26 March 2006

The Humvee Problem

The Humvee was the American successor to the jeep. It entered service in 1985, as one of the last major military systems purchased in the Cold War, and was used first in the First Gulf War under the administration of the elder George Bush, then in Kosovo and Bosnia and Somalia during the Clinton administration, and is now being widely used in the Iraq War and in Afghanistan during the administration of George W. Bush. The military has tens of thousands of them, if not hundreds of thousands of them, and there are about a dozen different variants of them.

When the Humvee was first designed, the main focus was on its off road capabilities. There is probably no four wheeled vehicle that rivals it in this respect. Its low center of gravity, wide frame, four wheel drive and other features allow it to climb steep hills (60% grade), drive with a right side much higher than its left (40% grade), or visa versa, and its undercarriage is designed to give it exceptionally high clearance (16 inches) of rocks and tree stumps and debris that may be in its way, and ford shallow streams (30 inches in a standard configuration). In short, it is designed to be able to carry modest loads of cargo and troops anywhere tracked military vehicles, like tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, could while getting fuel economy at about 12 mpg, which isn't great, but is far better than a tank, 0.5 mpg, or a Bradley, at about 1.5 mpg. (A Stryker gets about 6 mpg.)

The downside of the Humvee is that, despite being a military vehicle, it was basically designed to be a non-combatant, providing mobility for forced behind the front lines in a European conflict with the Soviet Union. As one commentator puts it, "'just getting around and doing work, particularly in quieter areas' is a role concept that becomes deeply questionable for a military vehicle." Civilian vehicles without extreme off roads capabilities can do that in areas that are genuinely behind the front lines, like military bases away from combat zones, for less money with greater performance. But, a vehicle that isn't even armored enough to stop shrapnel and ordinary firearm rounds, and has no design features to protect its occupants from land mines is ill suited for use in a combat zone, even when the opposition has already been stripped of heavy weapons like aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery.

This is particularly a concern as the roles of the Humvee have expanded because the military has a great many of them. While it was well designed to serve as a behind the front lines cargo/troop carrier, or shelter carrier, and is reasonably useful as a field ambulance, its design its less suited to its roles as a patrol vehicle and automatic weapons platform, which implies a vehicle likely to get into firefights, as an anti-tank missile carrier, and hence very near enemy tanks, or as a light howitzer carrier, and hence operating close to the battlefield and possibly facing return fire. In the conflicts where it has been used militarily, its role as a automatic weapons platform on patrol duty in urban or hostile territories, for which it wasn't designed, has been particularly in demand, and while there has been relatively little occasion for Humvees to be used in the extreme off road environments for which it was designed.

Another problem with the Humvee is its size. While two or three of them can fit on a C-130 intratheater transport plane, they can not be carried on a V-22, or internally by any American military helicopter, and are difficult for all but the largest of American military helicopters to carry externally. This means that troops delivered by helicopter have to walk or use some other vehicle once they are dropped off.

These are the problems that are driving the choice of successors to the Humvee. Vehicles can be designed to better address these problems, and it will probably take three different kinds of vehicles to address the problems that have arisen with it.

Armor can provide protection against enemy gunfire in firefights, and many existing Humvees have been armored to address this issue. But, the Humvee wasn't designed to carry the kind of weight that armor creates, so armored Humvees face suspension problems and other maintenance difficulties. Improvised armor is often not terribly good at protecting occupants. And, even relatively ample, factory designed armor isn't sufficient to make a Humvee impervious to heavier weapons like anti-tank rounds and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs).

The M1117 "Guardian" Armored Security Vehicle, which costs about $700,000 each, compared to $100,000-$200,000 for a Humvee, in contrast, was designed from the ground up to act as a heavy automatic weapons platform that protects its occupants from enemy fire, and the U.S. military has about 1,000 on order from the New Orleans firm that makes them, but being in New Orleans, production is not what might be hope for in the short run.

The key to protecting occupants from land mines (such as the improvised explosive devices or IEDs found in Iraq) appears to be to have the bottom of the vehicle formed in a V shape that directs blast energy away from the vehicle, and to make that part of the vehicle out of explosion resistant material. Vehicles designed with this goal in mind have been purchased by military forces in significant numbers in South Africa, Australia, Germany and Britain, but Canadian and American militaries are just starting to purchase small numbers of them, such as the Cougar, the Buffalo, and the RG-31 Nyala for troops specifically tasked with destroying land mines and doing road work. But, the widespread adoption of V-shaped hull vehicles for ordinary patrolling troops who might encounter land mines hasn't yet taken place.

More vehicles to address both the armor and land mine issues are on the drawing boards, with the Georgia Tech designed "Ultra AP", a Ford F-350 pickup truck derivative, garnering the most press.

The size problem can't be addressed in the same vehicle as the armor and land mine problems. A vehicle small enough to fit on a V-22 or C-47 helicopter, can't also be bullet proof and mine resistant using today's technology. But, dune buggy like ITVs are being investigated by the Marines to fill this gap.

