In June, the Department of Defense (DoD) held demonstrations in Quantico, VA, for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV). The DoD has long been working to acquire a vehicle that is both light and tactical, but with the protection the American people have come to expect for their troops.

During the nearly twelve years since 9/11, we have been endlessly bombarded with embedded war coverage and TV reports on Iraq and Afghanistan, in which even a handful of American deaths is big news. That, combined with new technologies such as unmanned vehicles (or drones), has resulted, not surprisingly, in a public that is increasingly risk-averse.

It is easy to understand why the DoD is so eager to obtain a vehicles that meets the “iron triangle” of requirements: protection, performance, and payload needed for our joint forces to remain expeditionary and face global threats.

How the Mission Has Changed

The good news following nearly twelve years of war is that most Americans are aware of the threats facing our military. But it is critical to remember that the general nature of warfare remains much the same as it has for thousands of years. Ambushes and landmines are certainly not not new.  

What has changed is our perception of the enemy, their technology to set off attacks, and their ability to strike us with or without the support of a patron state (i.e., al-Qaeda). Our primary threat, both in who we are fighting and the new technology employed, combined with the influence of global media, has redefined how Americans perceive armed conflict. Our military machine crushed Saddam’s army, twice, but then spent nearly the next decade fighting insurgents who fielded tactics that are thousands of years old. We are facing fluid enemies who are unable to field divisions of armor and infantry, though those potential threats still exist and we must remain vigilant and prepared for traditional land and sea warfare.

We never faced an army of regulars in Afghanistan. Though we gained control of the country relatively quickly with the help of intermediaries, within a few years, the Afghans resorted to the same guerrilla tactics they had used against the nineteenth century British and the twentieth century Soviets.

Our counterinsurgency approach and sustaining a spiderweb of disparate units presents an easy target for ambushes and Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs. Our time in Afghanistan and Iraq, where our dispersed forces faced insurgent groups blended with the local populace, reflects much of the Vietnam War. Now add a nationwide intolerance for casualties. The American experience in Vietnam made deaths in the tens of thousands unacceptable, but now, those in the hundreds are equally so. This aversion to combat loss drives the push for universal protection from IEDs and ambushes.

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The Capability Gap Between the HMMWV & MRAPs

Let’s state the obvious: fast transportation has been and always will be an important component of warfare, enabling commanders to receive timely information or quickly employ forces where they are needed. Horses went out of use when motorized vehicles transformed the speed of battle. In World War II, jeeps became the main vehicle for reconnaissance and fast, behind-the-lines transportation.

The High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV, debuted in 1984 and has been the Army’s and Marine Corps’ primary mode of tactical transportation ever since. But after nearly two decades of service, the HMMWV showed its weakness in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was ineffective in everyday combat operations where the most prevalent threats were ambush and IEDs. Its thin skin was useless against small arms fire, and the vehicle was barely recognizable after a hit by a common pressure cooker full of fertilizer, much less a string of buried artillery rounds. Up-armor kits for HMMWVs were effective against small arms fire, but IEDs still turned the now grossly overloaded vehicles inside out like a tin can.

The solution to both problems was hurriedly rushed into Iraq in 2007 and proved to be incredibly survivable. The Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, gave units in Iraq the protection they needed against small arms fire and IEDs. Meanwhile, Afghanistan crept back into focus. Troops there also needed the protection afforded by the MRAP, but with greater off-road capability. The MRAP All Terrain Vehicle, or MATV, was introduced in late 2009 for that purpose. It represented an exciting technological advancement in transportation for infantry and special operations forces. My platoon of Marine grunts used the MRAP and MATV extensively in Afghanistan. All of us would fully embrace the latter in any situation and for almost any mission which could not be performed on foot.

The JLTV Program

But, if the MRAPs save lives, why can’t we keep using them? In the words of LtCol Mike Burks, who heads the Joints Light Tactical Vehicle program office: “These vehicles [MRAPs] are not light or tactical in any sense.” We need only look to the lack of theater airlift capability of any of the MRAP vehicles to understand the need for a lighter version. The 6×6, 4×4, and MATV variants of the MRAP have a rough curb weight 19, 16, and 14 tons depending on the manufacturer, LtCol Burks explained. That weight means they can’t be lifted by or fit inside of the C-130, CH-53, Ch-47, or anything short of an Air Force C-17. These three aircraft are important to commanders of theater operations and would be essential for any SOF unit’s deployment and extraction.

