Marines look for a safer vehicle than the Humvee

Plagued by persistent roadside bombs in Iraq, the U.S. Marine Corps is exploring safer tactical-vehicle alternatives to its widely used Humvee. Both the Marines and the Army have outfitted hundreds of Humvees in Iraq with various additional armor kits to withstand blasts from the ubiquitous roadside bombs, commonly known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Plagued by persistent roadside bombs in Iraq, the U.S. Marine Corps is exploring safer tactical-vehicle alternatives to its widely used Humvee.

Both the Marines and the Army have outfitted hundreds of Humvees in Iraq with various additional armor kits to withstand blasts from the ubiquitous roadside bombs, commonly known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. However, service officials have conceded that, even with the added protection, the vehicles are not adequate for sturdier insurgent bombs.

The Office of Naval Research and the Marine Corps War-Fighting Lab are funding an approximately $1.9 million project to develop the Ultra Armored Patrol vehicle and its more advanced sibling, the Ultra 3T. But critics in Congress caution that the project could risk falling by the wayside, just like hundreds of other endeavors that have never moved from the development phase to the production line.

At issue is not necessarily the validity of the technology but the Defense Department’s rigid procurement process that has either blocked or slowed down alternatives to the Humvee from reaching the battlefield.

Congress has repeatedly criticized the Pentagon for not moving fast enough with efforts to protect the troops.

“We are frustrated by the delays in moving the development and procurement [of] the next generation of safer vehicles,” Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) told The Hill. Marshall, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he is a strong supporter of the Ultra vehicle, which is being developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology with help from NASCAR experts and the automotive industry.

“Congress has been interested in force-protection issues since this war began and before it,” Marshall said. “This vehicle, the Ultra, is clearly something that can improve survivability and lessen injuries as a result of IEDs.”

He acknowledged that the Ultra is not the only effort to try and find a solution to IED protection.

“There are thousands of ideas for improved military products, and the reality is we need to pick a few of those,” he said, adding the bureaucratic, regimented buying process “served us well, until you run into an emergency like this.”

Frustration also resonates among those developing the Ultra vehicle — a concept that combines high-output diesel power with revolutionary armor and a chassis designed to withstand blasts.

“The program has been underfunded, and to some extent it has been personally funded,” said Scott Badenoch, the institute’s principle scientist and project manager. “The money is less than a 10th that it would take to do this program at a car company,” added Badenoch, who worked at General Motors and on a NASCAR team.

A vehicle prototype is scheduled for testing at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland at the end of August or beginning of September, according to a Navy spokesman. The funding stops with the testing for now, the spokesman said.

“It could have been done six months ago but did not have money,” said Badenoch. “We have the solution, and if we had 2 percent of what they put in the Humvees I could have given you vehicles in Iraq.”

Badenoch calls the Ultra a “radically new concept,” a so-called survivable modular crew capsule out of which troops can fight. “It can be moved to any size vehicle,” he said. “People think about armor as stopping bullets, but the problem is the blast.”

He noted that the armor for the Ultra has undergone “tremendous” amounts of ballistic testing.

The Ultra will be using onboard computers to integrate steering, suspension and brakes for mobility and safety. The designers are also looking to integrate portable power sources for electrostatic armor, which uses electricity for extra protection, according to a Georgia Institute of Technology publication.

“It is unfortunate that at the moment, as a country, we have a great deal of need for these vehicles that are much safer than the current generation,” Marshall said. “We really are in a mode where a lot of the other factors that slow the production process need to be pushed into the background and developments like the Ultra need to occur without delay.”

Even though Brig. Gen. William Catto, the head of the Marine Corps Systems Command, said that the Ultra is a more near-term, commercially available product, it would take about two years and up to $10 million in research and development alone to transform it into a Marine Corps tactical vehicle. There are, however, already functional and much stronger alternatives to the Humvee, which was built 25 years ago and never intended for combat. Some of these vehicles, designed especially to withstand more powerful attacks and armor-piercing rounds, have V-shaped bottoms that can better deflect bullets and bombs as compared to the Humvees’ flat bottoms. The Pentagon has drawn criticism from Congress for failing to provide more of these vehicles to the military in Iraq.

The Marine Corps already has shipped to Iraq one of these alternatives, the Cougar. Coveted among troops, the Cougar is a South African-designed vehicle built by Force Protection Inc. in Charleston, S.C. The Marine Corps ordered 122 Cougars in May, in addition to the 27 it had already rushed to Iraq.

Meanwhile, Textron Marine & Land of New Orleans is rushing to manufacture 724 armored security vehicles, or ASVs, for the Army. First deliveries are expected by February. Currently 130 ASVs are in Iraq. The ASV has multiple layers of lightweight armor, which protects against medium-caliber armor-piercing bullets and land mines, according to the company.

The Israeli Rhino Runner, often referred to as a fortress of steel, is used by Halliburton contractors in Iraq and preferred by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on his trips there. But the Pentagon has not yet provided troops with this vehicle and there are no immediate plans to do so. “As an acquisition issue, it is perplexing to me that, given the comparative size of our R&D budget, that most of the vehicles that stand out as the better performers in terms of capability and survivability were designed in other countries,” said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, during a June 29 hearing on small-business technologies.

“Vehicle acquisition is another area where the Pentagon acquisition community has not distinguished itself.”

Weldon is trying to push the Defense Department to do a better job working with nontraditional defense suppliers to improve force protection.

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