No Stranger to Scrutiny, New Truck Program Forges Ahead
Confronted by challenges and naysayers, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program so far has avoided ultimate doom.
The Army and Marine Corps in August announced contract awards for the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase of the marquee truck program, which is supposed to give troops greater off-road mobility than a Humvee with the blast protection provided by the much heavier Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicle.
There were hints of protests from losing bidders and even one filed and taken back. As it stands, the field has been whittled down to three contenders that will be under pressure to deliver affordable vehicles to a military struggling to keep costs down.
Oshkosh Corp., which was shut out of an earlier technology development (TD) phase, now has a $56.4 million contract to produce 22 prototype vehicles within a year for further government testing. Lockheed Martin received a $66.3 million contract and AM General, which previously had teamed with General Dynamics as General Tactical Vehicles for the TD phase, received a $64.5 million EMD contract for an independent vehicle design.
As of early September, GTV officials told National Defense they were still mulling over whether to file a protest. Navistar filed and withdrew one and is keeping an eye on re-entering the competition when it comes time for a production contract.
In the year leading up to the EMD awards, JLTV was under scrutiny from every corner. Elected officials recommended cutting some or all of its funding, and the Army and Marine Corps had different visions for the vehicle. Now the Pentagon is touting the program as a prime example of how cross-service collaboration can shave costs and nail down requirements.
“Synergy is imperative in this austere budget,” said William Taylor, program executive officer for Marine Corps Land Systems.
The importance of the program both to the military and to the tactical wheeled vehicle marketplace was clear in the interest it generated throughout industry. The Army and Marine Corps even extended the deadline for bids to encourage the broadest possible response from companies. Seven teams ended up submitting proposals for EMD contracts.
Plans to upgrade thousands of Humvees and similarities with MRAP and its all-terrain variant, the M-ATV, had experts warning of redundancies. But Pentagon officials said there are hundreds of requirements for the JLTV program the other vehicles could not meet.
Chief among them is the lighter weight. The JLTV is supposed to be 14,000 pounds or less, about half the size of the M-ATV, which itself is significantly lighter than some MRAP vehicles.
The new truck program was in no-man’s land for a time while the Army and Marine Corps seemed to be headed in opposite directions regarding protection levels on the vehicle. Marine Corps officials worried that too much armor would prevent the vehicles from being carried by helicopter. They said they couldn’t afford a truck that costs more than $300,000 and wouldn’t buy one that weighed too much.
The services eventually came together on a set of standards, rearranged the acquisition strategy and now expect contractors to produce vehicles at a much lower cost, about $250,000 per unit. Earlier estimates put the cost as high as $418,000.
Contractors struggled to meet weight expectations for the program during the TD phase, and the government relaxed some requirements that were contributing to added pounds. Lockheed Martin officials said the vehicle they will take into the next phase is predominately the same one they’ve had since day one — just less expensive.
“The government made very clear the cost target for production,” said Kathryn Hasse, director of the company’s JLTV program. “As part of the EMD proposals, we had to show them how we could achieve that, and the government believes we have a low-risk approach to achieve that.”
To shave costs, Lockheed has optimized its design for production and stripped its vehicle of exotic materials such as titanium. The company also has reached a high-degree of commonality across its JLTV variants when it comes to fuel efficiency, Hasse said. In the TD phase, the heaviest variant was achieving well over 10 miles per gallon, she said.
“That’s a very significant increase over what the services are currently realizing in theater on fully-burdened vehicles,” Hasse said.
Oshkosh offers an optional diesel-electric hybrid power train that could further improve fuel economy for the L-ATV and lower life-cycle costs, officials said.
Oshkosh began its vehicle concept back in 2006 after it was clear that enemy tactics on today’s battlefield blurred the lines between the front and rear, said John Bryant, vice president and general manager of joint and Marine Corps programs at Oshkosh. The company designed six generations of light vehicles to respond to shifting requirements. Because of the vast amount of research and development it had done, Oshkosh went through the iterations quickly, pulling cost out of the vehicle with each new addition, Bryant said.
“What usually would take months, took weeks. What would take years, took months,” he said.
Oshkosh’s bid was based on its L-ATV. It looks similar to the company’s M-ATV, but it weighs about half as much. National Defense took two turns in the vehicle around an off-road course, located just beyond a sacred Indian burial ground at a small regional airport south of Washington, D.C.
