Tactical Trucks for Tomorrow’s Army: Can Commercial Vehicles Do the Job?

By Sandra I. Erwin

In dire need to replace dilapidated jeeps, the U.S. Army in the early 1980s bought commercial pick-up trucks and sent them to front-line combat units in the deserts of Southwest Asia.

The results were disastrous.

These trucks essentially were run-of-the-mill pick-ups with camouflage paint. They were not robust enough for off-road driving. So the Army decided that the only light truck it would buy in the future would be the Humvee (high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle), which has become a mainstay of the Army’s fleet since it was introduced in the mid-1980s.

Humvees are rugged, highly mobile and flexible for all-around combat operations. In 1989, they became the “official” light tactical truck of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

But commercial auto manufacturers, working in alliance with the Army’s National Automotive Center in Detroit, now claim that they can deliver high-performance light trucks for military use. They would not be able to match every capability in the Humvee, but they believe they could provide most of what the Humvee offers, at a lower price.

The National Automotive Center (NAC), which operates under the Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, serves as a liaison between the Army and the commercial auto industry, particularly the Big Three in Detroit: DaimlerChrysler, the Ford Co., and General Motors. One of the NAC’s missions is to help the Army modernize its vehicles by adopting state-of-the-art commercial technology from the civilian sector.

Thus emerged the Combatt program.

Combatt , or commercially-based tactical truck, began as a technology-sharing project to facilitate the insertion of advanced components and subsystems into the Humvee fleet. But during the past three years, Ford and DaimlerChrysler, in a cost-sharing agreement with NAC, have developed two prototype vehicles that many experts believe can meet most of the Humvee operational requirements while providing comfort features—such as air-conditioning, quiet cabs and cushy seats—that are common in today’s commercial models.

Ford’s Combatt platform is an F350 4x4 four-door crew cab pick-up truck. DaimlerChrysler’s is a Dodge 2500 4x4 four-door quad cab.

General Motors Corp., which had been a participant in Combatt earlier on, withdrew its Silverado truck from the program, but recently came back after signing an agreement with NAC.

GM, to be sure, is not new to the military truck market. The company makes the so-called commercial utility cargo vehicle (CUCV), which has been sold to the U.S. military services since 1983, even though the Army was disappointed by its performance in off-road operations. When the CUCV failed to meet the Army’s expectations, the service decided to purchase Humvees only.

Vehicle Prototype
During the 2001 National Defense Industrial Association’s tactical wheeled vehicles symposium in Monterey, Calif., GM representatives parked a Combatt prototype in front of the conference site.

That was seen as a clever marketing move by some industry executives at the conference. But it did not go well with the Army’s program office for light tactical trucks.

“To be advertising this capability as a Humvee-replacement is off the mark,” said Nancy Moulton, who manages the Army’s fleet of more than 100,000 light tactical wheeled vehicles. “The commercial trucks are cheaper, but Humvees last three times as long and do not fall apart like our CUCV program did,” she told National Defense during the conference.

Commercial trucks, she added, “have potential as general administration trucks but [are not suitable] for war fighting. We are not going to sacrifice any war-fighting capabilities.”

One benefit that Moulton would like to see as a result of the Combatt program is expanded competition in the industry, she said. Currently, only AM General Corp., in South Bend, Ind., makes the Humvee. The company also makes a commercial variant, called the Hummer. An upgraded version of the Hummer, known as the H2, will be built by a partnership between GM and AM General.

“When we competed the last Humvee buy, AM General was the only bidder,” said Moulton. “We need more competition. We hope the Combatt program will provide incentives for the Big Three to want to compete in a light tactical vehicle program. ... We would like to have the new capabilities, more competition and better prices.”

She is not convinced that large auto-makers will want to invest resources in vehicles that will only produce small runs. The Army’s fleet of about 100,000 is pocket change for companies used to making millions of vehicles.

Moulton acknowledged that Combatt trucks have improved their suspension for off-road driving, but they are still not “at the Humvee level.” Some day, she added, “they may be, but not now.”

An industry source, who did not want to be quoted by name, said that Moulton “has been very antagonistic to the Combatt program from the beginning.” According to this source, who works closely with Army truck programs, Moulton was approached by NAC officials to become involved in the program but she consistently has declined to participate.

When asked about the future of Combatt, the director of the NAC, Dennis Wend, said the program is in a wait-and-see mode.

“We have to play out and see where that is going to go,” he said. “We are in the process of getting a third vehicle, from GM, at their own cost. ... People are looking at [ Combatt] in different ways, and it would be premature to talk about it any further.”

The NAC’s deputy director, Paul Skalny, characterized Combatt as the Army’s “21st century light truck.”

Harrold L. Almand manages the program at the NAC. He said in an interview that it is understandable for the Army to resist commercial trucks after the CUCV experience. “The CUCV was an excellent vehicle on road, but did not perform off road.”

