Army Truck Buyers Face ‘Fix or Purchase’ Dilemma

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Army’s aging fleet of 160,000 Humvees needs to be modernized, officials say. The plan is twofold: Refurbish a portion of the Humvee fleet and replace the rest with brand-new trucks.

It sounds simple enough, except that the project has become a high-profile test of whether the Army, after a string of failed weapon-acquisition programs, can successfully carry this one out.

This month, the Army plans to launch the so-called Modernized Expanded Capacity Vehicle, or MECV, program. It will select up to three contractor teams to take old Humvees and turn them into high-performance, blast-survivable vehicles. The project has drawn significant industry attention. Suppliers regard it as a “must win” as they expect military procurements to decline in the coming years.

The Army’s program office that oversees tactical vehicles could award up to three fixed-price contracts of up to $4.5 million each by May 2012.

MECV winners would first build prototypes. If the vehicle goes into production, the Army could buy as many as 5,750 trucks, at a cost of no more than $180,000 each.

Companies believe that the MECV winner could stand to gain billions more dollars of additional work down the road, if the Army chooses to refurbish one-third of its Humvee fleet. Additional business could come from the Marine Corps, which also plans to embark on a Humvee modernization effort, possibly in 2014, and will be closely watching what the Army does. Both services plan to keep Humvees in their truck inventories for at least another two decades.

The other piece of the truck modernization strategy is the Army-Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, or JLTV, program. The Army wants to buy up to 25,000 new JLTVs over the next decade, although the program is at risk of losing its funding. Senate appropriators already have sought to terminate JLTV on the premise that the program has been mismanaged and that the services have not justified the need for an expensive new vehicle.

In response to the appropriators’ concerns, Army and Marine Corps leaders have joined forces in a bid to spare JLTV from the budget ax.

Both the Humvee recapitalization and JLTV are needed to modernize the fleet, said Thomas Bagwell, the Army’s deputy program executive officer for combat support and combat service support.

These two programs have “always been envisioned as complementary efforts,” he said during a news conference at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention. The MECV is seen as a low-cost means of bringing new life to Humvees that have taken a beating from combat and have grown so overweight from armor plates that they can no longer be transported by helicopter. The JLTV, meanwhile, is expected to deliver the perfect balance of “payload, performance and protection” that Army officials say cannot be achieved by rebuilding Humvees.

“MECV is drawing the best options from industry to restore mobility and protection,” said Col. David Bassett, project manager for tactical vehicles. “But that program will not satisfy all the requirements in our light fleet.”

The MECV-JLTV modernization game plan, however, is creating the dilemma that frequently arises in military programs. In a time of shrinking funds, does it make more sense to upgrade the current equipment or trade up?

“It’s critical for us to … make sure we don’t end up spending more to sustain the Humvee than on buying a new vehicle,” Bassett said at the news conference.

The Army wants to spend no more than $180,000 per Humvee, and expect the base model of JLTV to cost $250,000. Some truck manufactures, meanwhile, have thrown a wrench into the Army’s cost calculations by introducing new light trucks that they claim would offer a better deal than a Humvee recapitalization.

Oshkosh Defense, a manufacturer of medium and heavy military trucks, as well as the all-terrain mine-resistant ambush protected truck, or M-ATV, recently unveiled a “light combat tactical all-terrain vehicle” that it plans to offer as a MECV or a JLTV candidate. The new vehicle is 10,000 pounds lighter than the 25,000-pound M-ATV, and far more suitable for off-road use, said Meghan Zeimet, senior program manager at Oshkosh Defense.

“We believe this is a better solution” than a modified Humvee, she said. “Recapitalization only gets you half-way there.” The Oshkosh vehicle would be priced in the $230,000 to $270,000 range.

Navistar Defense, also a truck manufacturer, introduced the International Saratoga light tactical vehicle as a candidate for both the MECV and JLTV programs. “Defense budgets are shifting and the circumstances demand that industry anticipate what our war fighters need rather than wait for a written requirement,” said Archie Massicotte, president of Navistar Defense.

Bassett said he would be taken aback if any manufacturer offered a new vehicle in the price range of the MECV. Setting the cost ceiling at $180,000, he said, “we believed would force vendors into some level of reuse. … We think it is unlikely that a vendor can deliver an upgraded truck, entirely from new components, at that price target,” he said. “It’s not precluded entirely, but I would be surprised. If they do, it is something that we ought to look at.”

Bassett said he believes the MECV program is “drawing the best options from industry to restore mobility and protection” to the Humvee.

