TACTICAL WHEELED VEHICLES
Competitors Vie for Army Arctic Vehicle Contract
BAE Systems photo
The Army is preparing to take on the extreme conditions of the unforgiving Arctic as it pursues a new cold weather vehicle. The service is ramping up testing as it works to select the manufacturer of its next-generation platform.
The Army’s small unit support vehicle, or SUSV, was last purchased in 1983 to help soldiers get through challenging terrain such as snow, mud and swamps. The platform, which is amphibious and tracked, has a footprint that exerts less pressure than a human foot, allowing it to traverse deep snow smoothly.
A year into the competition for the system’s replacement, two manufacturers — BAE Systems and Oshkosh Defense — are competing in hopes of winning a contract for the cold weather, all-terrain vehicle program. Each contractor was slated to produce two prototypes by June, with testing and evaluation ongoing through the end of the year.
BAE Systems — the incumbent — was selected in April by the National Advanced Mobility Consortium to provide prototypes for the Army’s consideration. Its offering, the Beowulf, is an unarmored version of its BvS10 platform, an amphibious vehicle that has already been manufactured for militaries in five countries: Sweden, Norway, United Kingdom, Austria and France.
The Swedish Army recently ordered 127 more vehicles, adding to the nearly 10,000 vehicles already in operation internationally.
The Beowulf would be a tried and true choice for the Army, said Mark Signorelli, vice president for business development at BAE’s platforms and services division.
“This is a vehicle that has literally millions of miles of history in its legacy vehicles, in its sister vehicles in Arctic conditions, and I can’t imagine that there is a better fit for the Army’s needs than what Beowulf can provide,” he said during a call with reporters.
According to Pentagon budget documents, the future CATV platforms would have the capability to traverse “a wide range of otherwise impassable terrain” year round. This includes frozen ice and extreme cold weather conditions to support training. The Army announced earlier this year that the service will build a combat training center in Alaska to bolster its Arctic defense.
BAE Systems has tested the BvS10 in the Arctic, warm weather bogs and other tough conditions such as swimming up rivers in Afghanistan, Signorelli said.
According to program requirements, the next-generation vehicle should be able to float with “sufficient freeboard to operate with one foot waves.” It must also be able to swim at a minimum speed of two knots with “little or no” configuration change in the vehicle.
“Because of that flotation capability, even in the worst bogs and mud and swamps, you are able to move and not become bogged down,” Signorelli said of the Beowulf’s capabilities.
Sharing common parts with the BvS10 — such as the suspension and drivetrain — would allow the service to keep sustainment and routine maintenance costs low, he added. Signorelli noted the production site for the Beowulf in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, is about the same distance away from the North Pole as the testing site in Yellowknife, Alaska. Moving production to the United States wouldn’t be cost effective given the fast approaching delivery schedule, he added.
Signorelli declined to give the value of the other transaction authority agreement award that the company received for the prototyping phase.
He noted that because testing was delayed for one winter cycle due to a delay in Army funding, the Örnsköldsvik facility had extra time to anticipate production obstacles.
The “team has been preparing to transition to production for this product for some time, … so we believe that we have those challenges identified and mitigated,” he said.
Meanwhile, Oshkosh and partner Singapore Technologies Engineering are also preparing their offering for the program, said Pat Williams, Oshkosh Defense’s vice president and general manager of U.S. Army and Marine Corps programs.
The system is based on ST Engineering’s Bronco 3 platform, which is part of its Bronco family of vehicles that have undergone more than 1,860 miles of performance testing in Arctic conditions as well as over 200,000 miles in harsh desert terrain, according to Oshkosh.
After vehicle delivery, the competitors will have to go through the Army’s rigorous testing process until a downselect to one company is made in 2022, a trial for which Williams says Oshkosh is prepared.
“The big ‘aha’ that happened in the middle of this was a release of the Army’s ‘Regaining Arctic Dominance’” strategy,” Williams said.
