SOCOM Shows Interest in Hybrid, AI-Enabled Vehicles
Defense Dept. photo
Special Operations Command is experimenting with emerging technologies as it works to bolster its ground vehicle fleet with new capabilities.
The command’s family of vehicles — which features 3,000 platforms — includes the Ground Mobility Vehicle 1.1, light tactical all-terrain vehicles, non-standard commercial vehicles and mine-resistant ambush protected platforms, said Navy Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, a SOCOM spokesman.
Special Operations Command is currently investing its research, development, testing and evaluation dollars for vehicles in lightweight armor, hybrid-electric systems, advanced situational awareness and autonomy/semi-autonomy, Hawkins said in an email to National Defense. It is seeking technology that maximizes mobility, payload and protection.
Last year, the organization and its industry partner finished production of the Ground Mobility Vehicle 1.1, a highly mobile platform that supports both lethal and non-lethal special ops missions.
The vehicle — which is manufactured by General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems — is “becoming a mainstay of our capabilities throughout the force,” said Col. Joel Babbitt, program executive officer for SOF Warrior, which oversees the command’s vehicle portfolio.
The system offers SOCOM increased mobility including internal CH-47 Chinook transportability, he noted during the 2020 Virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.
Key capability areas of interest for the GMV include lightweight armor material, improved payloads, storage capacity, vehicle weight reduction, terrain-specific tire alternatives as well as command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance integration cost reductions, according to Babbitt’s slides.
Additionally, the command is currently building two GMV 1.1 hybrid prototypes to explore the usefulness of hybrid-electric technology, Hawkins said.
“We expect to conduct performance testing and gather SOF operator feedback this summer,” he said. “The results will help inform future decisions on whether to invest in outfitting the existing GMV 1.1 fleet with the technology.”
A spokesperson for General Dynamics said the company is not involved in the hybrid-electric prototype effort.
The command also plans to purchase hybrid-electric prototypes of its light tactical all-terrain vehicle in the coming fiscal year, Hawkins added. “The LTATV prototypes will be evaluated by the program office and SOF operators to help inform any future requirements and possible procurement of the technology,” he said.
The LTATV is a Special Operations Command-modified, commercial-off-the-shelf lightweight platform that can be internally transported via V-22s, H-53s and H-47s, according to Babbitt’s slides. There are two variants including a two-seat and a four-seat platform. The vehicle is intended to perform a variety of missions including reconnaissance and medical evacuation.
Last year the General Services Administration awarded a multi-year contract in support of the command for the lifecycle replacement of its LTATV fleet to Polaris with a value of up to $109 million.
Polaris offered SOCOM its MRZR Alpha platform, a lightweight vehicle with off-road capabilities that was purpose-built for the command.
Mark Schmidt, manager of defense programs at Polaris Government and Defense, said the company would be providing SOCOM with a hybrid-electric variant of the LTATV in year three of the program.
“We’re really excited to test and field a vehicle like this with Special Operations Forces as it will open up even more operational use cases with a high level of export power and even quieter operational modes,” he said in an email.
The company leveraged work from its commercial product lines as it developed the new vehicle, said Shane Novotny, director of engineering at Polaris Government and Defense.
“The MRZR Alpha is engineered and designed to meet specifications and requirements that greatly expanded on the durability, payload and performance of the current LTATV, the MRZR Diesel,” he said.
The platform has a durable chassis, powerful drivetrain and modular vehicle design, he noted. It features an expanded exportable power system and can carry more payload.
“We’ve also increased the size of the cargo area by 60 percent and added greater functionality through the incorporation of a flatbed design that includes cargo tie-down rails for added adaptability,” he said. “For example, with the tailgate installed and flat, two litters can be secured without any modifications to the second row or its seating capacity.”
The vehicle is powered by an 8-speed automotive transmission and a 4-stroke, 118 horsepower turbo-diesel engine, according to the company.
That provides 200 foot-pounds of torque. Additionally, the four-seat version includes 2,000 pounds of payload, run-flat tires and can reach top speeds over 60 miles per hour.
Earlier this year the company wrapped up the critical design review phase of the program, Schmidt said.
“Our rigorous testing and extensive off-road mission profile field evaluation miles … [have] proven the MRZR Alpha’s performance and durability at extreme heat, in the cold chamber and when operating on desert sand dunes or rocky terrain at elevation,” he said.
Production of the platform will be followed by government durability and user testing, as well as air transportation certifications, he said.
