Defense One Radio, Ep. 89: The past, present, and future of Army vehicles

From the old M113 to the new OMFV, we review some of the more visible ground vehicle programs from the last few decades.

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This episode is broken into three parts:

  1. "No front line," with former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer Brian Castner (at the 1:59 mark);
  2. The Weight, with Marine Corps infantry officer Walker Mills (at 15:09);
  3. The Future, featuring Army Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, director of the Next-Generation Combat Vehicles Cross-Functional Team; Jim Schirmer, Deputy Program Executive Officer for Army Ground Combat Vehicles; and Mike Cadieux, director of the Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center (at 24:02).

Extra reading:

  • "Projected Acquisition Costs for the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicles," Congressional Budget Office, April 2021 (PDF);
  • Read Mill's take on the JLTV (from Sept. 2020) at the Modern War Institute, here;
  • Watch "Pentagon Wars" on HBO, here; or find the book on Amazon, here.

A transcript of this episode is below.

If there’s one thing that even the most well-funded army can never fix it’s that virtually everything eventually falls apart. Nothing except maybe the pyramids can escape the relentless march of time.

And for the U.S. Army, which has spent the last two decades grinding it out in the desert sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, some of its biggest stuff breaks down first. Ask just about any stateside enlisted soldier on “motor pool Monday” for the required safety checks. Which is just the sort of thing the Taliban get to do now with their 70 or so Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, that the U.S. left behind because they were just too big.

Back here stateside, Army motor pools still feature those MRAPs. They also feature thousands of its predecessor: that late-Cold War workhorse, the humvee. Some might still have the up-armored variants that started popping up shortly after 2003.

Today’s Army motor pools are starting to feature what you might think of as the third evolution of that humvee. They are vehicles that to me look like Jeeps on steroids. And like all the vehicles at the motor pool, there is a story behind their looks.

So we’re going to talk about a few of those today, and we’ll get into some of the stories that each one tells about the likely future of U.S. Army vehicles. 

Part One: "No front line"

I started looking into the future of Army vehicles just after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August.

The U.S. made two vehicles pretty much just for this war. I’d guess that virtually all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans rode in at least one of them. That’s because these two ground vehicles were made to survive the new killer on 21st-century battlefields: the roadside bomb.

These became so vicious in Iraq that by the time I came in in 2007, the seat behind the driver on every humvee was known as the suicide seat. A bomb would go off after driving over it, but usually at such speeds that it did not hit the driver but instead took out those behind him. 

Because the humvee was a vehicle made for driving long distances on fairly developed infrastructure. In other words, it was a vehicle for Europe and its thousands of kilometers of paved roads, with pretty much none of them featuring bombs embedded at unpredictable intervals.

And that brings us to the two vehicles I mentioned. Because the story of Army vehicles can’t really be told without talking about the weapons and threats that shaped them.

Brian Castner is a former Air Force explosives disposal technician. His current job is senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International. We spoke to him previously in an episode about Somalia, where he dove into some of the forensics behind U.S. airstrikes. Brian Castner, welcome back to Defense One Radio.

Castner: Hey, great to be here. Thank you. Good to talk to you.

Watson: Very good. Okay, so we're talking about sort of the trajectory of Army vehicle development—the last two decades really. But my one, my first question is, you know, what were your active duty years as an EOD tech? When did those span?

Castner: Right, so I was in the military from 1999 to 2007. And I went to EOD school in 2003. So after 9/11, but just as the Iraq War was starting, so I knew what I was getting myself into, so to speak. And my combat time was in Iraq. So I did two tours: one in Balad in 2005; LSA Anaconda and the other in Kirkuk in 2006.

Watson: Okay, great, because that's kind of like—those are the 10 years when, right before I joined when, like you, I had no illusions about what I was getting into.

Castner: Right. And we had, you know, the vehicles we had and the gear we had. And I mean, I think the interesting thing about those years now that we've, you know, that we've lived through it is that, I mean, the technology was changing so fast. The weapons threat was changing so fast. I mean, even from one tour to the next—2005-06. I mean, it was almost a revolution in the bombs that were put in the ground, and then also the technology that we had to deal with it. And vehicles were part of that.

