Armor: When Cheaper Is All You Can Afford

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October 9, 2020: The basic configuration of the new American JLTV (Joint Light Tactical Vehicle) is receiving some updates based on feedback from early users who received the first JLTVs in 2017-18. Three of the four modifications had to do with visibility and the fourth one addressed noise. The basic model will now have a front facing camera to give the driver a wheel level view and eliminates a blind spot for the driver right in front of the vehicle. This makes it easier to maneuver the vehicle in tight situations. The most common use of the camera will be quickly getting the vehicle on the two tracks of the wash racks for a thorough cleaning. Such cameras are more common on military vehicles. JLTV already had a back-up camera and such rear-looking cameras are standard on the Chinese equivalent of the hummer and in many other nations as well.

Two other visibility improvements are a larger (by 250 percent) “transparent armor” rear door windows. This enables troops in the back seats to scan a larger are for enemy troops or for roadside bombs. With this change the rear door windows will be about the same size as the front door bullet-proof windows. The last change involves a more effective (silenced) muffler as well as a sturdier muffler design. This replaces a muffler that was so loud that troops inside the vehicle often had difficulty communicating with each other or using radio communications.

The 6.4-ton JLTV that replaces the 4-ton armored HMMWV (2.4 tons unarmored) and is heavier because the JLTV is more robust and better protected. There are over a dozen different JLTV models, including ambulances and command vehicles. There are two basic models, one with two seats and another with four. It is also possible to have six-seat version for carrying more troops. Payload of JLTV varies from 1.2-2 tons depending on vehicle accessories, like a RWS (remote weapons station) on top with a machine-gun or automatic grenade launcher. JLTV can also carry small missiles or EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment.

The JLTV marks a notable design direction for tactical vehicles. The JLTV is designed to absorb combat damage and be quickly equipped with two different armor kits. In effect, the World War II concept of the unarmored light vehicle for moving men and material around the battlefield has been radically changed by the Iraq War and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan.

This began in Iraq, where it was demonstrated that you can fight your way through a hostile population on a regular basis and defeat a guerilla force constantly attacking your tactical and logistical vehicles. This has never worked before but it worked this time, in part because U.S. troops promptly armored their hummers and trucks and quickly developed "road warrior" tactics that defeated ambushes as well as roadside and suicide bombs. Even though these bombs created a lot of American casualties, the overall U.S. death rate in Iraq and Afghanistan was a third of what it was in Vietnam and World War II. This was in large part because of the armored hummers and trucks. Few people outside the military noted this event, a watershed moment in military history. But it was recognized within the military and produced this sharp shift in design philosophy for tactical trucks, and the result is the JLTV.

The U.S. Army began replacing the World War II era vehicles with the HMMWV (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle nicknamed “hum-V” or “hummer”) in 1985. This was the first new unarmored combat vehicle design since World War II when the jeep and ¾ ton truck was introduced. The HMMWV was expected to last for three decades or more. That plan changed once Iraq was invaded. As expected, hummers wore out a lot more quickly (in five years) in combat than during peacetime use (14 years). The army and marines began developing, ahead of schedule, a new vehicle to supplement the hummer in combat zones.

In addition to being built to better survive mines and roadside bombs, the JLTV will be able to generate more electricity for operating all the new electronic gear as well as recharging batteries. There is also an automatic fire extinguishing system and jam-resistant doors. Like the hummer, JLTV will be easy to reconfigure, for everything from a four-seat, armed scout vehicle to an ambulance, command vehicle, or cargo or troop transport. The JLTV has a full complement of engine and vehicle systems management gear. This makes it easier to know when parts need to be replaced or the engine overhauled. This is often critical in combat where small repairs can get the vehicle going again if you know what is damaged right away. Top road speed is 100 kilometers an hour and road-range on internal fuel is about 500 kilometers. Each JLTV now costs over $450,000.

The JLTV was approved for mass production in 2020 although 15,000 had already been ordered and about half of them delivered to the army, marines and a few foreign customers. How many JLTVs are actually ordered depends on how much money the army and marine budgets can afford. Export sales will account for less than ten percent of total production.

Then there’s also a problem with current supply of army and marine combat zone trucks. The new JLTV is more combat vehicle than combat zone transport. While many hummers had armor added, or were produced with armor after 2003, most were not. That was because the armor protection was only needed in the combat zone. Even then only vehicles that spent a lot of time outside base areas in the combat zones needed armor.

Because of all that built-in protection the JLTV costs more than twice as much as a hummer and is more expensive to operate, mainly because a heavier vehicle uses more fuel. There are also higher costs for maintenance and replacement parts because JLTV is a heavier vehicle that wears out many components faster. JLTV was a specialized vehicle that was too expensive to replace hummers on large scale. This was recognized early on.

The army saw this coming a decade ago, as it was preparing to pull its troops out of Iraq. Most of the smaller force in Afghanistan was withdrawn three years later. At that point, China became the primary military threat. North Korea was also a threat and a unique one. For decades North Korean threatened to attack South Korea again as it did in its failed 1950 invasion.

By 2014 the army was convinced its next war would be a more conventional one where roadside bombs and mines would not be as much as a problem as in Iraq and Afghanistan. But plans were already underway, since 2005, to replace the hummer with a heavier, better protected and more expensive vehicle. By 2015 it became clear that the original JLTV purchasing plans were off target. A lighter, cheaper hummer-like vehicle would be needed in the future and in larger numbers than the JLTV. This was realized in 2010 when the army tried to get over $10 billion to rebuild over 50,000 older hummers to like-new condition. That was turned down although five years later a smaller program was permitted that cost about two billion dollars. But this only produced 11,000 rebuilt hummers, which was not enough to replace the many that were retiring because of wear and tear. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had accelerated wear and tear on hummers and shortened their useful lifespans by a decade or more. Some refurbishment money was provided but not enough to replace eventual losses.

