Why is it taking so long to design, develop, produce, and deploy–in adequate numbers–a troop-transporting armored vehicle that would replace the up-armored Humvee in Iraq? I’ve been asked that question time and again, not by soldiers and Marines who ride in Humvees daily, but by fellow journalists, many of whom have logged time in Iraq or Afghanistan.
One reporter said to me it was “criminal negligence” on the part of the White House and the Defense Department. Another referred to it as “the ultimate betrayal” of our soldiers.
Despite their time in country, both reporters are wrong: Their opinions are based more on political animus than any real grasp of the facts.
CONSIDER THE FACTS
First, there is no vehicle in existence–nor with current technology could there be–that would protect passengers from all varieties of explosives and ballistics.
“We can protect from some,” Brigadier General David L. Grange (U.S. Army, ret.) tells National Review Online. “But now that the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are made with shaped charges or just an extraordinary amount of explosive power, even an M-1 tank isn’t safe enough. [Even if it was] you can’t just give everyone an M-1 tank, especially if they are moving logistics.”
Grange, a CNN military analyst and the former commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division, adds, “As a demo guy in special forces, I used to make shaped charges. You combine a small charge with a funnel and it will go through a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.”
Second, is the variable of active and passive protection in a combat zone.
“If you’re running around in an up-armored SUV on a security detail to protect the ambassador, you stand out,” says Grange. “So sometimes its safer just to be riding around in the city in a Renault just like all the other cars. Sometimes its safer not to have the armored protection.”
Third, the Humvee (officially the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV), which is currently in wide use throughout the world with all branches of the U.S. military, was simply not designed to protect against IED threats.
“It took them nearly ten years to define all the requirements and fully test prototype Humvees, then go into full production,” says Mike Aldrich, vice president of sales and marketing for Force Protection Inc., which manufactures mine-and-blast protective vehicles like the Buffalo and Cougar currently in service with the U.S. Army and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s a significant production run in that there are a lot of those vehicles that would have to be replaced [if that is the answer].”
Which leads to the question, “Why Humvees in the first place?” The answer: The post-Cold War military wanted to shift from the heavily armored mindset (defending against Soviet tank divisions) toward a lighter, faster, more-flexible, strike force. The weight of armor simply slows down the vehicles, thus reducing the speed of the strike force.
THE UP-ARMORED HUMMER
Humvees, which replaced the Jeep in the 1980s, have since performed as well as they were designed to perform. But in 2003, the IED was brought to the fight. The Army responded by launching a crash program to up-armor the thousands of Humvees in Iraq in late 2003.
The following May, the U.S. Senate approved $618 million for the massive production of up-armored Humvees through the spring of 2006. Another $610 million was also approved to up-armor the existing tactical vehicles (neither of which help the fact that the vehicle has a flat-bottom–as opposed to a V-shaped hull bottom–leaving it still-vulnerable to landmines and IEDs.). Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department has been looking into new, safer vehicle designs and posting “requests for information” to determine which companies could and would manufacture a new vehicle from scratch. None of which could have been accomplished in anyone’s army in a few weeks or months.
“We’ve gotten ourselves all mixed up trying to get lighter and more lethal,” Lt. Gen. John Bruce Blount (U.S. Army, ret.), former chief of staff of Allied Forces Southern Europe tells NRO. “We have tried to do more with that vehicle than it was designed to do.”
YEARS TO DEVELOP
Initially, whenever I asked Defense officials and defense contractors why it was taking so long to build a vehicle that could do what the Humvee does and simultaneously protect passengers, I kept getting the same four answers:
‐It is far more complex than anyone realizes.
As I began to dig deeper, I discovered the truth in the answers.
An example of this is the U.S. Air Force’s brand new air-superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor, deployed for the first time last week, 20 years after it was conceived. Many of the pilots flying them today were in diapers at conception. And the past two decades have involved a series of tightly deadlined design phases, testing, development, contracting, and then manufacturing.
