Army Covets Commercial Truck Technology Worldwide

By Sandra I. Erwin

Charged with the operation and maintenance of more than 200,000 trucks, the U.S. Army also is seeking to modernize the aging fleet. The service's strategy for doing so, however, is falling short in many areas, officials said.

"At the current rate of procurement, it will take about 48 years to replace our tactical vehicle fleet," said Gen. John G. Coburn, commander of the Army Materiel Command. Most trucks are designed to last no more than 20 to 25 years. "We have not been fixing our equipment," said Coburn. "We are going to have to go to a better program [to] insert technology."

The service's $942 million budget for tactical wheeled vehicle procurement in fiscal 2001, according to Army officials, is not adequate to buy enough modern trucks to replace old ones, even though it represents a $135 million increase from two years ago. It cost the Army $1.5 billion last fiscal year to operate and support the truck fleet.

"We are not getting ahead, even with the new investments," said Maj. Gen. John S. Caldwell, commander of the Army's Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM). The command manages the Army's fleets of heavy, medium and light trucks.

Caldwell spoke with National Defense during a recent conference in Monterey, Calif., sponsored by the tactical wheeled vehicles division of the National Defense Industrial Association. "We got way behind the power curve on maintaining the trucks," he said. "The average age of the fleet is getting older as we do the upgrades." According to Jim Sutton, program manager for heavy vehicles, about 70 percent of the line-haul fleet is outmoded.

"We want more cooperative agreements with commercial truck companies," said Caldwell. "That would allow us to leverage billions of dollars worth of technology investments" by the private sector, he said.

Caldwell's remarks, essentially, reflect the Army's strategy for making better use of its money: team with the private sector because the commercial truck makers already have developed and manufactured many of the products the Army wants.

In the future, however, the Army plans to double its expenditures on truck programs in order to keep up the aging fleet. Dan Mehney, director of acquisition at TACOM, said the spending plan peaks at $2.2 billion in fiscal 2003; and stays at about $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion a year through 2007. The biggest share of the Army's truck dollars goes to the medium-sized fleet, which has the oldest and most outdated vehicles.

The light truck fleet has 114,000 vehicles averaging 10 years of age. The medium fleet of 83,300 averages 22 years of age. And the heavy fleet of 25,400 is about 14 years old on average.

Light tactical vehicles weigh less than 2-1/2 tons. The fleet includes the ubiquitous HMMWV, or Humvee; the commercial utility cargo vehicles, or CUCVs; and smaller numbers of SUSVs (tracked small unit support vehicles) and armored security vehicles. These vehicles are used as weapons platforms, troop and general cargo transports, carriers for command-control-communications personnel and equipment, and as field ambulances.

Medium trucks generally weigh 2-1/2 to 5 tons. They include cargo trucks, vans, tractor trucks, wreckers and dump trucks. They are the primary movers of equipment and personnel in the field.

Heavy vehicles exceed 5 tons. They are heavy-duty load haulers-combat vehicle and weapon system transporters. They transport bulk quantities of fuel, ammunition and other supplies, deploying combat vehicles and combat engineer equipment. They also are used as long-haul highway transports.

The Army, additionally, has more than 110,000 trailers, including cargo trailers, flatbeds, low-beds, tankers, ammo trailers, vans and special purpose utility trailers. The U.S. Army National Guard has 121,000 tactical wheeled vehicles.

Industrial Base
By the end of this month, TACOM plans to wrap up an "industrial base sector analysis" that will examine the financial health of existing suppliers, said Mehney. Even before the study is completed, he noted, TACOM has concluded that the volume of production today is too low to achieve efficient assembly-line economies.

TACOM's own maintenance shop, the Red River Army Depot, in Texarkana, Texas, is seeking to pick up more truck overhaul work because, like some contractors, it currently does not have enough work to operate efficiently.

"We are looking at Red River Depot for overhauls of all types of trucks," said Caldwell. The depot has 2,822 employees and tenants, who work on tactical wheeled vehicles and light tracked combat vehicles.

Col. Jim Dwyer, the commander at Red River, said the depot is seeking to overhaul up to 30 percent of the Army's fleet during the next 15 to 20 years. "We could do more than 1,000 trucks a year," he told National Defense. "We can be competitive with commercial industry. The cost depends on the volume. We are looking for new partners to work on wheeled and tracked vehicles."

The U.S. congressman from Texarkana, Max A. Sandlin, has sent several letters to Army leaders complaining about what he believes is the service's lack of support for the depot. Red River was targeted for closure during the 1995 base realignment process, but survived. Through a spokesman, Sandlin said he opposes closure of the depot and often has been frustrated by the Army's attempts to do "back-door base closing" by reducing the workload at the depot. "That creates a downward spiral," said Sandlin's spokesman.

"It is true that we have been on a downward spiral," said Dennis L. Lewis, a Red River depot official. That has resulted from cutbacks in Army spending across the board, which have affected both the organic depots and the private contractors, he explained. "The work simply is not there," said Lewis. For that reason, he believes there should be a "healthy mix" of work shared by the depots and industry so the industrial base can survive, said Lewis.

Even though Red River is government-owned and government-operated, it wants to establish more joint ventures with industry because Army programs stand to benefit from the infusion of commercial technology and from competitive pricing, said Lewis.

Underlying the push for public-partner partnering, however, is the increasing convergence between requirements for military and commercial trucks.