Watson: Interesting. Yeah, so that was gonna be my next question. Was there a distinctly different kind of roadside IED that you were likely to see in, say, 2004 that was notably different from what you might find 10 years later in the war against ISIS?

Castner: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's gone through five or six generations in between those. So I mean, the first devices were radio controlled. And so they were things like key fobs and garage door openers. If you can hit a button in one place and make a light turn on in another place, there's a way to convert that into a trigger for a weapon. And so there was all this evolution. As we eventually learned how to jam those, say in 2004, 2005, then, you know, that just—that initial jamming meant that all sorts of other devices were created ways to get around that jamming. Ways that were victim-operated, so you step on it, or you trip a trip line—multiple steps in the arming and detonation. There's really, I mean, it was from bomber to bomber, and it was from place to place. And Iraq was very different from Afghanistan, and the initial devices in Iraq, from al-Qaeda in Iraq, were different [from] what ISIS would turn [them] into. And so it was, you know, you had all those trigger differences, but then you also had differences in say, the payload and the main charge, not just how much explosives there was because the sizes got very, very large. To be able to be more effective on the armor that we eventually developed. But then also really specialty weapons like EFPs—explosively formed penetrators—that could cut through the armor that we eventually developed to deal with your, say, normal vanilla roadside bomb.

Watson: Okay to that very point. Did you ever travel in the up-armored humvees?

Castner: Yeah, so I saw from thin-skinned, un-armored humvees to “hillbilly armor” to standard-armored to the standoff armor where they would put multiple layers of doors on the up-armored and then you know the steps after that into the MRAPs. But I will tell you that before my first trip to Iraq, we were leaving in December of 2004 is when we got on a plane and got there. Finally—no 2005—leaving around Christmas time. But I remember that at our final safe convoy training, I had a bunch of contractors tell me that we were going to take the doors off our humvees and sit sideways and put sandbags in the floor walls. And then of course, when you get there, you've got every kind of humvee covered with every kind of armor because telling people to take off the doors and sit sideways to shoot back like that is just, I don't know, that's like something out of a Rambo movie. Like it wasn't a reality of anything that the war was like. I mean, but that tells you the absolute disconnect between what was “standard training.” This was the Army's pre-deployment training before we went and then, you know, the reality there. Yes, it was night and day.

Watson: I will always probably have like a visual search in my peripheral field, looking for medium-sized plastic jugs. And you probably got way more than me, but I know that there were just so many times when I was on the lookout at the moment, I would spot one I would think there might be, you know what, ammonium nitrate inside or some kind of fuel. It's the same sort of stuff the U.S. thought they saw on their last tragic drone strike inside Kabul in late August, except those jugs, of course, contained water. And now a whole family of like, 10 people are dead.

Castner: That's right, 10 and seven children. In fact, those jugs, as it turns out, many of those jugs, those five-liter jugs for that, were made to hold oil. Many of them are yellow; that we saw in Afghanistan a lot. And some of those yellow jugs actually were in—I mean, they were there in Kabul, they didn't contain explosives, they contained other things, like you said. But yes, I'm still on the lookout the way you are. They appear everywhere, because they're used by normal people everywhere.

Watson: How plentiful was the fuel for these bombs?

Castner: Extremely plentiful. And it depended on where you were. Again, Iraq was different from Afghanistan, and every village and city was different from the other in Iraq. There was so much where there were so many artillery projectiles that Saddam had purchased, and we're in bunkers that were never secured and never disposed of properly in the initial invasion. So there were just plenty of 120mm [artillery rounds] and 122s and 155s, now almost an inexhaustible amount that could be used. In Afghanistan, there was less artillery and so but there was plenty of fertilizer, much of Afghanistan is, you know, is rural farmland. And so, yeah—I'm not going to go into the different ways to cook it up on the podcast.

Watson: Not trying to do that for anybody.