GM’s director of military sales, George Baker, told National Defense that the company is changing the name CUCV to “tactical support vehicle.” The trucks are available on the GSA schedule, he said, and feature enhancements such as central tire inflation, skid plates and night-vision capabilities.

The Combatt truck, meanwhile, “is not another CUCV,” Almand said. Most of the enhancements found in Combatt trucks were designed to improve mobility, durability and payload capacity, he explained. “It has the same tire footprint as the Humvee.” Features such as central tire inflation and electronic shock absorber controls help in off-road driving, he added.

Almand could not offer any predictions on whether the Combatt trucks will ever become a full-fledged “acquisition program.” More testing needs to be done to convince the users, he said.

“These vehicles are not meant to replace the Humvee, but to supplement the light tactical vehicle fleet,” Almand stressed. There are certain geographical areas, such as the Northwestern United States and parts of the Korean Peninsula, where commercial trucks would not make it because the boulder-plagued terrain is too rough.

Of interest to potential customers is that Combatt trucks are 30-40 percent more fuel-efficient than the Humvee, he said. The Air Force and the U.S. Border Patrol, among others, have expressed interest in these vehicles, he added.

Almand does not expect that the Army will replace Humvees with commercial trucks, but he believes that they offer a less-costly alternative to fulfill current shortfalls in the light truck fleet that exist because the Army has bought about 20,000 fewer Humvees than its stated requirement. “That presents an opportunity for Combatt.”

Test Phase
The NAC completed the first phase of the Combatt testing program last summer. The tests were conducted at the Nevada Automotive Test Center, in Carson City, Nev. Almand hopes to begin phase II during the next several months. To meet government qualification standards, the latter phase would have to take place at a government site, such as the Army’s Aberdeen Test Center.

The systems integrator who modified the Ford and the Dodge trucks during the first phase (1998-2000) of the Combatt program was Veridian Engineering, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“We did a lot of simulation and modeling for mobility, to find out what we had to do to make these vehicles perform like Humvees in cross-country mode,” said Richard Knox, director of the automotive and transportation center at Veridian.

Cross-country operations tear down vehicles that are not built and engineered properly, he said in an interview. “Large forces [pounding] into the frame eventually destroy the vehicle. We avoided that by tuning the suspension and shock system.”

Tuning shocks is a “black art,” he said. “You have to run them in rough terrain with experts on board who know what they are doing.

As part of the Combatt contract, Veridian also modified a baseline Humvee truck and retrofitted it with advanced technologies to enhance safety, reliability and overall performance. That upgraded Humvee prototype was a “monster truck,” said Knox. “It was very successful.”

The Army and AM General currently are evaluating these technologies as potential insertions into a new Humvee variant, the A4. The company is studying options for an A4 model under a research and development contract awarded last August, said Craig McNabb, spokesman for AM General.

Last November, AM General was awarded a seven-year $2 billion contract for 31,000 A2 vehicles. The A2s are the most capable Humvees available today, said McNabb. There is an expanded-capacity variant, with a heavier payload than the A2, which is used as a shelter carrier and for the up-armored model.

An A3 version would be built under a yet-to-be-funded recapitalization program to refurbish the old A0 models.

“The Army hasn’t yet defined what will be in the A4,” said McNabb. “There are things that might be too expensive,” such as an anti-lock breaking system, to prevent skidding, or sound-proofing the interior of the vehicle.

The debate on whether commercial vehicles could offer a lower-cost alternative to the Humvee is not new, McNabb said. “The idea of buying commercial trucks gets brooded about from time to time. They have tried that for decades in the military, and it almost never works.”

McNabb does not believe that Combatt was conceived “as a way to provide additional vehicles. ... It is a technology insertion program. We participated in it. There is no plan to buy any other vehicles, other than Humvees.”

AM General joined the program, he explained, in order to identify technologies available in the commercial automotive sector that may be inserted into the Humvee. He noted, however, that “there are other people with other agendas.”

Cost comparisons between commercial trucks and Humvees can be misleading, said McNabb, because there is a wide range of prices for Humvees. “We make a bunch of different models. Some cost more than others,” he said.

According to an Army source, the average price of a baseline A2 model is $57,000. If the A4 model is built, it could end up costing about $68,000 apiece, depending on what features are included, said the source. Remanufactured Humvees, which the Army has not authorized or funded, would cost half what a new one costs. The Combatt trucks, said industry officials, would cost at least $48,000.

The vehicle price tag would be only one factor in the cost equation, said Knox. If auto makers leased Combatt trucks to the Army, this would be an attractive financial proposition for the service, because it would allow them to pay for the lease with “O&M” dollars, said Knox. O&M are operations and maintenance funds, as opposed to “acquisition” dollars, which are harder to come by in the Army today.