Commercial truck makers today are seeking more rugged vehicles because the U.S. highways are deteriorating, said Henry Hodges Jr. , president of the Nevada Automotive Test Center (NATC) in Carson City, Nev. These truck producers also are seeking to expand sales in the Third World, where highways may not exist. That demands a new approach to building commercial trucks, Hodges told the conference in Monterey.

"The continued deterioration of the infrastructure of the United States means there will be an opportunity to leverage commercial solutions directly for military applications," said Hodges. "Now, commercial manufacturers have to deal with many of the same problems that we have to deal with in the military.

The global economy also drives truck designs, he added. "Commercial manufacturers, more and more, target Third World applications ... The truck design will be more robust to meet global needs."

The commercial trucking industry today is "booming," said James Hebe, president and chief executive officer of Freightliner Corporation. In 1999, the company sold more than 200,000 heavy trucks in the United States. That was a 60 percent increase over 1998 sales and gives the company a 38 percent share of the heavy truck market, Hebe told the conference.

Freightliner, based in Portland, Ore., also makes a variety of military heavy trucks such as M915s and palletized loading systems.

"Commercial vehicle technology contains a wealth of opportunity for the U.S. military," said Hebe.

Trucks coming off assembly lines now are "far more equipped to meet specific tasks" and more suited to military needs, he said. A case in point is long-haul freight trucks being built for inter-modal transportation. That means they can adapt to various modes of transport, such as aircraft, ships and rail cars.

These new vehicles also come with a "network of intelligent components" that facilitate communications between the driver, the truck and command centers, said Hebe.

"We are looking at a totally un-tethered vehicle," he said, which would operate virtually without maintenance and would be linked to a global communications network. To prevent vehicles from having accidents, Hebe said, the industry is developing transmissions that do not require shifting, so the driver can keep focused on the road. Other safety enhancements include cameras mounted inside the vehicle that alert the driver if the vehicle wavers from the road's white lines.

Modern trucks also come with advanced PCs, said Hebe. These are used for satellite tracking, navigation, voice interface, wireless communications and data transfer.

Michael A. Lapadula, vice president of marketing for Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions, said that, for $4,000 or less, a truck can be equipped with a system called OmniTRACS. This is a wireless network that comes with a military-style ruggedized computer. It provides global communications, two-way data flow, fleet management capabilities, diagnostics and interface with electronic technical manuals. There are 300,000 users of OmniTRACS worldwide, said Lapadula. These include 1,800 U.S. and European military units in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Customized Vehicles
One striking example of the growing commonality between commercial and military trucks is found in a program called COMBATT, or commercially based tactical truck. It is sponsored by the Army's National Automotive Center and managed by Veridian-ERIM International, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Participating manufacturers include DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co. and AM General.

The Army is considering the COMBATT vehicle as a future addition to the light truck fleet by 2003 or 2004. Funding for the project is $14 million over two years. Half the funds come from the three private firms. The government portion is shared by the National Automotive Center and by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Last month, industry representatives gathered at the NATC for a COMBATT demonstration, which included customized, off-road versions of the Ford F-350 and the Dodge 2500 Ram pick-up trucks, as well as a modified Humvee. The Humvee's prime contractor is Indiana-based AM General.

The goal is to see whether the Army can take the commercial platforms and modify them to meet military needs, said Richard Knox, who works on the project at Veridian-ERIM. Another objective in this program, said Knox, is to take those commercial technologies the Army wants and transfer them into the Humvee production line.

Each COMBATT platform would be priced at about $50,000, which would make it less costly than the Humvee. This does not mean, however, that COMBATT trucks will replace all Humvees, said Knox. Commercial trucks could replace Humvees only in niche applications, when the "extreme ruggedness" of the military trucks is not required, he said.

Modifications made to vehicles in the COMBATT program include:

  • The use of military 17.5-inch tires and a central tire inflation system.
  • Special air bags and shock absorbers.
  • Hydro-lock differentials, which allow the vehicle to distribute torque more efficiently.

John D. Weaver, a consultant for TACOM and a former Army program manager for light tactical vehicles, said today's Humvee cannot be replaced by commercial vehicles. He said the COMBATT vehicles should not be viewed as a competitor to the Humvee, but rather as an "opportunity," for the Army fleet to gain capability.

General Motors Corporation, Detroit, potentially could become a participant in programs such as COMBATT said George H. Baker III, the company's director of military tactical support vehicles. "We continue to evaluate our options, especially in the military truck market, where both technology and enhanced off-road capability are needed to meet customer expectations," he said in an interview.

The company is working on the commercial version of the Humvee, called the H2, which was displayed at the Detroit Auto Show in January. But, according to Baker, the company has not yet decided whether the H2 or another vehicle could become candidates for COMBATT-like programs. GM recently unveiled the third generation of the commercial utility cargo vehicle (CUCV-III) which is now being sold to the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and foreign customers. It can be adapted as a cargo/troop carrier, command vehicle, ambulance, or communications carrier. The previous versions, CUCV-I and CUCV-II, remain in service with U.S. and foreign military agencies.

Jerry Chapin, director of the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, endorsed the COMBATT program as a way to channel new technologies into military vehicles. "We have added 15 new commercial technologies to the Humvee" as a result of the COMBATT effort, Chapin said.

"The intent is to demonstrate how much performance you get out of a system as we try to move some portion of our requirements toward the commercial base," he explained. "This is a very good program in terms of looking at what role the Humvee should play in the Army and what role a commercial truck would play."

Topics: Tactical Wheeled Vehicles, Army News, Procurement

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