It was the same with the M-1 Abrams tank. “It took 24 years of research and development, test and evaluation before that tank was ready,” Blount says. “The best minds in the Army who had been through armored warfare in World War II and Korea were there, and they had to keep going back to the drawing board to make changes and improvements as new situations and new threats emerged.”
Blount adds, “The Army knew when it decided on the Abrams tank, that we were going to be stuck with that tank for 40, 50, 60 years. You can’t just build 10,000 of a certain vehicle that is not going to be adequate six months after it is in service There is also an enormous amount of money involved, plus the logistical maintenance to be built up behind the vehicle to take care of it.”
FAST TURNAROUND IN WWII?
My reporter friends who talked about “criminal negligence” and “betrayal,” pointed to World War II and America’s rapid aircraft industry as a basis for their argument. After all, we were thrust into the war in December 1941. We went on the offensive in 1942, and by late 1945 some 12,700 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses had been built.
Fine. But what they don’t realize is the B-17 made its first flight as a prototype in the summer of 1935, six years before it was ready for deployment, which just happened to be the same time we entered the war. Once deployed, losses were horrible. Thousands of B-17’s were shot down or crashed in training over the course of the war. In the summer of 1944 alone, nearly 1,000 B-17s were lost and nearly 10,000 B-17 airmen were killed over Europe.
GO WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT
“Like Rumsfeld says, ‘you go to war with the military you’ve got,’” says Blount.
Indeed, and the U.S. military went to war with superb conventional armored and unarmored vehicles that proved to be extremely effective until the terrorists began waging war with IEDs.
“The Americans never realized that the insurgents would start the type of war that we ourselves ran into in Africa and everybody ran into in Croatia,” says Dr. Vernon Joynt, chief scientist for Force Protection who also served as a scientific consultant for the South African Army. “But in South Africa it was landmines, not suicide bombers or the roadside bombs. The Americans are facing all three threats,” among others.
Joynt adds, “A vehicle designed with mine-and-blast protection as its priority focus is not part of conventional thinking. Conventionally armored vehicles are aggressive vehicles: Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Strykers. Those vehicles are designed to be fighting vehicles.”
A SHIFT IN THINKING
The new mine-and-blast protective vehicles have emerged out of low-intensity warfare environments where the so-called “aggressive role” played by the traditional armored vehicle is deemed less important than simply keeping passengers alive. In the face of the new IED phenomenon in Iraq, conventional acquisition teams–project managers and senior military officers–have had to reshift their battlefield mindsets.
That does not mean they were slow in that reshifting. On the contrary, when reports began rolling in from the field about the toll roadside bombs were taking on the troops in 2003, orders were immediately placed around the world for vehicles which had mine-protective design characteristics similar to the old South African Army and police vehicles. But even those vehicles were not 100 percent mine and IED proof. Nothing is.
“The next step was to essentially launch an entire new industry,” says Joynt. “And that is not easy.”
BRINGING OTHERS ONBOARD
Presidents, Defense secretaries, and generals can’t just issue orders that vehicles be built.
Once all options are weighed, including accepting the realities like weight reduces speed and nothing can protect against all and changing threats, the military makes the decision as to exactly what type of vehicles it needs to win wars and save lives.
Then the big vendor companies–like General Dynamics, United Defense, and Boeing–which are geared-up to manufacture large numbers of already contracted combat armored vehicles, aircraft, and other weapons systems; must choose to compete for the new project by conceptualizing, designing, and developing a new system which ultimately their company may never be contracted to produce in numbers large enough to justify their own development. Yet, those companies have to retool some of their operations for specific R&D if they hope to compete. The risk and cost is enormous.
Consequently, smaller start-up companies able to expend all of their energies on a specific design characteristic or particular vehicle are often the best way for the government to go: But only if those companies have the start-up capital to begin designing without a contract.