One concept that had been considered by the Army was to lease the vehicles, along with a logistics support package. These vehicles would go to units that typically don’t see front-line combat: division headquarters, corps headquarters, which spend most of their time on hard road and don’t require the extreme cross-country mobility of the Humvee.

“The Army does not have enough procurement dollars to modernize the Humvee fleet,” said Knox. But it may have O&M dollars to lease vehicles.

As to whether any of the Detroit Big Three auto makers would have enough financial incentive to pursue low-volume Army leases, Knox speculated that the main prize would be the “bragging rights” associated with being the provider of trucks for the U.S. Army.

“GM has been selling CUCVs for years. It’s a niche market,” he said. “If this program ever goes forward, they would sell a lot overseas. A lot of overseas armies would love to have a commercial-grade pick-up truck that could go cross-country and carry two tons of weight.”

“There is a great aftermarket for these vehicles,” Knox added. “Every deer-hunter in Michigan would love to have one.”

As more capacity in commercial plants becomes available, given the current consumer-buying downturn, “I think [the military] is going to become a very lucrative market for the companies,” said Knox.

The U.S. Air Force is particularly interested in purchasing commercial pick-up trucks for troops who patrol missile fields in the Midwest, he said. Those are 200-300 mile runs that would be made much more comfortable in a soft-seat pick-up truck with heating/air conditioning, Knox said. “They would like to have a Combatt truck with all the amenities of a commercial vehicle.”

Any future role for Combatt trucks would not be on the front-lines, but in the rear and garrison units, he said. They would not be robust enough for a combat zone. Army mechanics only are trained to fix Humvees. “When you are in combat, how do you get [a commercial vehicle] repaired in the front lines? If a generator gets shot up, does a Ford mechanic go in the line of fire?”

Knox believes that is one of the major considerations that is driving the Army’s decision to buy only Humvees. “It’s a valid concern.”

The Humvee is “still the top dog in its class for heavy duty off road in the tactical scenario,” said John D. Weaver, the Army’s former program manager for light tactical wheeled vehicles.

But, he added, “to take a line from the Oldsmobile commercial, the Combatt truck is not your father’s CUCV.”

The original CUCV suffered a bad reputation for two reasons, explained Weaver. First, the performance gap between the CUCV and the Humvee was significant. Second, it was fielded to units that should not have had it. It was new, the jeeps were old, so it went to front-line units that needed a more robust and mobile vehicle.

Choosing between commercial trucks and Humvees “is not an easy decision,” he said. “Cost, performance and politics all play into a decision on how to maintain the light tactical fleet.”

To meet the needs of today’s force, Weaver said, the Army’s buying strategy should include purchases of both new Humvees and commercial trucks, as well as a development program for a follow-on light tactical vehicle. “I don’t believe anybody has enough information to make a decision on the proper strategy at this time.”

The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said Weaver, “needs to revalidate the actual need for the Humvee-level performance for all Army missions and the other services need to provide their input.” For example, the Marine Corps may need the higher mobility, but the Air Force may not. There are missions that the commercial vehicle may just not satisfy.

There is a large volume of data on the life-cycle cost and performance of the Humvee, he added, but little is available on the Combatt vehicle. “The argument can only be truly settled if the services make an investment to conduct performance and reliability testing on the commercial vehicle as they did in 1981 with the CUCV, and the potential suppliers of the commercial vehicles provide real operational cost and reliability information.”

The only testing accomplished so far in the Combatt program was done at the Nevada Automotive Test Center. Colin Ashmore, the center’s director of engineering, said the tests focused on “reliability, availability, maintainability and durability.” The trials were run 30 percent on paved road, 30 percent on gravel and 40 percent cross country.

“We are doing this now so we have some data to work with,” said Ashmore in an interview. Tests with the GM Silverado will go on for another six to eight months.

“Our job is to get GM caught up on what had been done on a Ford and Dodge chassis. GM paid for all the work to catch up,” Ashmore said.

At the NATC, engineers took a basic 2001 Silverado truck and put a lift kit on it to bring the body up higher. They fitted it with Humvee-size tires (Goodyear 37x12.5R17) and an onboard central tire inflation system, which allows the driver to inflate and deflate the tires on the move. Lower pressures are required on sand and gravel and higher pressures on highways.

“Combatt would meet 80 percent of the Humvee’s mission,” said Ashmore. “It will never be a tactical truck that replaces the Humvee. It’s to be used on military bases and non-tactical environments.”

Humvee-only missions would include, for example, fording, traveling at high speeds on rough ground, carrying machine guns, go places in the sand where a commercial truck will never be able to go, he explained.

Given the number of miles that are accumulated in the military environment, Ashmore noted, a Combatt truck probably would have an average lifespan of 10 years, or half the life of a Humvee.

Topics: Tactical Wheeled Vehicles, Test and Evaluation, Research and Development

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