9:41 PM, Mar 7, 2007 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
Today was day one of the AUSA Winter Symposium in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The convention is a technology enthusiast's dream, featuring exhibits from nearly every major defense company as well as speeches from the top brass and other Pentagon officials. There is a whole lot going on here that I hope to cover over the next couple days, but I'll start off with some thoughts on what is clearly the top concern of everyone attending this conference: defeating the IED.
The first thing that strikes me from the technology on display here is that the Humvee is pretty much a disaster. The primary weakness of the Humvee is its lack of armor. The only viable solution to that problem was to add armor, in the form of up-armor kits, to nearly every Humvee operating in Iraq. But that solution had a major downside--the vehicle's weight limit is pretty much maxed out once the up-armor kit is added.
Weight isn't the only constraint on the Humvee. Technologies that aim to counter the IED are extremely power-hungry--from jammers to communications to surveillance, all demand a great deal of electricity. But the Humvee has barely enough power to run the systems that were on board when it was first deployed. Combine the lack of electricity with the excess weight, and you have a vehicle with almost no capacity to adapt to the modern battlefield. (As an aside, I was surprised to learn that upgrades to the Stryker, the Army's premier tactical wheeled vehicle, have also been constrained by a shortage of electrical power.)
So nearly every major company here is trying to hawk some kind of technology either to improve the Humvee's survivability or to replace it outright, but the emphasis is clearly on replacing it. There are mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles on display, and "technology demonstrators" for the next generation Humvee, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV).
But let's start with MRAP. BAE had two trucks on display, one in a 4X4 configuration and the other in a 6X6. The Pentagon recently (in the last month) ordered 90 MRAPs from BAE for the Marine Corps which will be deployed to Iraq shortly--75 of the 6X6 variant and the other 15 in the 4X4. Both are impressive and appear highly survivable, but they are simply enormous--check out this pic of the 4X4.
The 6X6 is, of course, larger. But even the 4X4 weighs in at more than 35,000 pounds (compare that to an up-armored Humvee which weighs roughly 13,000 pounds). The vehicles were both designed last year with input from BAE's South African unit, which has been making MRAP vehicles longer than anybody else in the industry (the reason for that is an interesting story by itself), and they might be the most survivable of the models now being considered by the military--but I don't believe either would serve as an effective replacement for the Humvee. They're just too big.
More promising as a Humvee replacement (not service-wide but in theater) is Force Protection's Cheetah. The Cheetah is the smallest of a family of MRAP vehicles that we've covered here before. The Cougar and Buffalo, Force Protection's larger MRAPs, have already seen extensive service in Iraq, but the Cheetah is new. Light, fast, and well armored, the Cheetah really could replace the Humvee throughout Iraq. I think its main advantage is that it's not so intimidating as some of the other models on display. That is, its presence on Iraqi roads might not scare the heck out of the average, friendly Iraqi civilian. And at roughly 12,000 pounds, it's in the same weight class as the Humvee.
The military hasn't yet ordered the Cheetah, but it's only a matter of time. And Force Protection is turning out Cougars and Buffalos as fast as they can to meet existing contracts.
Rafael, an Israeli firm, also had an MRAP on display--the Golan. The Marine Corps ordered 60 of these vehicles at the end of February, and will likely order more in the months ahead as the Marine Corps struggles to deploy more than 4,100 MRAPs to Iraq by the end of the year. Essentially, no one firm can meet the demands of the Marine Corps and the Army, which means multiple suppliers will be needed to fill the order. That ought to be a nightmare for the guys doing logistics, let alone the mechanics. But these vehicles will save a lot of American lives as they are put into service.