A program to develop a new family of light tactical vehicles for Army, Marine Corps and special operations forces is moving ahead at full steam, almost halfway through its technology development phase.
A technology demonstrator for the joint light tactical vehicle, developed by the Office of Naval Research, was among possible replacement vehicles displayed at the Nevada Automotive Testing Center outside Carson City, Nevada., in March 2008.
The joint light tactical vehicle is an Army, Marine Corps and US Special Operations Command program to replace the Humvee with a family of higher-performing, more survivable vehicles able to carry greater payloads, said Kevin Fahey, Army program executive officer for combat support and combat service support during a recent interview.
The goal, he explained, is to fill a critical capabilities gap while developing a family of vehicles capable of performing multiple missions and sharing common components.
The Army, lead agent for the program, announced just over a year ago that it had awarded three contracts valued at about $166 million for the program’s 27-month technology development phase.
The three contractors are BAE Systems Land and Armaments, Ground Systems Division; General Tactical Vehicles, a joint venture between General Dynamics Land Systems and AM Genera; and Lockheed Martin Systems Integration.
During this phase, each of the three competing contractors is developing prototype vehicles in three different payloads configured for specific operational missions, Fahey said.
Category A is intended for general-purpose mobility and would carry the lightest payload, about 3500 pounds.
Category B models would transport infantry troops or weapons, serve as platforms for command-and-control and reconnaissance missions and carry payloads in the 4000-to-4500-pound range.
Category C models would serve as shelter carriers, prime movers and ambulances, and would carry payloads just over 5000 pounds.
The vehicles are being designed with an "open architecture" concept to accommodate extra armour, sensors, radios or other equipment, as required, without sacrificing power or payload, Fahey said. In addition, the vehicles will have a digital architecture incorporated into their design to support current networking requirements, as well as on-board diagnostics so they’re easier to maintain.
As a unique twist to past development programmes, the contractors are developing prototype companion trailers along with the tactical vehicles, with both meeting the same standards. "In the past, we rarely developed a trailer with its vehicle," Fahey said. "So the focus of this program is to demonstrate the maturity of the technology in an integrated platform."
By the year’s end, the three contractors are expected to provide the vehicles and associated equipment for performance and reliability testing. Joint warfighters will provide their personal assessments.
The trick, Fahey said, is to avoid the pitfall of adding new requirements along the way that’s plagued many past development programs.
"Our system very much opens the door up to, ‘Wouldn’t this widget be neat?" he said. "This is the phase where we need to prove that the technology is mature and can be integrated. … We continue to emphasize to them that it has to be integratable, because when we make a decision at the end of this phase, we are going to execute."
When that decision is made, Fahey said, he feels confident it will be based on proven performance that demonstrates it can meet delivery goals. A production decision is expected by the end of 2014, with full-rate fielding to begin in 2016.
Fahey emphasised the benefit of designing the next-generation light tactical vehicles from the ground up for their specific use rather than simply being adapted to meet operational requirements.
The military’s fleet of Humvees, estimated at about 160 000, was developed in the 1970s and delivered in the early 1980s with a focus on Cold War threats rather than on today’s needs, he noted.
When the vehicles proved vulnerable to roadside bombs in Iraq and, increasingly, in Afghanistan, the military responded by adding heavy armour plating. The typical Humvee was designed to weigh a maximum of about 12 000 pounds, but now weighs closer to 18 000 pounds.
"It’s way overweight, so it is underpowered, and mobility is lacking," Fahey said. "Another problem is [that] they don’t have the payload they used to."
Mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, in contrast, were purchased essentially as quickly as they were built to meet a wartime requirement quickly.
"With the MRAP, the thought was, ‘I need a more survivable truck that is available today to save soldiers’ and Marines’ lives," Fahey said. "We made the requirement meet what was available."
Fahey is quick to note that there’s really little about the MRAP that’s "light," but he recognizes that MRAPs are being used in the combat zones for missions typically conducted by light tactical vehicle crews.
Fahey welcomes the deliberate process and long-term focus being dedicated to the joint light tactical vehicle’s development.
"Unlike MRAP, which we basically bought off the shelf and tested as we fielded it, we are designing [the joint light tactical vehicle] from the start with a focus on reliability and maintainability and commonality," he said.
Although the Army is leading the program, it’s done "a fantastic job of integrating Marine Corps management" into the effort, said Bill Taylor, executive officer for the Marine Corps’ land systems programs.
The biggest challenge in a joint program, Fahey said, is agreeing to a common set of requirements. The Marine Corps puts the highest emphasis on making the vehicles lightweight to meet its mobility requirements. The Army tends to focus more on troop protection.
"But I think we can come to that balance because of the way the program is structured," Fahey said. "After all, the bottom line is we all are in the same fight."
The program has received a lot of international attention, too. Australia and India both signed agreements to provide development support and share the associated costs, and other countries have expressed interest in participating as well.
"Everyone is interested," Flahey said. "When you go around the world, everybody has this capability gap that we are focused on: the light tactical vehicle that brings a balance of performance and protection."