Special Ops Forces Fuel Demand for Ultralight Vehicles

By Jon Harper
When it comes to ground vehicles, U.S. Special Operations Command is embracing the notion that lighter is better. SOCOM wants platforms that can traverse difficult terrain and deliver special operations forces to their targets quickly, sacrificing armor protection for greater mobility.

Toward that end, the command will jettison much of its heavy fleet, according to officials.

“We’re basically on a mission to divest ourselves of most of those vehicles,” said Duke Dunnigan, deputy program manager of the family of special operations vehicles at SOCOM. “We’re looking at more ultralight and depending more on speed and agility versus armoring up so much that the suspensions don’t last long and I can’t negotiate the terrain.”

The command has about 3,000 vehicles in its inventory. By the middle of next year, the number of mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles and their off-road variant, the M-ATV, will drop from 519 to 280. Those remaining in the fleet will be reconditioned through 2016, according to Dunnigan.

Armor is also being removed from other vehicles at Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania.

 “We’re taking all our up-armored heavy Humvees and we’re basically sending them through the line and they’re coming out ultralight vehicles,” Dunnigan said at this year’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida.

SOCOM sees less need for heavily armored vehicles like the MRAP — perhaps the most iconic vehicle of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — now that America’s big post-9/11 counterinsurgency campaigns have come to a close.

“When you’re in a long-term engagement and you’ve got a big footprint like we had … it’s a lot easier for an enemy to predict [your movements] and do those” improvised explosive device attacks, Dunnigan said. To improve operability in places where “the IED threats aren’t as heavy,” SOCOM intends to rebalance its portfolio, he said.

In the coming years, the command will be procuring ultralight vehicles of varying sizes, ranges and payload capabilities to meet different mission requirements.

“What’s best for us is to go out and … find those industry commercial-off-the-shelf systems that we can modify to avoid to the best of our ability a lot of R&D that would be required to develop a vehicle from the ground up,” Dunnigan said.

In March, SOCOM announced that it intends to negotiate and award a sole-source contract to Polaris to purchase 2,050 MRZR light tactical all-terrain vehicles.

Polaris has been under a multi-year contract with SOCOM for the vehicles since 2013, according to Mark McCormick, the company’s director of U.S. government business development. The company makes 350,000 ATVs each year, mostly for commercial customers, he said.

The light ATVs that SOCOM uses cost about $30,000 per unit. Both the two-seater and four-seater MRZRs weigh less than 2,000 pounds. The vehicles can drive over rough terrain but their structure leaves riders highly exposed to enemy fire.

“We trade a lot of protection in order to field these highly mobile systems,” Dunnigan said.

The vehicles enable special operators to drive places they would otherwise have to march.

“Our operators are pretty much laden down with a lot of combat equipment… We’ve got to get them in where they can get to the target, and when they get to the target not be exhausted but [be] ready to fight. So that’s the purpose of our tactical ground mobility,” Dunnigan said.

Industry officials should not expect to see any “near term” future acquisition requests for proposals for light ATVs, Dunnigan said. But he noted that the command has to replace the vehicles every three years because of all the strain that is put on them.

“Three years in combat is about as long as we can go. And then rather than spend more money on a vehicle that has already got a lot of miles on it and a lot of wear and tear … it’s probably best to say, ‘Hey, see what industry has now, refresh it and get something new out there,’” he said.

When those vehicles have to be replaced there will be business opportunities for companies that have developed components such as high-quality run-flat tires, infrared lighting systems, canopies and other items, he said.


Mobility on land isn’t the only thing that SOCOM desires for its ground vehicles. For an expeditionary force, airlift is critical. That’s why officials are looking to field an internally transportable vehicle (ITV) that is small enough to fit inside a CV-22 Osprey. The Polaris MRZR meets that requirement but it doesn’t have enough range or payload, according to Dunnigan. The vehicle needs to be able to conduct search-and-rescue or deep reconnaissance and strike missions in countries that have sophisticated air defense systems that would put the Osprey at risk.

“If I take an aircraft like a CV-22, I can’t put it into a hot zone because of the [potential] loss of life, materiel, equipment and future capability,” Dunnigan said. “So they off-set it maybe out beyond where the enemy can touch it, and then I need that range on that vehicle to get to the downed pilot or to get to a hostage.”

Light ATVs only have a range of 75 miles. For its internally transportable vehicle, the command wants something that can go hundreds of miles.

A draft capability production document has been sent to SOCOM’s requirements evaluation review board, Dunnigan said. The command may put out a request for proposal by the third quarter of fiscal 2016. The requirement document is predecisional, but officials are looking at an acquisition target of approximately 50 to 68 vehicles, he said.

One of the leading ITV contenders identified by Dunnigan is Boeing’s Phantom Badger, which is already in use. The Phantom Badger — advertised by the company as “the most transportable combat support vehicle in the world” — has a range of 450 miles. It is 60 inches wide and its height can be adjusted down to 60 inches, enabling it to just meet the CV-22 size requirements.

