transport heavier vehicles such as up-armored Humvees.
Six companies were chosen to take part in the demonstrations, which proved that multiple vendors had vehicles capable of meeting the Army’s threshold requirements, Parker said.
One vehicle showcased at the demonstrations was Boeing’s Phantom Badger, a 240-horsepower truck with a top speed of 80 miles per hour, said David Leroux, business development lead of the company’s special pursuits cell. The truck was internally funded and has been purchased by Special Operations Command.
“We’re trying to drive down the cost as much as possible, so we’re using as many [commercial off-the-shelf products] as we can,” he said. About 60 percent of the vehicle comprises COTS items, such as a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee engine.
The modular base truck can be outfitted with equipment packages for assault, crew rescue and special operations missions, for instance. The Phantom Badger on display at the Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting and exposition in October showcased a new mortar and ammunition module, which contains the service’s 120 mm mortar and fire control system and 22 rounds of ammunition.
“In 15 minutes, you can take out this module, put another module on it and do a completely different mission,” Leroux said.
Polaris Defense also demonstrated its new Dagor ultra light combat vehicle, said Mark McCormick, the company’s managing director. It was designed for special forces but meets the ULCV initial requirements.
Dagor’s purpose-built suspension system was inspired by designs found in the off-road racing industry. It allows the vehicle to carry payloads of up to 3,250 pounds over extreme, rocky terrain, company information said.
The fundamental difference between the special operations version and the one demonstrated for the Army is that the back end of the vehicle was converted from storage space to seating for infantrymen, McCormick said.
Pricing starts at $149,000 per vehicle, but would decrease if higher quantities are purchased, he said.
Officials from BAE Systems and Navistar said the companies did not participate in the demonstrations at Fort Bragg but continue to watch the program. General Dynamics Land Systems, AM General and Oshkosh Defense did not respond to requests for comment on whether they took part in the demonstrations.
The next step for acquisition officials to assign the ULCV to the program executive office that will be responsible for procuring it, Pignato said.
PEO Combat Support and Combat Service Support — the office responsible for procuring light tactical vehicles and other platforms — is waiting to see if it emerges as a program of record, said Scott Davis, its program executive officer.
“Today, there is no defined requirement, and I’m not even sure that we have the budget available for it, but it’s certainly a priority for us to look at,” he said in October.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about what can industry bring to bear, and then look at affordability,” he added.
There are no guarantees that a program-of-record will be established and that funding will be available, McCormick said. However, he is optimistic that Army leaders will support ULCV acquisition efforts because there are existing, non-developmental vehicles already available to meet the capability gap.
“I think a program like ULCV stands a much better chance of success and making it to production and meeting the Army’s FY ‘16 IOC based on the current priority they’re putting on it and the current approach that they seem to [taking] … which is leveraging an existing platform that has already gone through a number of stages of testing,” he said.
Parker stressed that the ultra light combat vehicle would not be replacing any other truck because legacy platforms are not capable of quickly moving troops through areas where soldiers usually must walk on foot. Humvees are too heavily up-armored to be able to penetrate difficult terrain, and infantry brigade combat teams will not likely use the joint light tactical vehicle — slated for IOC in 2018 — to transport squads.
The Army currently airdrops infantry on or near a target, or uses trucks to move troops to a safe location, he said. Then troops dismount and proceed to the target on foot, hauling all of their gear.
The ultra light combat vehicle capability would give commanders another option, Parker said.
“You don’t necessarily have to, for instance, land on the target. You can land away from the target and move to the target” via an off road avenue of approach that the enemy doesn’t expect, he said.
“I might have traveled 18 miles that otherwise I would have had to walk, and I get there fresh and I’m ready to fight as opposed to slugging through rough terrain at three-and-a-half miles an hour, walking all night to get to my objective and then having to fight,” he added.
The vehicle would also allow infantry forces to expand their area of influence once at a given location, he said. Once troops have accomplished their objective, they can quickly move on to another mission.
The threats on the battlefield are evolving, and tactical mobility is becoming more important to the Army as it evolves into a more expeditionary force, McCormick said.
“To drop an infantry squad in by airborne aerial assault and then expect them to walk with anywhere from 100 to 120 pounds worth of gear from a drop zone to a rally point to an objective” is “tough to do,” he said. “A lot of threats are running around in Toyota pickups or have individual ... cell phones that can readily identify our troops trying to move through off road terrain.”
Photo Credit: Polaris Defense/Boeing