Another factor that drove this new outlook was the shrinking procurement budgets after 2010. There would simply not be enough money to buy the number of JLTVs initially planned. At the same time, the elderly hummers had to be replaced with something. Military planners had overestimated the need for JLTVs and underestimated the need to replace many hummers with hummer-like vehicles or refurbished hummers. The solution is to replace many of the retired hummers with militarized pickups and other light trucks. These commercial vehicles would come with some factory upgrades to make them more rugged than most commercial models and have combat protection in the driver cabin. This would include bulletproof glass and blast-resistant seats and cabin floors. These could cost about as much to maintain as regular pickups and be cheaper to buy than hummers, while able to function like a hummer with a deployed army unit. In home bases, mainly in the U.S., civilian trucks are often used around the base and get the job done at much less cost than combat zone hummers and larger trucks.

The U.S. originally sought to develop a new hummer-like a vehicle with better and built-in bomb/mine protection. The JLTV came out of that and it was built to replace armored hummers and MRAP (Mine Resistant Armored Protected) vehicles. MRAPs are basically heavy (8-20 ton) trucks equipped with armor and V-shaped bottoms (to deflect explosions). Work on armoring hummers and building smaller MRAPs revealed that you could get MRAP level protection on smaller vehicles if you used the right design features. Trial and error during the most intense period of the Iraq war (2003-8) made it clear what worked. At the same time, JLTV was still in development and eventually incorporated that combat experience. That produced a vehicle not much heavier than an armored hummer but with protection similar to a larger and heavier MRAP.

Large scale production for JLTV began in late 2019 with most of those vehicles going to the U.S. Army, which currently hopes to buy 49,000 vehicles to replace armored HMMWV vehicles as well as many armored trucks (MRAPs). As of 2020, about 8,000 JLTVs will be in service. Thousands of American soldiers and marines already have experience with JLTV because low-rate production began in 2015 with orders for 657 vehicles, and that has since been increased so that the American military (mainly the army) can get their personnel used to the new vehicle. These users also provided a lot of feedback, which is understandable as the initial JLTV design was based on a lot of troop feedback and online discussions, especially on message boards only accessible to the troops, about what worked and what didn’t in combat, especially with regard to armored hummers and using MRAPS. The military wanted to avoid relearning lessons about vehicle protection that had been learned and forgotten after World War II, Korea and Vietnam. That means constant feedback from users and that is most important before mass production begins.

As JLTV enters service in 2019 it signaled the end of an era, or did it? The HMMWV was an iconic and revolutionary vehicle and the most innovative military transport to show up since World War II. About half the annual sales of HMMWV vehicles went to the U.S. Army, with the rest going to other branches of the American military and foreign customers. Nearly 290,000 hummers have been produced so far, in dozens of variants and versions. The last army hummer order was in 2012. The army plans to continue using most until at least 2030 with some lasting until 2050. By then most will have been retired because they are worn out. Now the problem is that the army cannot afford to replace all hummers with JLTV.

China also noted the development of the JLTV and the success of armored hummers and MRAPs. China openly copies a lot of foreign military equipment designs, often in many variations because multiple manufacturers get involved. While the Chinese military thought the American hummer (HMMWV) was a useful design, it was not adopted widely. The basic tactical vehicle in the Chinese military is the BJ2022 (Brave Warrior or “Yongshi”). The BJ2022 entered service in 2007 after being developed as a joint venture between a Chinese firm and Chrysler. Because of that American connection, the BJ2022 was legally based on the Jeep Cherokee (but a bit larger). BJ2022 comes in two versions, with one being a bit longer and serving as something similar to the old American ¾ ton truck. Most of the BJ2022 are basically much updated World War II American jeep designs that borrow much from SUV and four-wheel drive innovations. The basic version can carry a payload of 500 kg (half ton) and seats four. The longer version carries 750 kg and seats up to eight. These are four-wheel drive vehicles that have manual transmissions and are mainly used on roads or flat terrain.

Chinese hummer-like vehicles are popular with Chinese and foreign special operations troops. The Chinese armed forces are not buying a lot of these vehicles (a few thousand or so a year at most) although civilian versions became popular with Chinese and export customers. The most popular of these hummer clones comes from Dongfeng, which initially produced some hummers under license. Dongfeng has since produced a number of hummer variants, including armored models equipped to handle RWS. These were nicknamed Mengshi (“east wind warrior). The latest of these, the CSK-181 is an eight-ton armored hummer design similar to the new American JLTV. One characteristic of the Chinese hummers is the built-in night vision cameras (one in front and one in the back with a flat-screen display for the driver to use) and satellite navigation system.

Although China tried Russian and European designs in their search for a new tactical truck (similar to the American hummer), they finally settled on a hummer clone of their own. China still uses the Russian and German designs for most of its tactical vehicles but it is also buying a growing number of locally made hummer clones.

China got their hands on an American hummer (M998 HMMWV) in 1988. Initially, Chinese military officials felt the hummer was too expensive. But the performance of the hummer in the 1991 Gulf War, plus the growing presence of the American civilian version of the hummer (especially those brought in by oil companies for use in remote areas), changed minds. By 2003, two Chinese companies were producing hummer clones and the Chinese Army adopted one of them as the EQ2050. Within a decade an armored version was developed as the EQ2058 followed by several other variants, including a longer 6x6 vehicle.

 


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