The L-ATV sped through straightaways, took corners with ease and tackled steep inclines without slipping in the mud. At one point, the driver stopped the vehicle cold on a 50-percent grade slope and let it hang there before reversing the truck back up the hill, a feat that couldn’t be accomplished in a Humvee, officials said.
The key to the smoother ride is a new suspension system called the TAK-4i. It allows for 20 inches of wheel travel and much better spring rates than what is currently available, Bryant said.
To compare, officials took a reporter around the same track in a 15-ton Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement outfitted with a current TAK-4 suspension. The ride rocked occupants side to side and up and down despite the vehicle traveling at much slower speeds.
The L-ATV can reach off-road speeds 70 percent greater than the M-ATV, Bryant said.
“A few years ago, I never would have thought a vehicle like [the L-ATV] was even possible,” he said.
While Oshkosh officials said the company’s outsider stance was an advantage in its EMD bid, Lockheed is touting its experience being involved in the process all along. Its participation in the TD phase of the program has given the team an edge in engineering a design to meet what may seem like competing goals, said Scott Greene, vice president of ground vehicle programs at Lockheed.
“There are purpose-built vehicles out there in the inventory today that are good for protection and there are purpose-built vehicles out there today that are good for mobility and there are some purpose-built vehicles out there today that are affordable,” Greene said. “We’ve taken those requirements that sometimes appear orthogonal to most people and we’ve been able to combine those into one vehicle that is affordable, that is mobile and that gives the survivability and protection that the war fighters need.”
AM General carried its three-decade history as the manufacturer of the Humvee into its JLTV offering, the Blast Resistant Vehicle Off-road (BRV-O). The company began designing the vehicle about 11 years ago. It is cost-effective and ready for production, said Chris Vanslager, vice president of program management and business development.
“This is part of our DNA. We’ve been doing it for 50 years,” he said. “We very much believe this vehicle is ready now.”
The truck features a crew capsule and modular armor in its design, which can be easily adapted to changes in missions, threats and technology. It also comes with a lightweight and fuel-efficient high-performance engine, a self-leveling suspension system and a communication and sensor backbone featuring open-standard networked architecture and clustered super-computing power.
The company relies on two wholly owned subsidiaries for engine and transmission needs, which helps control costs, Vanslager said. The tendency is to look at affordability from the standpoint of procurement, but commonality of parts goes a long way toward lifecycle costs, he said.
“You can get washers, nuts and bolts from anybody, but you can’t readily buy a new engine when one goes bust,” he said.
The Army has stated its intentions to buy as many as 50,000 JLTVs with the Marine Corps committed to about 5,500.
Companies that were not chosen for the EMD phase may resurface to compete for a production contract, including Navistar, which placed a bid with its Saratoga vehicle, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office after not being chosen and then withdrew that protest a few days later.
“Down the road, there may be an opportunity for Navistar to bid for a JLTV production contract after the EMD phase is complete,” Navistar President Archie Massicotte said in a written statement. “We will seriously consider that option.”
Navistar also sees potential for its vehicle internationally in places such as the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Canada. The Saratoga “is designed to be delivered to market quickly with less investment than traditional defense programs, and we believe it is appealing to nations facing uncertain futures and limited budgets,” Massicotte said.
Those conditions may become more prevalent right at home. After an uphill battle, the JLTV program appears to be on solid footing again for the time being. But anything can happen in the current budget environment and even a less expensive JLTV could be difficult to justify if money gets even tighter, analysts have said.
Questions also have arisen about the truck’s utility in regions other than the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan given that the military has initiated a public shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
“When you start thinking about the Pacific, you need a vehicle that can operate in the jungles. You need a vehicle that can operate in an area that is not necessarily the arid areas that we’ve been operating in for the last 10 years,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos told reporters in August. The vision for the vehicle will be even clearer in another five years, he said.
“I think we’re going to end up with a vehicle that can operate in the Pacific,” he said. “If I didn’t think so, we wouldn’t be buying it.”
The controversies haven’t phased Army officials, who have called the new truck one of their top priorities.
“I am confident when all is said and done we will achieve the most capable, affordable vehicle that optimizes performance, payload and soldier protection in our light tactical vehicle fleet for the future,” said Gen. Lloyd Austin, Army vice chief of staff.
Industry competitors along for the ride also are confident the program will survive to production. When asked about potential pitfalls awaiting the program, Greene said he couldn’t think of any.
“As far as the eye can see from my perspective, we’re in good shape,” he said. “I don’t see any trapdoors . . . We’re looking at the glass half-full and we’re full-speed ahead."
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Photo Credit: AM General