Smaller Trucks Seen as Lucrative Business in U.S. and Abroad (UPDATED)

By Dan Parsons
Riding a wave of special operations successes and the expectation that funding will flow toward elite forces in the future, vehicle manufacturers are staking millions of dollars on bids to supply those shadowy warriors with new trucks.

Industry is equally focused on other big-ticket procurement programs like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle sought by the Army and Marine Corps. In a constrained budget environment, however, smaller, less expensive trucks are seen as one of the best chances to land military contracts both in the United States and abroad.

Special Operations Command put out a call nearly two years ago for a vehicle that met its particular specifications — namely that it be a modified version of an off-the-shelf design and be transportable inside a CH-47 helicopter for quick insertion and extraction.

Nearly every major truck manufacturer jumped on board the Ground Mobility Vehicle (GMV) 1.1 program. A total 121 companies responded to the initial request for information, including providers of everything from sensor suites to weapons.

With a final request for proposals expected before the end of March, the competition has also inspired truck manufacturers to preempt an official solicitation by designing and building prototypes on their own dime. Defense industry heavy hitters have poured millions of research-and-development dollars into their designs in anticipation of a market boom — domestically and abroad — in tactical vehicles for rapidly deployable forces.

“We do see the increased need for ever greater protected mobility in ever smaller, lightweight, transportable configurations,” John Bryant, vice president and general manager of joint and Marine Corps programs for Oshkosh Defense, told National Defense. “People think we make big trucks and we do, but we also provide protected mobility in light tactical vehicles, and they’re available right now.”

Considering that Special Operations Command wants to purchase up to 1,300 GMVs, the program is an enticing opportunity for companies that see few large vehicle contracts coming from a cash-strapped Pentagon.

The market for bigger trucks is expected to wane, especially with the U.S. exit from Iraq and the impending end of the war in Afghanistan. A report released in September by the Government Accountability Office found that overall Pentagon spending on tactical wheeled vehicles will plummet in coming years. The report took into account purchases of vehicles at or above the weight of the Humvee, suggesting that smaller vehicle programs that encompass fewer overall purchases could be spared the budget ax.

“Given the current budgetary environment, DoD cannot afford to support the size of its current fleet or buy as many vehicles as it once did,” the report said.

Seven manufacturers supplied the Defense Department with more than 158,000 tactical wheeled vehicles from fiscal year 2007 through fiscal 2011, the report said. As conventional forces draw down from Afghanistan and need fewer vehicles, the Defense Department will buy only about 8,000 tactical wheeled vehicles per year, the report said. SOCOM, meanwhile, plans to buy only about 1,300 GMVs and will continue to use modified Humvees that currently fill that role.

A half-dozen companies unveiled their offerings in October at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., in anticipation of an imminent request for proposals.

AM General, Oshkosh Defense, BAE Systems and Navistar Defense, which together supply 92 percent of the Pentagon’s tactical wheeled vehicles, are all in the running to build SOF’s new truck. Other companies that specialize in off-road racing technology have also developed prototypes that resemble dune buggies more than Humvees.

SOCOM put out a request for information from industry in August 2011 with a list of more than 100 attributes it wanted in a new light tactical vehicle that could be transported inside a Chinook. The specifications included carrying up to seven troops, height and weight requirements, speed and power. Its command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance suite will be supplied by the government, as specified by the initial request for information.

SOCOM wants a truck that weighs less than 10,000 pounds, which bucks the decade-long trend of “survivability” by way of heavy bolt-on armor and goliath trucks like the 16-ton mine resistant ambush protected vehicle. Armor is not even an initial requirement for the new SOF truck.

The future of the MRAP is in doubt as the military transitions its focus to the Asia-Pacific region where mobility over great distances will be a tactical necessity.

The ultimate acquisition strategy remains up in the air, but SOCOM has said it intends to choose a vehicle in two phases. The first will be a request for written proposals and data collected at the vendor’s expense, after which two test-and-evaluation contracts will be awarded.

SOCOM plans to buy two prototypes from each selected vendor for use in engineering, developmental and operational testing to inform its final choice.

Oshkosh’s smallest and newest foray into the realm of light tactical vehicle is the 7-ton Special Purpose All-Terrain Vehicle, or S-ATV. The small, Humvee-sized vehicle is designed for unconventional warfare missions like long-range reconnaissance and surveillance. With a top speed above 70 miles per hour, the S-ATV “will leave a dune buggy in the dust” and fits inside either a CH-47 or CH-53 helicopter, but not a CV-22 Osprey, Bryant said. At less than half the weight of the company’s next smallest vehicle — its Joint Light Tactical Vehicle offering, the S-ATV can carry up to 7 passengers.