The strategy — the service’s first to focus on the region — was released to the public in March. It laid out plans to establish a two-star headquarters with specially trained and equipped combat brigades; improve materiel readiness for extended operations; better train regional forces; and improve quality of life for military personnel.
Williams said his team spent “a lot of time” combing through the 54-page document to better understand how the service will approach its near-peer competitors in the region.
“[We’re] making sure that what we’re offering really meets those goals,” he said.
For example, the strategy highlighted the obstacles the Army faces in achieving greater mobility in its operations.
“Summer poses significant challenges for many wheeled vehicles, while the most challenging period is the spring thaw when ground movement becomes impossible across considerable swaths of territory,” according to the document.
The variation of the Bronco 3 offers additional payload capacity and long range for maximum efficiency, Williams said.
The vehicle is also designed to have low ground pressure, which boosts mobility in swampy areas.
Oshkosh also considered how to better accommodate soldiers, Williams noted.
The vehicle, which is built with a spacious interior that is temperature controlled for troops, will help set the prototype apart in the competition, he said. Because the designers didn’t want soldiers to be exposed to the elements for long periods, the Bronco 3 is able to transform into different variants without decoupling the front from the rear end of the vehicle, which saves time.
“Anybody who has lived up North and had to get gas in the winter knows it’s no fun to stop for gas when it’s freezing out,” he said.
The platform is required to transfigure into four variants for different missions: general troop transport, cargo, emergency transport and command and control, according to budget documents. The command-and-control layout will provide the space, weight and power to host standard joint communications and common operating picture platforms.
“We had a real focus on the soldier in terms of the capability of the vehicle, but also in terms of the space inside the vehicle and place to store your gear,” Williams said.
The prototype will undergo testing in summer conditions in coming months to measure performance in conditions where snow is not the predominant feature of the landscape. When the weather is cold enough in Alaska, winter condition assessments will begin.
Williams said the evaluation will assess payload mobility, the ability to swim and vehicle dynamics among other requirements-based capabilities.
The platform’s tests in the past year have proven that it can handle Army missions, he said. While the Bronco family of vehicles has primarily been used in desert conditions, it is not a concern for him, he said.
“Soldiers have taken this thing into combat, they’ve lived in it, they’ve worked in it, they have operated in austere environments,” he said.
Oshkosh has incorporated their feedback into its new design.
Meanwhile, the need for new capabilities for the Arctic region has been growing.
Liselotte Odgaard, a visiting senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said almost every country at the most recent Arctic Council ministerial meeting in May expressed interest in keeping the region an area of “low tension.”
Though many developed countries have neglected Arctic military operations, most leaders can no longer ignore the advantages that Russia is trying to build up, she said. For example, it has developed a base where it can maintain missiles and host bombers.
“They have all the equipment they need to dominate the region,” she said.
The fact that the Army is buying vehicles for the basic function of mobility and troop movement demonstrates how behind the United States is in Arctic warfare, she said.
“It’s just a matter of being able to move personnel and equipment,” she said. “That just tells you that we’re starting from a pretty low baseline because that’s fundamental.”
She acknowledged that it is challenging for the United States to build its strength in the Arctic when the Indo-Pacific region is getting so much attention, but she said Russia is pressing its geographic advantage.
“The communication between the countries in the Arctic is really full of enormous, big holes,” she said. “The Russians know it. That’s why they’re constantly in the [gap] testing how we respond.”
However, the Army wants to put its money where its mouth is by prioritizing Arctic-related funding. Though many programs saw procurement cuts in the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget proposal for the Army, funding for the new platform climbed by more than $7 million. The request calls for $16 million to fund the procurement of 10 vehicles, up from the $9.25 million enacted in fiscal year 2021.
Acquiring equipment like the cold weather, all-terrain vehicle will allow the Army to train troops more effectively, Odgaard said.
The new vehicles also send a long overdue signal to Russia, which has grown used to being the dominant force in the region, she noted.
“There’s definitely a need to show Russia that the other Arctic nations are in there, and they’re prepared to defend themselves,” she said.