Castner: No, but I mean, but yeah, it's relatively easy. It's all the things that a person might have, which was also part of the problem, not just in, in keeping that fertilizer and other chemicals, you know, there was just so much of it, you're never going to keep it out. But it was also difficult in spotting it or spotting people that truly were mixing it and placing it. Because, you know, the standard farmer would have all the things they needed. That didn't mean that they were building bombs, it could be it most likely was in most cases, they were just farmers. But it was, it was hard to figure out who was actually suspicious. I remember, I spoke to one guy who was part of this fight, part of this hunt for my second book. And he said, “We don't have a sensor for suspicious.” And that's, you know, really the problem is it was so easy to think that they think that something was a problem. And really it was really, it was just a normal farmer or the other way around.

Watson: Yeah, no, I definitely sympathize with that view. I remember seeing that NPR once reported these IEDs that the U.S. was facing in the Middle East cost as little as $24 to make. And that always kind of blows me away. Do you think about these things and future conflict and basically cheap weapons?

Castner: Well I guess it's a good thing that I'm in the investigation business and not the crystal ball like have to build a vehicle for the next war that you don't know what it's gonna be business. But I guess let's use the history and to look forward. The history was why did we have so many unarmored humvees? It's because the humvee was not a vehicle to drive into combat, the humvee was a utility vehicle. It was to get people from place to place, and then if you're going to go into combat, you're going to be in an APC or a Bradley or an Abrams or something else, right like it. It truly was for driving around behind the front line. And then the United States fought a war where there was no front line and you know, humvees were being hit. And then we went through this cycle—we went from un-armored humvees to “hillbilly armor,” as people called it, to standard armored humvees to the MRAPs, like you say, and the V-shaped hull was really all about deflecting a blast from below. So now there's a new vehicle, which is also going to deflect a blast from below; but we don't know that the primary threat to vehicles in the next war is going to be a blast from below. I mean, in my job now, I am constantly investigating a whole variety of very small and very nimble anti-tank weapons that have shaped charges. And they're, you know, some are guided missiles and some of them don't have a motor; they drop from drones, or fly through the air and, and guide themselves to the target. And they have shaped charges that punch holes in armor. And they don't do it from below, they do it from above or outside. And so if the next war involves all sorts of, you know, spike-type missiles—is what a lot of the variety are called—then the Army bought a vehicle for the wrong war. Now, how do you predict that? I mean, it could well be that the reactive armor or the cages that go around strikers, that that's the V shaped hole of the next war, but you don't know it until you get into the middle of it. And then we're asking, ‘How could the military have ever purchased a vehicle that didn't have reactive armor?’ For instance? I don't know what it's going to be. I guess I'm glad that it's not my job to be in the prediction business, but it is, I think, more—I mean, from a former soldiers’ point of view, the the issue is less about being able to predict and more about being able to react, and how quickly can you field something different? And I mean, it is true that from late 2004, we had very lightly-armored humvees. And then when I got to Kirkuk in the middle of 2006, I had one of the first generation of MRAPs, which is still one of the hardest, toughest vehicles out there. That was 18 months, essentially.

Watson: Brian Castner is a former EOD tech and the current and current senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International. He's written many books and his most recent one is not about war at all. It's called “Stampede: A New History of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush.” Brian Castner, thanks again so much for talking to me.

Castner: Wonderful. Thank you.

Part Two: The Weight 

We’re gonna turn now to that newest of Army vehicles—the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, or JLTV. The Army is using them. The Marines are using them, hence the J in JLTV. Folks I spoke to in the Army whose units have been issued these things, they’re pretty pleased with them. And maybe because they are so familiar with the MRAPs that came before. After all, the overall idea behind the vehicle is similar—with that blast-deflecting V-shaped hull, for example. It’s just, as the L suggests, a lighter vehicle. 

But not everyone is convinced the JLTV is the most ideal vehicle for the future of U.S. military land forces. Walker Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer. And a year ago for West Point’s Modern War Institute, he wrote the essay, “Stuck in the Sand: Why the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle is Ill-Equipped for Tomorrow’s Battlefield.” I wanted to know a little bit more about what he had to say, so I called him up this week. And for the record, he’s speaking today in a personal capacity, and not on behalf of the Marines or the Defense Department. 