Finally, there is an increasing movement in the military to simply use commercial off the shelf technology, like every day pickup trucks and vans, for truly safe areas, like military bases outside hostile territory, for the kind of utility roles for which the Humvee was designed, where extreme off road conditions aren't likely to arise.

This doesn't mean that there isn't a role for the Humvee going forward. It does what it was designed to do, which is carry cargo and troops over very rough terrain in areas where enemy land mines and gunfire are unlikely to be encountered, very well. But, while the military of the 1980s and 1990s thought that it needed 55,000+ vehicles to fill this niche, and fewer than a couple thousand designed for the anti-land mine, urban firefight role, and only a few dozen for special forces capable of easily being transported by helicopter or V-22, in hindsight, this has proven to be a miscalculation. It turns out that tens of thousands of armored patrol vehicles land mine resistance are necessary, that perhaps only a couple of thousand vehicles with extreme off road non-combatant capabilities are needed (and even they could use some designed add on armor capability), that two to four thousand helicopter or V-22 transportable vehicles are needed, and that there is no need for vehicles in safe areas to have an expensive military design at all.

New vehicles, of course, cost money. But, lightly armored ground vehicles for the Army are still remarkably cheap compared to the budgets of the Navy and Air Force for equipment. For example, for the cost of one proposed DD(X) destroyer, one can buy 4,000 Guardian ASV patrol vehicles, or 6,800 RG-31 Nyala land mine resistant vehicles. One can buy three or four commercial diesel pickup trucks for the cost of one unarmored humvee, and they also cost less to maintain and fuel.

Also, while I have called this failure to purchase light armored and land mine resistant vehicles in the 1980s "a miscalculation", this is really being generous towards Army planners. The U.S. military made a conscious calculation in the wake of the Vietnam war to build a military force that was not designed for fighting light counterinsurgency like the one it had just lost in the hope that politicians would be discouraged from sending the U.S. military to fight those kinds of conflicts in the future.

Instead, it built a force more or less exclusively designed for large, set piece, conventional battles in Europe against a Soviet foe. The mainstay M1 Abrahms tank, for instance, didn't have any significant number of units designed with such basic features for asymmetric combat, as a metal shield from which a machine gunner could fire in safety, until the Iraq War, is too heavy to be easily transported, and is not well suited for close quarters combat. The Humvee was designed without any meaningful armor or land mine protection. While the Swift Boats that John Kerry became a hero commanding in Vietnam were a key component of the "brown water" Navy at the time, the U.S. Navy built up after the Vietnam War was almost exclusively a "blue water" Navy that largely removed operations in coastal waters and support of ground troops on the coast from the kind of missions it prepared to fight. The Navy has removed its ground attack oriented A-6 from its carrier fleet, in favor of more air to air combat oriented fighter aircraft, and has decommissioned its big gunned battleships that could be used for ground bombardment. The Air Force has shunned the idea of developing successors to the Vietnam era A-10 and AC-130 aircraft which were designed to support ground troops, and has repeatedly tried to scuttle those that remain.

This is likely to change. While military planners are always busy fighting "the last war", Iraq has profoundly changed that vision that those planners have in mind. The Army, late in the game, is starting to see that its "Future Combat System" a high tech answer to the problems of the Cold War, may be the right solution to the wrong problem, and to see counter-insurgency as a more central mission. Military ship building is starting to focus on high speed military transports like the USS Swift, and the coastal conflict oriented littoral combat ship, while production of the proposed DD(X) destroyer buy has been repeatedly cut. The Air Force's purchases of the air to air combat oriented F-22 fighter was greatly reduced from the original plans to buy 700+ of them, to current plans to buy just 180 or so, with purchases complete in 2008.

At some points, the new thinking in defense of old programs has reached the ridiculous. For a while, the Air Force was floating the idea of using the F-22 to deal with land mines. The Navy's retooled Ohio class ballistic missile submarines have been sold as a way to deploy Navy SEALs. Both capabilities may exist, but the Air Force simply isn't going to end up using many quarter of a billion dollar stealth aircraft to destroy $250 IEDs, when the same thing can be done with $500,000 specialized trucks, and a multi-billion dollar, 18,750 ton submarine, carrying a 60 ton, $446 million submarine landing craft is a ponderous and expensive way to deploy a dozen or so Navy SEALs when a 60 ton version of a USS Swift type catamaran, could do the job just as well for $6 million.

But, while budgetary politics encourages everyone in the procurement process to hang on to existing programs when possible, it is the vision that military planners have of the nature of future threats that drives new programs and influences which programs must be cut in budgetary lean times. The growing consensus that the next war will look more like Iraq and less like WWIII with the Soviet Union (with apologies to those who call the Cold War WWIII, and call current spat of unconventional and counterinsurgent campaigns WWIV), will change what the military seeks to do going forward.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Iraq is certainly a blunder, although, this isn't very connected to Russia.