Ford Motor Co. is leading a push by commercial-truck makers to challenge defense contractors for a potential $54 billion in work replacing U.S. military Humvees with blast-proof all-terrain vehicles.
The Army and Marine Corps plan to open competition Jan. 20 in the second development phase for their Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. Truck manufacturers Ford, Navistar International Corp. and Oshkosh Corp. may take on teams led by defense companies General Dynamics Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and BAE Systems Plc that won the three first-stage contracts.
Congress added language to this year’s defense spending bill prodding the military to embrace “off-the-shelf technology demonstrated by industry” to develop vehicles that can better protect troops from improvised explosive devices. Ford has met with aides on Capitol Hill and Pentagon officials to pitch its case for building the battle-ready trucks and bypassing the usual acquisition process.
The effort by Ford, the second-biggest U.S. automaker, “is a very intriguing strategic move,” Brian Johnson, an auto industry analyst for Barclays Capital Inc. in Chicago, said in an interview. “The benefits are finding an additional market for your most profitable vehicles, such as large pickup trucks, especially at a time when the retail demand is at the mercy of gas prices.”
The pressure to use commercially available parts or prototypes may be a harbinger for ground programs that survive planned defense spending cuts of at least $490 billion during the next decade as the Obama administration places added emphasis on air and sea power in the Pacific.
Defense contractors counter that effective troop protection can’t be bolted on to a commercial truck design.
“We don’t believe that there is an off-the-shelf commercial vehicle today that will fulfill the requirements of the JLTV program,” Kathryn Hasse, a program director for Lockheed, said in an interview. “It’d be nice to use a commercial chassis to do it. The reality is, it’s just not rugged enough.”
Lockheed’s design incorporates off-the-shelf equipment where appropriate, including a diesel engine by Cummins Inc. and a transmission by Allison Transmission Inc., she said.
The Army and Marine Corps together plan to buy about 55,500 new vehicles to replace some of about 175,000 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles built by AM General LLC. The Humvees proved to be vulnerable to inexpensive improvised explosives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a presentation circulated in November on Capitol Hill, a team led by Ford proposed bearing the full cost of about $400 million to build production-ready prototypes without the government funding normally awarded during the development process. It said its vehicle would provide better protection to troops at a lower price and weight than competitors.
Almost two-thirds of all U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan were caused by bombs and explosive devices, including more than 3,000 troops killed and more than 31,000 injured, according to Pentagon statistics through Jan. 3. Many of the incidents involved attacks against vehicles.
“We’re coming back mangled and just beat up, missing limbs, and we need the right tools, the right vehicles, out there for it,” said Octavio Sanchez, who as a Marine staff sergeant was critically injured in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2005 when the Humvee he was riding in struck a roadside bomb.
Sanchez, who lost his right hand and part of his left and suffered third-degree burns to 67 percent of his body, now works for Hardwire LLC, the maker of a “blast chimney” that channels the force of explosives to better protect Humvee occupants.
The Pentagon spent more than $44 billion to build heavier trucks known as mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, to better protect troops from roadside blasts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new light truck is intended to weigh about 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms) fully loaded and offer protection comparable to that of the MRAP, which can weigh 30,000 to 50,000 pounds, too heavy for many roads and bridges in Afghanistan, or to travel off-road. Empty, the new vehicle would be light enough to be carried by CH-47 Chinook and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters and on ship decks.
The Senate Appropriations Committee in September sought to cancel the program, citing “excessive cost growth.” The services worked together to simplify the design to a single base model; lower the targeted manufacturing cost to $230,000 to $270,000 per vehicle, excluding armor kits; and shorten engineering and manufacturing development to about 32 months from 48 months.
The updated strategy aims “to give industry greater latitude to demonstrate what’s achievable on a light platform,” Army Colonel David Bassett, project manager of tactical vehicles in Warren, Michigan, said in an e-mail.
Ford said it would need about 32 months to build prototypes before beginning government testing, about a year longer than the military may require.
The Army plans in June to award as many as three contracts, each valued at as much as $65 million, for a total of $195 million, for the engineering and manufacturing development phase, according to Bassett.
That’s in addition to the $217 million the Army already awarded for technology development, including $74.6 million to General Tactical Vehicles, a joint venture of Falls Church, Virginia-based General Dynamics and AM General of South Bend, Indiana; $77.4 million to London-based BAE Systems; and $65.4 million to Lockheed of Bethesda, Maryland, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Ford, which was among the builders of the military’s Jeep for World War II and the Vietnam-era M151 truck, left the market in the 1980s when the Pentagon started buying Humvees from AM General.
The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker, which is second in U.S. sales behind General Motors Co., was part of a team led by defense contractor SAIC Inc. that lost its bid for the new vehicle’s initial technology development phase in 2008.
Now, Ford plans to join with defense contractors including Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Massachusetts, and Alliant Techsystems Inc. of Arlington, Virginia, according to information from the presentation distributed on Capitol Hill.
The Ford model’s curb weight, not counting passengers or equipment, would be 10,600 pounds. A combat-ready vehicle would cost less than $250,000, according to the presentation given by Ford and Future Force Innovation Inc., a closely held company in New York led by Robert Linton. Linton declined to comment for this article.
Ford’s ‘Long History’
Ford has a “long history of working with the government and we continue to look at new ideas and projects,” Mike Levine, the company’s manager of truck communications, said in an interview. Levine declined to comment on Ford’s intentions regarding the military vehicle or on the presentation.
Prototypes of similar vehicles were on display in October at the annual conference of the Association of the United States Army in Washington, including the Light All-Terrain Vehicle made by Oshkosh, which has spent more than $60 million developing it, according to John Urias, president of the Oshkosh, Wisconsin-based company’s defense segment.
Oshkosh, which was founded in 1917 and made commercial vehicles such as fire trucks and snowplows for most of its history, has become the Pentagon’s leading supplier of heavy-duty, medium-duty and light tactical trucks, including mine-resistant vehicles.
Ford may use its work on military trucks to “push their design and engineering thinking,” improving towing capacity and off-road mobility for its pickup trucks, Johnson, the auto industry analyst, said. Ford can tap into its purchasing power as the manufacturer of more than 5 million vehicles a year with a global supply chain, according to its presentation.