Then the companies–whether monolithic defense contractors or small start-ups hoping to win a big government contract–have to factor in the reality that the dynamics of the battlefield are constantly changing. For example: Lately, there have been fewer IED attacks in Iraq, but the mines and the roadside bombs are much larger.
Each time the threat changes, the scientists have to go back to the labs; the engineers to their drawing boards; the marksmen, explosives experts, and test drivers back to the ranges.
FORTHCOMING MINE-AND-BLAST PROTECTION
Earlier this month, I became the first journalist to ride in the prototype vehicle for what may well be the replacement for the up-armored Humvee. The prototype vehicle is known as the Mine-protected Utility Vehicle/Rapid Deployable (MUV-R). Earlier names included “Lion,” that name was scrapped because, as Joynt says, the King of Swaziland’s armored vehicle was christened, “Lion.” The next name was “Kodiak,” but Chevrolet was first with that moniker.
The MUV-R’s manufacturer, South Carolina-based Force Protection, is currently producing much-larger mine-and-blast protective vehicles–the Buffalo and the Cougar–which are already in service with U.S. forces in Iraq. The Buffalo, which CBS News’ Bob Schieffer called a “Humvee on steroids,” is a mine-clearance vehicle. The Cougar is a troop transport, but geared for the same market that the M113 armored personnel carrier would be. Not a Humvee.
Therein lies the problem.
“The Humvee is a glorified jeep,” says Blount. But the Army and Marines are now using the Humvee for a purpose for which it was never intended.
So it’s not so much a question of replacing the Humvee, as much as it is developing a brand new armored vehicle with the same speed, climb, and general off-road performance capabilities of a Humvee.
That may well be the MUV-R, and that vehicle could be on the ground and running in the fourth quarter of 2006, a phenomenal feat considering the concept was realized one year ago. And vehicles weren’t initially slated to roll of the line until 2007.
Today, a fully armored proof-of-concept vehicle is charging over the hills and racing around the mud and red clay roads in the backcountry of South Carolina, not far from where the Buffalo and Cougar are manufactured in Ladson.
At 10-12 tons–more than twice the weight of an up-armored Humvee–the MUV-R cruises at 65 miles per hour with burst speeds of up to 80. It can carry 6-to-10 fully armed soldiers, and it has a roof-mounted weapons system, remotely controlled by the right front-seat passenger, giving a whole new meaning to the term, “riding shotgun.”
Moreover, the vehicle’s design features can enable it to withstand–basically deflecting–enormous blast and ballistic impact from every angle.
A NAVY SEAL ON A MISSION
Force Protection is not the only manufacturer of mine-and-blast protective troop transport vehicles. Other manufacturers, include General Dynamics (currently producing the RG-31 in South Africa), Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Textron Systems (producing Germany’s Dingo 2), and Kuwait-based Granite Global Services.
The latter was founded by U.S. Navy SEAL Reservist Chris Berman, who was working as a Blackwater USA security officer in March 2004 when four of his Blackwater buddies in thin-skinned SUVs were ambushed and killed in Fallujah. After escorting home the body of his close friend, Scott Helvenston, Berman committed to building a vehicle that would save lives. Today his new guns-bristling armored vehicle, “The Rock,” is in service with both private contractors and DoD agencies.
Like the Buffalo, the Cougar, and other newly deployed vehicles, The Rock has been stuck by rifle fire and IEDS. Fortunately, none of the vehicle’s passengers have been injured or killed.
DoD is also fleshing out concepts: For instance, the U.S. Office of Naval Research is testing various private designs and is developing its own Ultra Armored Patrol vehicle, known as ULTRA AP, for testing purposes.
BEST VEHICLE FOR THE JOB
The best vehicle for the job is one that can best protect passengers from bomb attacks at all angles. The vehicle also needs to retain or improve upon the significant capabilities that the Humvee does in fact provide in its role as a standard utility vehicle.
Safer, high-performance vehicles are being developed. Some have been deployed. But it’s easier said than done.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of four books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.