For the Marines, loading on amphibious ships is a big concern and something that the MRAPs cannot do. They would also require a special ship-to-shore transportation treatment, similar to an M1 Abrams tank, for amphibious assaults – a requirement that would negate their benefits. LtCol Burks also emphasizes that the new vehicles are designed with “MRAP level protection.” This last argument is the heart of the JLTV program. Without this requirement, the program would be simply revamping the HMMWV.

Competition and Fairness

The demonstrations showcased the program’s ability to meet its timeline, as well as the capabilities of the prototypes of the three competitors to military and civilian leaders within the Defense Department, Members of Congress, and other influential government representatives. The three current vendors are AM General, Lockheed Martin, and Oshkosh Defense, and their vehicles’ performance for each of the demonstrations gave decision makers a better understanding of the gap that currently exists between the Army and Marine Corps.

Col John Cavedo, the program manager for the JLTV Joint Program Office, repeatedly emphasized that participants should keep their comparative opinions and discussions away from the competitor’s eager ears. The fairness and equal treatment given to each vendor was incredible. Col Cavedo’s staff did an excellent job at ensuring that the government gets every bit of performance and value from the competition it possibly can by pushing vendors to meet and exceed the requirements even in an atmosphere of fiscal restrictions. “This is a competition-sensitive environment and I welcome your comparative assessments of the vehicles, but please keep those conversations away from the vendors,” Col Cavedo addressed the VIPs each morning and afternoon before the test rides and vendor pitches.

Every three-hour session consisted of stops at each of the companies competing to win the single source contract – a contract which would arguably sustain their business in the light tactical vehicle market for the next 20+ years. High-level company representatives gave their best hand shake, smile, and touted the best vehicle suspension, armor package, or the most production-ready facilities. Their efforts left the VIPs largely unimpressed until the rides started and the real obstacles tackled on the Severe Off Road Track.

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The series of logs, steep rock climbs, and railroad ties were not a challenge for the vehicles, whose capabilities far exceeded everything thrown at them. I was personally impressed with the technological and manufacturing advancements from a decade of war spending. All three were far superior to the HMMWV and on par with the MATVs that I had used in Afghanistan. I was glad to see that no matter the choice of vendor, future Marines, Soldiers and SOF operators would have a capable vehicle that included the protection needed to fight the IED threat that is a reality of modern warfare.

What’s Next?

Later this year, each of the three competitors will deliver 22 vehicles, each with a different combination of features and configurations. The JLTV program office, in conjunction with the Marine Corps and Army, will test these 66 vehicles. I’m sure there are thousands of Marines and Soldiers eager to break the new trucks.

In 2010 in Afghanistan, my platoon was on a mission that was half offroading baja race and the other half…. well, it was just an offroading playtime using million dollar vehicles. We were to escort an engineering team and their specially outfitted MRAP across every inch of a semi-dry riverbed to gather data on where to build a bridge – a mission with a fun factor that was never surpassed. Our speed did not matter – the only requirement was to cover the entire area. Imagine a two hundred meter wide riverbed with an undulating terrain of rocks, gravel, and sand. Our drivers – all Lance Corporals – were having the times of their lives flying across the ground, while the engineer’s MRAP struggled to keep up with our three nimble MATVs. I was extremely thankful for the five-point harness keeping me from a concussion.

The fun did have its price. Nothing keeps even the most capable vehicles from getting stuck the mud. Thank God for tow straps and four-wheel drive.

Nothing keeps even the most capable vehicles from getting stuck

My experience offroading in Afghanistan and watching the MATVs tearing up the rough terrain while the MRAPs struggled validated all the arguments for a new vehicle. If we can no longer drive HMMWVs in an IED environment, the military needs to have a baseline of vehicle capabilities so that a weak link (MRAP offroad) does not limit mission possibilities. Second, the Marine Corps and Army need a solution that could be transported by both helicopter and the C-130, as well as be loaded in amphibious and pre-positioning ships. The JLTV satisfied both of these critical components in my mind during the two-week demonstration.

America’s aversion to combat casualties is not going away anytime soon. Our Marines and Soldiers need the JLTV so our expeditionary forces can have both the protection provided by the MRAP and the transportability required by many modern missions.