Watson: Walker Mills, thanks for letting me call you up. 

Mills: Thanks for having me, Ben. Happy to be here.

Watson: So a year ago, you wrote that essay for the Modern War Institute that I just mentioned. I'm wondering, can you tell our listeners the gist of your argument against the JLTV? And I'm wondering, you know, a year later if you still feel that way?

Mills: Sure. So I think to be clear, it was really kind of a partial critique of the JLTV. And, you know, I looked at the history of the Acquisition Program, even though I'm not, you know, an actual acquisition professional, I did it as some research work for a course I was taking in the requirements for armored mobility. So for, say that again. So the JLTV is built from the ground-up to protect the Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen, what have you, on the inside from IEDs. And anytime you're building a new platform or new vehicle with that kind of single perspective in mind, you're making trade offs. So in the case of the JLTV, it's a lot bigger, it's a lot heavier than what it's replacing, which is the humvee. So certainly in the kind of environments that the United States was engaged in—in Afghanistan and Iraq—in the mid 2000s, when the requirements for the JLTV were being written out and the program was being developed, that made a lot of sense. It was around half or more than half of the casualties in both conflicts were caused by IEDs. And ultimately, now, these are starting to arrive in large numbers, to operational units. And I think that they, by all accounts seem to be working well as advertised. But my critique is that the threats and the kind of operating environments that informed the requirements in 2005 [and] 6-7-8-9 are no longer the driving requirements for us, the DOD here in 2021. For example, I just read, I think it came out yesterday, the strategic guidance from the new Secretary of the Navy. And he was really clear that China is the number one priority in terms of external threats to the Department of the Navy. Right? And then I think, if we start thinking about the areas of competition with China, and in the People's Liberation, Army, Navy, and potential conflict, in those environments, in those regions, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle might not be the ideal platform.

Watson: Like how so? I have some ideas, you know, just largely, it's like, you know, geography is distributed.

Mills: Sure, the biggest issue is weight, closely followed by size. And what that does for you in the Pacific, or doesn't do for you, is that it makes it much more difficult to move them around or move around and large numbers of them, right? So in the article, I had a couple references to you know, it's more difficult so probably the single biggest issue in the Marine Corps with the JLTV is weight. And I found a couple examples of senior Marine leadership pointing this out during the war in Afghanistan. And that you start to get to a point where you want these vehicles to increase your mobility; but then if the vehicles are so heavy that you can't move them around right through heavy-lift helicopters, you may end up with less mobility than you thought you had initially. And one of the driving requirements for the new Marine Corps heavy-lift helicopters, which are starting to come into service—the CH-53 King Stallion—was that the Marines wanted to be able to carry their JLTVs. So you can kind of also see how sizing up, I guess we can say “armoring up” these tactical vehicles has effects in acquisition and platforms down the line because you're eventually going to need bigger helicopters and then you're going to need bigger ships and then it, you know, becomes a bigger driver. And I thought it was interesting that you were also starting to see more of the of interest in acquisitions in really light tactical vehicles; so the Marines have the Ultra Light Tactical Vehicle, which is basically a four-wheeler that can carry a couple Marines, and I believe they're acquiring more. I know the Army is showing a lot of interest in kind of light squad vehicles. And it's not hard to, I think, understand why that would be a little more applicable to kind of jungle terrain, you know. And in some ways, there's a long—you know, 1000s of years of historical precedent for the balance between Do you want something wider and more mobile? Or do you want something heavier or interesting and up-armored.

Watson: But it is interesting how these vehicles do evoke, you know, they kind of like capture historic moments, and of course, battles and things that were required. I was reading the humvees are great for European warfare for logistics along the roads there.

Mills: Well, I mean, I mean, then one of the most iconic vehicles is probably the, you know, World War II-era Jeep, which was, like you said, all over Europe, you know, in all the famous war photos that was prized, you know, for its mobility and, and kind of ruggedness. But yeah, I think kind of what you're saying that we're going to see the JLTV is going to be around for a long time. And if the DoD falls through and and ultimately acquires tens of thousands of these.

