The Marine Corps is taking advantage of commercial-off-the-shelf technology to equip troops with new logistics vehicles.
Infantry Marines recently received dozens of ultra light off-road vehicles to provide logistics support and help lighten their load, according to the service. The delivery in February came six months after the contract award to Polaris Defense for 144 diesel-powered MRZR-D4s.
The acquisition was part of the service’s utility task vehicle program, said Mark Godfrey, vehicle capabilities integration officer at the Marine Corps’ capabilities development directorate.
The rugged, all-terrain UTVs had a number of requirements, including the ability to carry four Marines, each weighing 250 pounds, and 500 pounds of cargo, or some variation of that, he noted. Additionally, the vehicles — which are roughly 12 feet long — needed to be internally transported by the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters.
“We’ve had a long-standing requirement for this type of internally transportable vehicle,” he told National Defense. “We had Marines that were in special purpose MAGTFs [Marine Air-Ground Task Forces] and forward deployed that were being … placed in areas of operations, and they didn’t have a logistics platform to support them once they hit the ground.”
The service had been looking to equip infantry regiments with such a platform since 2004 when the Marine Corps drafted a joint operational requirements document, Godfrey said.
However, “during the process of the fielding, and some budget decisions that were made, we never fielded to that particular part of the Marine Corps,” he said.
After continued feedback from operating forces asking for such a capability, the service went to work in 2012 to craft a universal need statement, and then throughout 2013 worked to better define the requirements, he said. In 2013 and 2014 the service began work with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory to conduct user evaluations, Godfrey said.
“They had already been doing some work on ultralight vehicles. And as we kind of narrowed the path … [we] found a few things that were available … sooner rather than later,” he said. “We ended up working with the warfighting lab to better define exactly how we would use this type of a vehicle especially in the infantry units.”
The service needed the platform to have a diesel engine because it wanted it to use the same fuel as the rest of the Marine Corps’ vehicles to reduce the logistics burden, Godfrey said. Special Operations Command has purchased the same platform from Polaris, but with a gas engine. The diesel variant debuted earlier this year.
The UTV also had to move cargo including food, ammunition and water, he said.
A Milestone C decision was reached in August which was when the service received its funding, he noted. Thirty-six vehicles were delivered to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and 18 to Camp Pendleton, California, in late February. The service will field all 144 systems and reach full operational capability by the end of April, he added. Some systems will go to Hawaii and Okinawa, Japan.
While the Marine Corps purchased the commercially available vehicles, it also acquired a number of accessories, including infrared light kits, cargo nets and weapon storage kits.
The service also had to implement a new training regimen for drivers, said Gene Morin, product manager for legacy light tactical vehicles at the Marine Corps’ program executive office for land systems.
“Safety was a big concern for us so we had to go out and develop a five-day training package that each Marine will go through before they get authorized to drive this vehicle,” he said. “This is an off-road vehicle and it handles much differently than a traditional asphalt-based, highway vehicle.”
Emanuel “Manny” Pacheco, a public affairs officer and congressional liaison at PEO land systems, noted that the five-day training course was in addition to the standard testing and licensing that a driver would have to go through.
Morin said the entire contract — which included the vehicles, field service support representatives, additional parts and training — cost around $10 million.
Purchasing the commercial-off-the-shelf system saved the service time and money, he added.
“The timeline is really remarkable,” he said. “We were able to save a lot of schedule on this even with testing, and very few R&D [research-and-development] dollars were invested by the program in order to do that.”
Godfrey said the Marine Corps is looking at the UTV and its fleet of legacy internally transportable vehicles, known as ITVs, as an interim solution as it works toward procuring its future capability.
“As these vehicles are being fielded, we’re continuing to gather information on what the replacement platform needs to be for that entire family of internally transportable vehicles,” he said.
There are two variations of the ITV — a light strike version and a prime mover variant, which carries an expeditionary fire support system that includes a 120mm mortar, Morin said. The service has 411 such vehicles in its inventory.
The internally transportable vehicle is substantially different than the utility task vehicle, he noted. The ITV’s mobility is comparable to that of “a Humvee, and the UTV is primarily off-road and a lot sportier and quicker, if you will,” he said.
The Marine Corps began fielding the internally transportable vehicle in 2008 and finished in 2012, Morin noted.
With the utility task vehicle, the service only expects it to have a lifespan of 10 years, Godfrey said.
“So as we’re working this, we’ve had the legacy platform out there for several years now,” he said. “We’re just fielding this UTV to complement that family of [internally transportable vehicles].” In about five years, the Marine Corps will need to look at replacing the entire 555-vehicle fleet. Its configuration in the future may be different than the current setup, Godfrey said.
“The one thing they have in common is they are all internally transported in the MV-22 but they still have different specific mission roles within the Marine Corps, and we need to do that further work to determine” if it will be one vehicle that can meet all the requirements or “maybe it’s more cost effective to go out and look at three different platforms because they are so specific in nature that one platform will not do it for everything,” he said.
The service will conduct market research to see what those potential platforms could look like, he said.
“We’re going to take the next couple of years to do that upfront analysis and then start to draft and write the requirements documents that we can hand over to the acquisition community to look at that future capability set,” he said.
The Marine Corps could once again go down a commercial-off-the-shelf path, Godfrey said.
“Everything is on the table at this point,” he said. “As long as it will ultimately … [meet] the capability requirements, that may be the best way to go. But at this point, we just really don’t know.”
It is also possible that it could go with another Polaris vehicle, Godfrey said. “Is there a potential for increased requirement? Absolutely. We continue to hear [from] different parts of the Marine Corps that would like a vehicle of this type, but we need to validate that it has to be this type of vehicle for their specific needs.”
Morin said the service wants to see industry offer the military more COTS options for vehicles.
”We’d like to see it drive in that direction,” he said. “Hopefully what we’ll be able to do as a service is to show [industry] … that there is a market out there [and] that if they’re willing to invest” it could be beneficial to them later on.
Joaquin Salas, manager at Polaris Government and Defense, said the company is seeing a trend across the military to procure systems faster, and buying systems commercial off the shelf is one way to do it.
“The defense industry writ large has a very clear understanding of the fact that the government is really trying to access better equipment faster and cheaper,” he said. “We have looked at that trend and said, ‘How can we help the military in our role?’”
Having manufacturers shoulder much of the development work, and having platforms ready to be bought off the shelf makes the military’s task much easier in reaching that goal, he added.
The contract with the Marine Corps is particularly important for Polaris because it is its first program of record with one of the major U.S. armed services, he said.
“It’s a budgeted item. This one is going to appear in the budget for maintenance and repair and support in the coming years,” he said. Previously — with the exception of some vehicles bought by Special Operations Command — when U.S. forces acquired Polaris vehicles it was through unit-level purchases. Those units would then have to sustain and maintain the platform themselves using discretionary funding.
“Having something in the budget, knowing that it’s part of a unit’s table of equipment is a pretty big step, especially in the Marine Corps,” Salas said.
The company has developed off-road vehicles for more than 60 years, and sold platforms to countries around the globe. It had annual sales of $4.7 billion in 2015.
Should the Marine Corps need any additional MRZRs, Polaris would be able to meet that demand, he said. Photo: A utility task vehicle (Marines)