Combat Propulsions Systems, a division of L-3 Communications based out of Muskegon, Mich., is an industry leader in the design, development, manufacture, assembly, and test of military engines, transmissions, suspensions, and turret drive systems for tracked combat vehicles.
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With an illustrious history that goes back over 100 years, the company today has used its extensive knowledge of military applications to recently branch out into the international market while still maintaining a strong foothold in the domestic defense sector. Pete Ostrom, Vice President of Business Development for the division, talks about the company’s influential role in some of the most significant wars of the last century, the impact its had on their identity today, and why an emphasis on quality and collaboration has them in such high demand amongst defense agencies across the world. Steve Engelhardt reports.
Prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, L-3’s Combat Propulsions Systems had begun the development of air-cooled, radial aircraft engines. A design where the cylinders are attached to the engine around the outside of it, forming a circle, demand for them soon skyrocketed after President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the U.S. would be joining the Allied forces in their efforts against the Axis Powers in 1942. “The engine was placed in the P-51 Mustang, which was one of the main workhorses for the U.S. Army Air Forces during that time,” Ostrom says, adding, “and because of our engines’ reliability, we were able to establish a deep working relationship with the U.S. military from that point on.”
The Beginning of a Partnership
While the war ended in 1945, the engine’s capabilities had proved so effective that the same concept was integrated and mounted in a configuration to produce a 12-cylinder diesel engine with a rated output of 750 horsepower. “That engine was put into production not too long after the war to be installed in the M60 tanks, and while those are no longer in use here in the US, plenty of armies around the world still operate them today,” he says, adding, “But they also can be found today with power ratings up to 1,200 horsepower configurations inside every M88A2 Hercules recovery vehicles, as well as Israel’s Merkava tanks and Namer armored personnel carriers.”
Engines are what the company was founded upon, and it’s clear that they still serve as one of L-3 Combat Propulsion Systems’ most distinguishable offerings, yet Ostrom says key decisions made in the late 80s and early 90s towards diversifying their product line saw them undertaking the design and manufacture of transmissions as well. “Between ourselves and the U.S Military, we had already established a deep partnership through our engine production and we had proven ourselves to be a high-quality, reliable manufacturer,” he says, adding, “So during this time, the Army asked us to work on a new transmission design to be used in their Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFV), a job we eagerly accepted.”
Producing a hydro-mechanically powered transmission in a 600-horsepower version at the time – that has now been upgraded to 800-horsepower – the transmission can still be found in every single BFV in operation by the U.S. Army today. It is extensively used in a number of other different applications. “These transmissions today are used in M2/M3 Bradleys, as well as the Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) worldwide.”
Culture of Efficiency
Investment into research and development, and fostering the subsequent innovation that stems from it is key to the company, and is evident in the armed forces’ continuous demand of L-3 CPS systems in their mission-critical vehicles. Ostrom says that the U.S. Army is in early production of its M109A7 Paladin PIM, which depends on their HMPT 800-horsepower transmissions. “We have taken this transmission and created a more efficient version of it,” he says, adding, “it can operate at higher efficiencies and the brakes, which are located inside the transmissions, have been redesigned to accommodate the vehicles heavier weight.”
They are also working on an 8-cylinder, 1000-horsepower version of their flagship 12-clinder engines. “One of the benefits of our air cooled engine architecture is cylinders are outside of the engine block, which enables us to go from 12 cylinders to 8 cylinders with very little redesign when compared to liquid cooled engines. This speeds time to market and minimizes cost and risk.,” he says, continuing, “This engine would be a candidate for the Bradley vehicle and would provide a significant upgrade for them in decreased weight while still providing a higher level of horsepower that could fit in the current engine compartment.” Additionally, the company owns a worldwide license for rotary engines designated for military applications that is being used towards the development of upgraded auxiliary power units, to support the increasing demands for ‘engine off’ electrical power for communications systems, passive sensors, and air conditioning.
However, while continuous improvement of their engines, transmissions, and other products is key to their overall culture, Ostrom says the biggest factor behind L-3 Combat Propulsion Systems’ continued success and ability to be dynamic in their operations is through a strong focus on high-quality manufacturing. “First and foremost, we are a world leader in the manufacture of military grade engines and transmissions, something we take great pride in,” he says, adding, “We don’t make excuses over production decreases and then shift the blame for cost increases onto our customers’ shoulders, because our manufacturing efficiency allows us to mitigate a large part of that.”
The company manufactures its products out of its 228-acre, main facility in Muskegon, Mich., with total space stretching over 1.2 million-square-feet. “Operating as one of the few manufacturers in Western Michigan, as well as only one of three combat vehicle transmission manufacturers in the entire country, is something we take seriously to provide better buying power for our customers.” He says that with regards to Combat Propulsion Systems, they are the only combat vehicle transmission manufacturer purely focused on military applications, which shapes how they go about their operations. “As product requests expand, we have the ability to grow our facilities if we need, and if the market begins to contract a bit, we can also shrink our operations as we see fit, and all of this is because of the efficiency that we employ in our daily processes.” And he’s right, as the company has made on-time transmission deliveries for the last 49 months straight.
This focus on quality service and manufacturing spills over into their supply chain relationships as well. The Defense Logistics Agency, or the DLA, is in charge of providing the logistical products and support for the U.S. Department of Defense. “There are thousands of companies that do business with the DLA, and some have been able to reverse engineer parts that other companies sell for cheaper prices, and with this arises quality and reliability problems for customers like the U.S. Army.”
He says that L-3 Combat Propulsions Systems, given their reputation for quality and proven track record, stays in direct discussion with the DLA to provide them with additional insight and an added level of assurance when it comes to providing for the Warfighter. “This collaboration helps provide information to prevent the introduction of reverse-engineered, low reliability, counterfeit parts, and ensures that our armed forces, responsible for our security, are benefitting from the highest quality and most effective components.”
He says at the end of the day, Combat Propulsion systems is dedicated to developing collaborative solutions with their customers, which just happen to be the US Army and other defense agencies like the Israeli Defense Forces. “We are working hard to come together with others in the industry, and figure out ways to preserve the industrial base of the market, while also doing what is right for the customer.” He says this is tied to harmonizing their supply chains and controlling price increases, and, above all else, manufacturing products with the quality and excellence those in the Armed Forces require and deserve.
Ostrom concludes, “whether its engines or transmissions, at the end of the day we are working for the good of the industry and this country.”