Watson: 49,000, I think right? And 15,000 for the Marines?

Mills: I wouldn't be shocked if the number goes down a little bit, and we shift more to the Pacific. But in some ways, you know, you're stuck with what you wanted to acquire 20 or 15 years ago.

Watson: One of the overwhelming kinds of considerations to my non-naval brain is the threat from missiles and like proliferating missile threat in that region in particular. And maybe I've seen too many charts from CSIS about Iran’s missiles and North Korea's missiles and China's missiles. But I'm wondering, do you think the proliferation of missile technology does it concern you any more today than it did in the past I mean, we all keep talking about a pivot to China for that 10 years seems to be somewhat inevitable, all strategically, we're all looking in that direction.

Mills: When CSIS or other agencies talk about the missile threat, they're mostly talking about bases. And I can understand from kind of a weapon-hearing perspective, a JLTV is a bigger target than a humvee. But I think, you know, if you are thinking about serious air, ground weapons, or anti tank missiles, you're, you're probably going to be toast in one of those, or if you're in something that's totally uncovered. So that's kind of why personally, I think you might rather be in something lighter, that can go faster and hide a little better because the armor that you have on the JLTV and that kind of MRAP armor, which has saved 1,000s of American soldiers and Marines, isn't gonna save you against attack helicopters and anti tank weapons and stuff like that. So kind of understanding that in those situations, you're probably just gonna be better off going faster and staying lighter.

Watson: Walker Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Mills: Thanks for having me.

Part Three: The Future

When it comes to the future of Army ground systems, I’m tracking at least six fairly big decisions in the 12 months ahead. 

One concerns ground robots, or “mini-tanks” is what they look like to me (but that’s probably stretching the definition of tank). The Army’s got a big exercise planned later next year to get smarter on its unmanned ground robots and what’s called manned-unmanned teaming.

Another big decision could extend the life of the JLTV, which is possibly a $12 billion deal expected over the summer. 

But a lot of the Army’s attention is still very much on its existing roster of Strykers, that eight-wheeled armored vehicle that’s almost 20 years old.   

One pretty active trend: Outfitting legacy vehicles with new stuff to take out smaller aircraft, like drones and helicopters. The Army just tested one of those systems last week on its Strykers over in Europe. It was called the maneuver short-range air defense weapon, or M-SHORAD. And it uses Stinger or Hellfire missiles which perhaps could have accelerated the assaults on ISIS-held Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. 

And unlike the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which entered service in the 1980s and has been laden with extra stuff ever since—as the book and movie “Pentagon Wars” illustrate. Here's a quick clip to kind of bring you up to speed on the issue.

But unlike the Bradley, Strykers are expected to be around until at least 2040. And those 80s-era Bradleys, the Army has about 4,500 of them: They’re on the way out. Replacing them, of course, will take quite a bit of time. In fact, the program to replace the Bradleys is kind of, sort of just getting off the an idea. 

And that’s kind of the bigger point about Army vehicles right now. For the next several years, the U.S. Army is largely stuck with the trucks and tanks armored taxis that it has right now. There are a few new vehicles that the Army has its eye on; my favorite is the Infantry Squad Vehicle being tested right now on North Carolina’s Fort Bragg. 

The other new vehicles—stuff like the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle and some kind of new heavy ground robot? We won’t see them for many months to come. 

The people who are watching closely were in Washington this week for the Association of the U.S. Army, or AUSA’s annual convention. It’s a big defense expo with lots of tanks and guns and Army things crammed into about a half dozen big rooms in the heart of downtown D.C.

Coffman: This is exciting. If you're in the ground vehicle space, this is an exciting time.

That was Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, director of the Army’s Next-Generation Combat Vehicles Cross-Functional Team. And he’s talking about the Bradley replacement program. It’s now called the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle—embracing robotics and all. It’s a program that’s now in its third try. And the Army is particularly excited this time around because well, it’s early still. In fact, nobody even knows what an OMFV would look like quite yet. And that’s sort of what Coffman is about to explain. Because the Bradley Fighting Vehicle was famously bloated from the outset. It’s an experience Coffman calls the “hot stove” of Army acquisition. And one of the ways they’re working really differently from the past is sharing digital designs well in advance, with different companies and talking back and forth in ways that the Bradley really just did not have at all. 

