Magazine article National Defense

Special Ops Forces Fuel Demand for Ultralight Vehicles

Magazine article National Defense

Special Ops Forces Fuel Demand for Ultralight Vehicles

Article excerpt

When it comes to ground vehicles, U.S. Special Operations Command is embracing the notion that lighter is better. SOCOM wants platforms that can traverse difficult terrain and deliver special operations forces to their targets quickly, sacrificing armor protection for greater mobility.

Toward that end, the command will jettison much of its heavy fleet, according to officials.

"We're basically on a mission to divest ourselves of most of those vehicles," said Duke Dunnigan, deputy program manager of the family of special operations vehicles at SOCOM. "We're looking at more ultralight and depending more on speed and agility versus armoring up so much that the suspensions don't last long and I can't negotiate the terrain."

The command has about 3,000 vehicles in its inventory. By the middle of next year, the number of mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles and their off-road variant, the M-ATV, will drop from 519 to 280. Those remaining in the fleet will be reconditioned through 2016, according to Dunnigan.

Armor is also being removed from other vehicles at Letter-kenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania.

"We're taking all our up-armored heavy Humvees and we're basically sending them through the line and they're coming out ultralight vehicles," Dunnigan said at this year's Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida.

SOCOM sees less need for heavily armored vehicles like the MRAP--perhaps the most iconic vehicle of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars--now that America's big post-9/11 counterinsurgency campaigns have come to a close.

"When you're in a long-term engagement and you've got a big footprint like we had ... it's a lot easier for an enemy to predict [your movements] and do those" improvised explosive device attacks, Dunnigan said. To improve operability in places where "the IED threats aren't as heavy," SOCOM intends to rebalance its portfolio, he said.

In the coming years, the command will be procuring ultralight vehicles of varying sizes, ranges and payload capabilities to meet different mission requirements.

"What's best for us is to go out and ... find those industry commercial-off-the-shelf systems that we can modify to avoid to the best of our ability a lot of R&D that would be required to develop a vehicle from the ground up," Dunnigan said.

In March, SOCOM announced that it intends to negotiate and award a sole-source contract to Polaris to purchase 2,050 MRZR light tactical all-terrain vehicles.

Polaris has been under a multi-year contract with SOCOM for the vehicles since 2013, according to Mark McCormick, the company's director of U.S. government business development. The company makes 350,000 ATVs each year, mostly for commercial customers, he said.

The light ATVs that SOCOM uses cost about $30,000 per unit. Both the two-seater and four-seater MRZRs weigh less than 2,000 pounds. The vehicles can drive over rough terrain but their structure leaves riders highly exposed to enemy fire.

"We trade a lot of protection in order to field these highly mobile systems," Dunnigan said.

The vehicles enable special operators to drive places they would otherwise have to march.

"Our operators are pretty much laden down with a lot of combat equipment... We've got to get them in where they can get to the target, and when they get to the target not be exhausted but [be] ready to fight. So that's the purpose of our tactical ground mobility," Dunnigan said.

Industry officials should not expect to see any "near term" future acquisition requests for proposals for light ATVs, Dunnigan said. But he noted that the command has to replace the vehicles every three years because of all the strain that is put on them.

"Three years in combat is about as long as we can go. And then rather than spend more money on a vehicle that has already got a lot of miles on it and a lot of wear and tear . …

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