Military looks to build improved vehicle

July 22, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
For 25 years now, the military has relied on one vehicle as truck, taxi, and ambulance -- the Humvee, but, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown how vulnerable the Humvee can be to attack. A South Bay firm is one of three companies competing to build a tougher utility vehicle for the Pentagon.

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The Iraq war proved the Humvees' thin skin was no match for a powerful roadside bomb. It led to this tense 2004 exchange between a soldier and then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld:

"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up armor our vehicles and why don't we have these resources readily available to us?" asked a soldier.

"You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time," said Rumsfeld.

Humvees now have a thicker skinned potential replacement; Santa Clara based BAE Systems is one of three companies competing to build the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle for the Army and Marine Corps. It's designed from the ground up to protect against mines and roadside bombs.

"The key design characteristic is a v-shaped hull bottom which basically deflects the blast away from the crew area," said Greg Mole, BAE Systems.

It's the same principle used on the military's mine resistant ambush protected vehicle or MRAP -- like BAE's RG-33. The MRAP's were a big improvement in Iraq where paved roads are common. But, it would be too heavy and awkward in terrain like Afghanistan where good roads aren't so common.

BAE is so confident in the survivability of their Valanx vehicle, they even let me drive it.

"You'll find that it handles very nimbly for a vehicle of this size and weight. It's about three or four times the weight of what you're accustomed to driving on a heavy SUV," said Mole.

It's between 12,000 and 15,000 pounds empty, 22,000 with a full load on. It's powered by a 340 horsepower turbo diesel engine; top speed is 80 miles an hour.

"Nobody's going to mistake this for a Ferrari. But, it doesn't handle all that differently from a large SUV," said Eric Thomas.

BAE hopes to sell 60,000 of these vehicles at between $400,000 and $500,000 a pop. BAE now has to produce several prototypes for head to head testing with its competitors. Eventually, the Pentagon plans to buy up to 60,000 of the vehicles.

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