Vehicle suppliers, fearful of impending budget cuts, are betting that the Army will stick with the Humvee upgrade, even as it continues to back JLTV.

No company has more at stake in MECV than the Humvee’s manufacturer, AM General of South Bend, Ind. The firm has teamed with other suppliers and plans to offer to the Army two different proposals for Humvee modernization.

AM General has delivered 200,000 Humvees to the U.S. military, including 160,000 to the Army. Production of new Humvees for the Army ended in December 2010, so the recap program is the company’s big chance at keeping its manufacturing line busy for decades to come.

“The Humvee platform still has a lot of growth left in it,” said Charles M. Hall, president and CEO of AM General. He predicts MECV will grow beyond the current 5,750 vehicles, simply because funding cutbacks may not allow the Army to buy a new vehicle.

“Money is tight,” Hall said in a recent interview. “What we continue to focus on is evolving and providing solutions to our platform so they [the Army and Marine Corps] don’t have to buy new vehicles or fund new development programs,” Hall said. “Getting more value out of our platform makes a lot of sense.”

One of AM General’s proposed MECV designs is a Humvee retrofitted with a ceramic armor crew cab made by Plasan North America. The cab’s modularized design allows it to dissipate the energy of a bomb blast, according to AM General spokeswoman Celeste Ross. The other concept — developed in partnership with Hardwire Armor Systems — is a dramatic departure from conventional vehicle protection techniques. It is a Humvee with a modified cab that features a “blast chimney.” If the vehicle were struck by a bomb, the force of the explosion would be sent up through the vehicle’s roof, instead of being absorbed by the vehicle and by the occupants, said Hardwire spokesman John Hammond.

AM General officials contend that the MECV program does not fully take advantage of the possible upgrades that could be made to the vehicle. “The Humvee has more potential in protection, mobility and fuel economy than what is required in MECV,” said Christopher P. Vanslager, executive director of program management at AM General.

If the Army and Marine Corps eventually decided to stop investing in the Humvee and transition to JLTVs, the company is hedging its bets by teaming with General Dynamics Land Systems for the JLTV competition. Several defense industry power players, including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin Corp., Navistar and Oshkosh Defense also are expected to enter the fray.

A host of other companies are jumping into the MECV competition. Armor manufacturer Ceradyne and Gravikor designed an “open frame” concept that replaces the Humvees’ armored crew cab with a reconfigurable structure that gives the vehicle crews options to swap out armor doors for canvas doors, and vice versa, depending on the level of protection desired.

Another contender is Textron Marine & Land Systems, teamed with Granite Tactical Vehicles, which designed a blast-resistant crew compartment, known as a “capsule.” The concept retains about 80 percent of the existing Humvee and replaces the body and suspension, said Chris Berman, president of Granite Tactical Vehicles. He said the capsule makes the vehicle quieter, more comfortable and, more importantly, allows soldiers to drive off-road, something they cannot do with the current up-armored Humvees.

Soldiers have been saying for years they want their Humvees back, he said. Not the overweight Humvees, but the lighter ones that can go anywhere and climb walls. Saddled with tons of extra armor, many of the current Humvees have overtaxed suspensions and cannot be driven off road, he said.

AM General officials dispute that assertion. They claim that upgraded suspensions, wheels, frames and other components have restored the off-road mobility of Humvees, compensating for the added weight of armor.

Bassett said he is aware of recent advances that now make it possible to build a bomb-resistant truck at a lower weight. Blast tests, for instance, have demonstrated that a reengineered Humvee can be as survivable as an M-ATV, at 10,000 fewer pounds.

“Industry has learned that there is no silver bullet,” said Bassett. “It’s about smart engineering. You can deflect or absorb blast forces with seats or blast absorbent floors,” he said. “We talk about comprehensive blast management. We think the companies that understand that engineering and integrate those things well are going to be postured to compete effectively.”

Because of the high-level scrutiny that truck programs have received in recent years, more technologies have caught the eye of senior management, noted Daniel Pierson, the Marine Corps’ deputy program executive officer for land systems.

“Because of the fiscal environment … senior leadership is open to new ideas from industry,” Pierson said. “Technologies that were not originally on the table had to be considered [such as the] capsule vehicle and the structural blast chimney,” he said. “It got leaders’ attention. A lot of trips were made to see demos.”

Pierson insisted the Marine Corps is “going to work very closely with the Army on Humvee recap. We are going to be partners throughout, even though we are not buying new trucks. We will try to harvest technologies from that program into our fleet.”

The Corps expects to modernize anywhere from 4,000 to 13,000 Humvees by 2025.  

Topics: Land Forces

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