Lockheed Martin showcased its Common Vehicle Next Generation, which weighs in at 9,700 pounds and can reach speeds upwards of 80 miles per hour. It can be reconfigured in the field to perform a variety of missions.

“Two facts stood out about this solicitation,” Frank Sturek, Medium Assault Vehicle-Light capture manager and deputy director for Northrop Grumman, said at the unveiling of the vehicle at AUSA. “The current Ground Mobility Vehicle used by Special Operations forces does not meet … mission requirements. The other fact that stood out was that existing vehicles on the market also didn’t meet SOCOM’s requirements.”

Competitors are trying to meet those requirements in a variety of ways.

Northrop Grumman is offering its Medium Assault Vehicle-Light, or MAV-L. It teamed up with vehicle manufacturer BAE Systems and off-road racing engineers at Pratt and Miller on the initiative, a partnership that blends innovation from both the defense and commercial automotive industries, said Tom Vice, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Technical Services.

The 7,400-pound MAV-L is being built at BAE’s Sealy, Texas, facility. The vehicle can transport up to seven troops, but can hold as many as 15 with eight clipped into a rail system on its exterior, Sturek said. It is also modular to satisfy requirements for a variety of missions from long-range reconnaissance to airfield seizure.

“They told us they need a vehicle where a couple of guys can get in with a lot of stuff … and the same vehicle [must carry] a lot of dudes without a lot of stuff,” Sturek said.

AM General, which builds Humvees, reworked and upgraded the GMV special operations forces currently use. The GMV 1.1 has 70 percent commonality with its predecessor, which will reduce the logistical burden of introducing a new vehicle, said Christopher Vanslager, vice president of business development at AM General.

“We have years of experience in building light tactical vehicles not only for U.S. but for international customers,” Vanslager said. “Because of that commonality, we have 300,000 miles of testing on the vehicle’s components.”

The AM General offering looks like a Humvee, but is skinnier to increase mobility and transportability by air. It has a 300-mile range, an updated data and communications system and has the ability to operate autonomously, Vanslager said. It also is adaptable to missions that require from two to seven troops.

Other companies are offering much lighter, faster vehicles. HDT Global leaned heavily on off-road racing technology in building its Storm — an ultralight truck more reminiscent of a dune buggy than a Humvee. At 8,500 pounds, it is primarily designed for swift rescue operations, like evacuating a downed pilot from behind enemy lines, said Robin Stefanovich, an HDT spokeswoman.

The Storm has a 340-horsepower engine that burns JP-8 jet fuel and can carry six passengers and three litters.

“We wanted this vehicle to be serviceable and affordable so we leveraged racing technology as much as possible,” said Douglas Hahn, president of HDT’s Virginia Beach, Va.-based partner EngineTec. “You can do an engine change on this thing in two hours if you needed to.”

MRAP-manufacturer Navistar Defense announced in February 2012 that it would team with Indigen Armor and SAIC to compete for GMV 1.1.

Its Special Operations Tactical Vehicle offers scalable armor packages and shares 60 percent of its parts with Indigen Armor’s Non-Standard Tactical truck. The special operations vehicle looks more like an up-armored pickup truck than a Humvee. It can go up to 85 miles per hour off road and fits in the cargo bay of a Chinook, as all of the various competitors’ vehicles do. At 6,700 pounds, it is also on the lighter end of GMV contenders.

“The Special Operations Tactical Vehicle and the NSTT share similar vehicle capabilities to meet the rigors and unique requirements of special operators,” said Archie Massicotte, president of Navistar Defense, in a prepared statement.

General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems is also vying for GMV.

It’s Flyer, a 4,000-pound multi-mission wheeled vehicle — is the result of a partnership between the company and Flyer Defense. The Flyer is designed to be reconfigurable for a variety of missions, including light strike, rescue and casualty evacuation and reconnaissance. The Flyer, which looks like the marriage of a Humvee and a Jeep, can also be outfitted with the company’s Leader-Follower technology. Up to 10 of the vehicles can be physically linked with a Kevlar string and driven by a single soldier in the lead vehicle.

If a contract from SOCOM doesn’t materialize, or if any of the likely competitors fail to sell their trucks stateside, executives believe business may be better overseas. Each is marketing their vehicle to rapidly deployable units of partner nations.

“A lot of the focus now is international, as we get through this austere environment” in the United States,” said Vanslager. “Light tactical vehicles will always have a place within U.S. and international markets, but there may be a need for modernization within those markets.”

Correction/Clarification: The chart accompanying this story originally misstated the gross vehicle weight rating of the HDT Storm instead of its curb weight. While the Storm is rated at up to 8,050 pounds, the vehicle itself weighs 4,320 pounds.

Topics: Defense Department, Procurement, Land Forces

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