Because the effort is an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract, the number of vehicles is not specified. However, Schmidt said the company could produce 1,500 MRZR Alphas per year on its current production line.
Nick Francis, director of Polaris Defense, said the contract was structured in a way that did not limit the vendor from expanding on the vehicle’s capabilities, which allowed the company to exceed requirements in some areas.
“This was a great approach, because it doesn’t put a limit on a very qualified industry base,” he said.
Previous MRZRs have been outfitted with a variety of payloads including counter-drone systems, direct-fire weapons, ISR systems and autonomy packages. Schmidt noted that with the Alpha’s increased payload capacity, exportable power and physical space, it is easier to
incorporate a variety of payloads.
In year two of the program, testing and delivery will focus on an Arctic mobility package, Schmidt said.
This “includes a full cab enclosure and tracks,” he said. “This will greatly expand the terrain and environments the MRZR Alpha can operate [in], to include snow and ice.”
Planning is also ongoing to outfit the LTATV with autonomous capabilities, Hawkins said. The command is considering purchasing a few autonomous platforms in the coming fiscal year.
“We will then test the prototypes and conduct user evaluations to help determine the usefulness of the technology, which will also help inform any possible future requirements for integrating autonomy into any portion of our fleet,” he said.
Other artificial intelligence efforts include a data-logger system that collects vehicle operational parameters to help advise maintenance efforts, Hawkins said.
“Machine learning is used in this logger to help project managers and logisticians determine when a vehicle will reach the end of its economical usefulness,” he said. “This a key factor when making informed decisions on whether vehicles should be replaced or receive lifecycle extensions.”
Meanwhile, one new vehicle Special Operations Command has indicated it may be interested in pursuing is the Joint Armored Ground Mobility System, or JAGMS.
Currently, no formal acquisition process is planned, Hawkins noted. However, last year the command conducted a market analysis of the industrial base for vendors that could produce such a platform. That report is under review,
In a request for information released last year, Special Operations Command said it was seeking industry input about an armored ground tactical vehicle that could transport nine to 11 passengers as well as be internally transported in a C-130 aircraft.
“The government is primarily focused on understanding the marketplace for commercial and non-developmental items and/or commercial items easily modified,” the solicitation said.
Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, said many of SOCOM’s vehicle programs are well suited for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, which the command has become known for in the past two decades. However, with the Pentagon emphasizing great power competition with advanced adversaries such as Russia and China, those types of platforms are not as ideal.
The other services are moving “toward armored vehicles because of the higher level of threat,” he said. “SOCOM would have to at least balance its vehicle inventory with some sort of armored vehicle that could operate in a higher threat environment.”
A heavily armored vehicle such as JAGMS could be particularly useful in great power competition, Cancian said.
Meanwhile, Special Operations Command is maintaining its fleet of mine resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, which consist primarily of SOF-modified MRAP all-terrain vehicles and RG-33-A1 platforms.
MRAPs gained fame during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after being rushed into the field to protect troops from roadside bombs.
“We are actively resetting those at this point in time and managing the obsolescence of them,” Babbitt said.
Areas of interest for the command include active reset operations, obsolescence management and sustainment cost reductions, according to his slides.
One of the largest vehicle programs for the military writ large has been the Army and Marine Corps’ acquisition of Oshkosh Defense’s joint light tactical vehicle. Special Operations Command does not plan to purchase purpose-built JLTVs, Hawkins said, but is currently collaborating with the JLTV Joint Program Office and its user community “to determine the potential configuration and cost of a future JLTV ‘SOF-kit.’”
Babbitt noted that the JLTV will be brought into the SOF fold via the services.
“This is a service-provided solution from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines to their components within USSOCOM,” he said. “It’s a great capability and will certainly be a mainstay of our capabilities into the future.”
A potential future acquisition opportunity is a lifecycle replacement for the non-standard commercial vehicle fleet in the coming years, Hawkins said.
SOCOM uses the platform — which resembles regular trucks found on highways all over the United States — when they want to blend in with local populations overseas, Babbitt said.
“If you want to look like just another jingle truck, this is what you’re driving, except ours are armored, ... much better maintained and can go a lot of places that some of the local vehicles may or may not be able to,” he said.
Capabilities of interest for the current fleet include lightweight armor materials, lightweight vehicle components, C4ISR cost reductions and suspension technology, according to Babbitt’s slides.