But General Dynamics might have a leg up in the competition. The company was tasked to build three ITV prototypes based on the company’s preexisting Flyer 60 model, and Air Force Special Operations Command has been testing them to inform the requirements process.

Dunnigan said there is 85 to 90 percent commonality between the company’s Flyer 60 and Flyer 72, which SOCOM has selected as the model for its Ground Mobility Vehicle 1.1. Having a common vendor and many of the same parts in the ITV and the GMV 1.1 would save the command money on sustainment costs, according to Dunnigan.

“If I can reduce that sustainment tail, that frees up … more R&D and procurement” money, he said.

He noted that the Marine Corps needs ITVs as well for its Osprey variant, the MV-22.

In addition to being light and all-terrain capable, SOCOM wants vehicles that carry as many people and gear as possible. That’s why it’s procuring the Ground Mobility Vehicle 1.1.

In 2013, General Dynamics was awarded a $560 million contract to produce the vehicle. An advantageous characteristic of the GMV 1.1 is its payload to weight ratio. It can carry a 5,500-pound payload but its curb weight is only 4,500 pounds, according to the company.

“Being able to do that and stay off the road and operate in those [austere] environments is truly a unique capability for a vehicle of this class,” said Sean Ridley, deputy program manager for lightweight tactical vehicles at General Dynamics.

The GMV 1.1 can carry up to nine people — roughly the size of an infantry squad — depending on how much gear is loaded onto it. It can also host a suite of weaponry, including a Gatling gun, company officials said.

It is also configurable to meet different mission requirements of the various command components.

“The modularity of the vehicle allows it to accept several mission kits, if you will, to include armor,” Ridley said. “It is spread across a number of SOF communities. Everybody needs their own relevant gear and their own mission kits, and the base vehicle allows us to do that to meet all of those mission needs.”

Dunnigan emphasized the modularity of the armor, which can be bolted on or off in between missions.

“It allows the commander the operational flexibility,” he said. “Based on his … analysis of the threat, he can say, ‘Hey, I want these vehicles armored up’ or ‘I don’t want them armored up.’”

Another selling point for the GMV 1.1 is its transportability. It can fit inside SOCOM’s C-130 Hercules and CH-47 Chinook aircraft, and be sling-carried by a UH-60 Black Hawk.

The vehicle is undergoing testing and is slated to reach Milestone C in June, a key step before it can go into full-rate production.

Dunnigan said SOCOM intends to procure about 1,200 GMV 1.1s. “Things are rolling good,” he said.

Going forward, SOCOM is looking to industry for solutions that will reduce the audio and visual signatures of its vehicles. Engines and power systems are also a major area of interest, Dunnigan said.

“We’re looking at hybrid-electric more. We’re looking at diesel [and] multi-fuel engines,” he said. “Many times … we’re command, control and communicating, and we need something that can really provide that power to those systems because they are very power intensive.”

But lightweight is still the coin of the realm.

“Anything we can do to reduce a pound of weight in armor allows an operator to get a pound of more ammo or more water or something in the back of that vehicle,” Dunnigan said. “If we can save ounces or pounds, it’s a big win for us.”

SOCOM isn’t the only Defense Department component looking for new ultralight capabilities. In April, the Army solicited a request for information from industry “to better understand the availability and capabilities of commercial products and the potential of the associated equipment manufacturers” for its Ultra Light Combat Vehicle (ULCV).

The Army is looking for a high-mobility vehicle for the 82nd Airborne Division and infantry brigade combat teams that can carry a nine-soldier squad and their associated equipment, and be transportable via CH-47 and UH-60.

Unlike most Army vehicles, armor will not be a key consideration in the ULCV selection process. “Survivability will be achieved through high mobility,” the Army request for information said.

Companies that have been able to sell their ultralight vehicles to SOCOM are hoping to make “Big Army” a customer.

 “We truly have a base vehicle that can meet the multitude of missions, not only within SOCOM but as we move forward with the Army’s ULCV … requirements,” Ridley said. “It offers a cheap, quick, non-developmental solution.”

Polaris is pushing its DAGOR vehicle — which company executives said can carry up to nine people and 3,250 pounds of payload — as a candidate for the program.

Jed Leonard, manager of advanced mobility platforms at Polaris, said the DAGOR “can take these guys places that they were unable to go before… That’s one of the greatest bits of feedback we’re getting. It’s really providing them a capability at the payload that they want to carry.”

The 82nd Airborne has used the MRZR-4 in recent exercises, and McCormick said the Army is considering the vehicle as “part of an interim solution on how they provide that mobility” for infantry brigade combat teams.

Makers of ultralight tactical vehicles see a bright future for their products.

“We think that the kinds of solutions we provide are going to be in even greater demand in the DoD” in the coming years, McCormick said. “They’re recognizing that expeditionary requirements are ranking pretty high [as well as] the ability to answer threats where you need extreme off-road mobility; and that having troops, for instance, airdrop or air assault … and then have to carry 120 pounds of equipment for any kind of distance is not as practical.”

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, Land Forces

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.