Magazine article National Defense

Hard Shells

Magazine article National Defense

Hard Shells

Article excerpt

New threats force armorers to redesign passenger vehicles

WEST POINT, Va. - AT FIRST GLANCE, the hulking silver Chevy Suburban looks like any other soccer mom's sports utility vehicle plying the streets of small town Virginia. Try opening its door, and it becomes immediately obvious that this is no ordinary SUV.

It takes weightlifter arms to pry it open. Peering through the side door window one sees that it is made of glass several inches thick.

The threat of roadsiae bombs, ambushes and kidnappings in hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan has fueled the demand for more armoring on non-military vehicles. However, as the threat and sophistication of improvised explosive devices grow, so do the heavy armoring requirements.

"A commercial passenger vehicle was never designed for that kind of weight," said Mike Reynolds, vice president of engineering for Centigon, the designer of the up-armored Suburban.

Centigon, a division of Armor Holdings Co., is one of a handful of U.S. businesses that are serving the niche market that converts SUVs or sedans to up-armored vehicles that can protect against ballistic or explosive threats.

The number one concern, manufacturers say, is to protect the cab and its occupants from bullets or bombs. Number two on the list is to maintain the vehicle's functionality in case of attack. Drivers need to escape dangerous situations. Third, is to maintain its appearance of a normal vehicle.

Driving a nondescript car that looks like others is important since customers do not want to be seen as targets.

Mark Burton, chief executive officer of International Armor Corp., said the industry was crowded with several fly-by-night operations at the beginning of the Iraq conflict. These newcomers didn't understand these concepts.

Some put up glitzy Web sites and made a quick killing, but their business dried up when their customers discovered that armoring a vehicle entails more than slapping steel on the outside of cars.

"There was a high demand very quickly, and they thought they could just put cars in and get a whole bunch of welders in there and take care of the problem and make some money. And they did [make money] very quickly," Burton said.

But after a year or two, customers realized that the work was shoddy, and there was no service support. A few of these so-called "chop shops" still exist, Burton said.

Now that the shakeout is over, International Armor has seen a 40-percent increase in orders at its Ogden, Utah, headquarters from last year. Its foreign facilities have seen increases in sales of up to 125 percent.

Meanwhile, both companies continue to sink research dollars into improving their products. Centigon's mobile security division in July rolled out the new Suburban, what it calls the "enhanced capacity vehicle." It is capable of carrying 15,000 pounds, almost twice that of a standard model, while allowing better handling for drivers who find themselves in dangerous situations, company officials said.

Centigon, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, counts among its legacy companies Hess &, Eisenhardt, which built the first armored limo for President Harry S. Truman in 1949.

The Suburban redesign includes improved front and rear suspension, customized brakes and shocks, reinforced frame structure and tires, and wheels that can handle the higher payloads.

International Armor has decided to invest its resources in creating lighter armor. It uses steel, but has developed molded fiber-based composites that can be installed in the field. …

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