Coffman: It's—there's no secret. The Army has struggled with this vehicle, ground-vehicle program to replace Bradley, for many years. We're committed this time not to touch the same hot stove again.

So that’s sort of like a shared-document approach to making a new vehicle. 

Coffman: They're pulling the Army into modern visual design. 

And Coffman’s very excited about it.

Coffman: And it's no small feat. I think this is changing the way we will do vehicle procurement for a long time.

There’s also the challenge of adopting electric battery technology, eventually. Because it’s not ready for the big leagues just yet. Which means it’ll likely be a while before we see an electric-powered Abrams tank. (The Abrams tank, by the way, will just by itself eat up 40% of the Army’s acquisition money through 2050.)

But lighter vehicles with electric batteries? Maybe. 

Here’s Mike Cadieux, director of the Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center.

Cadieux: In some instances what our analysis shows is we could really realize 25% fuel savings, simply with the adoption of those technologies that's available today. We do see a gap, when we start looking at combat platforms, especially when you start getting into 30 tons, tracked systems. In that case, that's where we don't see commercial industries investment. We see some folks here that are there in the commercial automotive sector spending billions of dollars. By and large, they are not necessarily addressing that space in the combat side at that 30-ton plus. So that's where we're investing some of our science and technology dollars is to look at solutions that start getting at that high voltage requirement that's necessary.

Schirmer: I agree I think on combat vehicles to Mike's point—

That’s Jim Schirmer, who is Deputy Program Executive Officer for Army Ground Combat Vehicles.

Schirmer: —the heavier vehicles in the 50- to 70-ton range, we are a long ways off from having enough batteries for from having energy density on bat batteries being sufficient for those to be powered and the recharging issue, hybrid electric though offers a lot of could even split it and have two small engines in different parts of the vehicle instead of one gigantic engine so there's some action advantages that allow you to make the speed the volume under armor smaller which can allow you to make the vehicle smaller and lighter. But think about the legacy platform: if you've already got an Abrams, you already have a Bradley, you've lost the opportunity to redesign the vehicle for those passionate advantages, so now you can still switch to hybrid electric, but some of those advantages are lost it's really best if you're on a clean sheet starting from scratch, like OMFV would be a great place to do hybrid electric but we're not going to mandate it. I think some of the vendors are considering it, so we could see that.

The Army just might be saving its most exciting event for the summer. Four of the big decisions coming this fiscal year are slated for sometime in the summer. One of those is a big exercise at Fort Hood, in Texas. It could help determine how soon U.S. soldiers walk beside robots on the battlefield. 

Here’s General Coffman, speaking to Defense One’s Patrick Tucker at AUSA. 

Coffman: Yeah, these will be shooting, moving and communicating on the modern-day battlefield. Okay, and there will be a live-fire portion; they'll go up against an opposing force. This will be company-level operations with three different types of robots under the command of a captain, who will fight them both in the attack and in the defense with MILES [Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System] lasers—so, simulating combat in real conditions—day and night. So yeah, this is not a controlled environment; this is going to be very dynamic and exciting.

Tucker: Is there any antecedent to this? You're gonna be testing like a fleet, right, and has there ever been any previous experimentation with unmanned combat vehicles that shows you how, what to do or what not to do with that?

Coffman: Last year. So in 2020, we did this in Fort Carson, Colorado. We did it at the platoon level, okay? And these were with old [M]113s that we turned into robots. And if you can imagine that: if you can turn a 113 into a robot, then you can turn anything into a robot. One of the winners out there was the Warrior Machine Interface that Mike Cadieux’s folks came up with was a home run. So you're talking about the user interface between the robot and the human—home run. So the lessons learned here we can now then apply to a brigade and the division and see how we want to fight with these things in the future. But I know of no country that has done above singular-vehicle experiments. So, no, no antecedent.