Marine Corps’ Vehicle Buyers Turn to Auto Industry for Inspiration

By Grace V. Jean
Sorry, marines, you’re not going to get Mustang convertibles for the battlefield. But expeditionary F-150 trucks? Well, maybe.

When Lt. Gen. George Flynn, the commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, paid a visit to Ford Motor Co. in November, he was seeking insight into how the automobile industry is able to develop a new product in only a few years and get it out to the market for a reasonable price.

“What do they do that’s different? Before they make their production decisions, they have their requirement proved out to the 98 percent solution. But even before that, they’ve figured out what’s possible. There are lessons to take away from that,” he said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s combat vehicles conference in Dearborn, Mich.

For a force that has been grappling with how to develop and afford technologies that will enable marines to respond to crises ranging from war and civilian evacuations to natural disasters and humanitarian missions, those lessons are vital.

Military equipment, especially ground vehicles and infantry gear, has become exponentially more expensive in recent years. Outfitting an individual marine five to six years ago cost $1,500. Today, it costs $7,500. The original Humvee sold for $50,000 when it was first built in 1985. Today, price projections for a potential replacement truck run anywhere between $300,000 to $400,000, Flynn said.

The challenge for the Marine Corps is affording everything it needs to fight in the future on a ground procurement budget that is expected to fall back to an average of $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year, or less. “This is truly the problem that keeps me up at night,” he admitted. “We want to spend a nickel and we want you to give us back a quarter. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”

But that is easier said than done. The Defense Department is notorious for making too many demands in a program.

“We overreach on technology and as a result, we underestimate the cost and we underestimate the time to be able to do it. That’s typically how a program gets in trouble,” he said during a breakfast roundtable with reporters in Washington. Having a conversation with industry on the capability in the beginning, when officials are just beginning to lay out their needs, can help avoid problems.

“I think we need a better dialogue between requirements and acquisition,” he said.

They conduct those discussions now, but both parties do not drill down enough to have frank discussions. “If I say, ‘I’d really like program X to do this,’ and they say, ‘Well, we can do that,’ what’s missing in the dialogue is, ‘To do that is going to cost you this amount of money. It’s going to cost you this amount in time.’ That’s where I think we can do better. That’s why I went out to Ford, to kind of see how they are doing it,” Flynn explained.

One of the big lessons he learned was the effort the automobile industry invests in computer modeling to simulate business decisions. “They have a really good idea of what is in the art of the possible, and they’ve done their tradeoffs in the computer world, which is probably where we need to be able to do a better job of doing that,” he said.

Defense officials need to be more informed about what they are asking industry to build and to understand the cost implications and systems engineering pieces that go along with those decisions. “Making the tradeoffs between armoring and power trains and everything else — that’s hard stuff,” he said.

Marine officials often do not realize the tradeoffs until it is too late. For example, if officials told industry that they needed a new aircraft to go 350 knots, companies would set out to meet that requirement. But what usually happens is that the Marine Corps later finds out about other options. In the case of the hypothetical aircraft, for example, officials might discover that asking for 330 knots instead of 350 knots could have resulted in cost savings and faster technology development. But because they did not know about the tradeoff earlier, the marines are stuck footing the bill for a 20-knot difference.  

“Imagine if industry had a little more time at the front end of this to talk to the requirements folks, for them to be able to come to you and say, ‘Okay, here’s the capability I think I want. What can you deliver?’ That’s the way we have to be able to have this dialogue with industry,” Flynn said.

The Marine Corps wants to develop vehicles suitable for a “middleweight” force. Like a middleweight boxer, it wants to have a knockout punch against a heavyweight champion, but it doesn’t necessarily want to go 15 rounds against that fighter.

“We do not want to be the land dominator. That is not our role. If you are a middleweight force, it drives you to certain equipment requirements,” Flynn said.

That includes ship-transportable gear that is lighter weight and a means for marines to take that equipment from the ocean onto the shore.  

“As a force operating from the sea, we need to do a seamless transition from sea to land. That’s why the replacement of the almost 40-year-old amphibious assault vehicle with a modern amphibious tracked vehicle remains our number one priority,” he told the conference.

But the Marine Corps has struggled for years to replace it with the expeditionary fighting vehicle, a program that has experienced cost overruns so high that industry analysts believe the Defense Department may ultimately cancel it. But until a decision is made, program officials will continue trucking along with its development.

So far they have tested initial system prototypes for speed, firepower and armor protection. The program office is pursuing reliability testing with the intent of reaching 43.5 hours mean time between operational mission failure when the first low-rate initial production vehicles begin coming off the assembly line, said Col. Keith Moore, program manager.

An upcoming demonstration of reliability could be a make-or-break test for the program. Officials hope to attain 16 to 22 hours mean time between operational failures. “That is a key decision point,” he said.

As they work toward the demonstration, officials continue to have interest in technologies that will improve the vehicle as it develops. They are tracking advancements in lightweight armor, blast-resistant seating for cabin safety and survivability, heat-resistant materials, self-sealing fuel tanks and cooling systems, among others.

As for the rest of the force, the Marine Corps will be looking to purchase some new ground vehicles as it recapitalizes its older trucks. Its strategy is similar to the Army’s “buy less, more often” concept, which aims to stretch the service’s budget dollars across a longer period to afford technologies that can make it to the battlefield before they are outdated.

“I’m looking at building a middleweight force which at times will be at odds with the Army’s requirement,” Flynn said. “I need your help to give me some of those innovative solutions that will help us become the middleweight force and be light.”

Topics: Combat Vehicles

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