As the United States draws down troops committed to Iraq, it is beefing up its military commitment in Afghanistan. While the mission is similar, the logistical challenges are not. Except for the highlands in the northeast, terrain in Iraq is mostly flat, comprising deserts and plains, with modern highways connecting major cities. Afghanistan, in contrast, is dominated throughout its central and eastern regions by the rugged Hindu Kush mountain range.
“Military vehicles in Afghanistan require off-road drive trains and stabilization that they don’t need in the mideast,” explains Tom Pruitt, senior director of corporate communications for Force Protection, Inc., a leading designer, developer and manufacturer of survivability solutions, including blast- and ballistic-protected wheeled vehicles currently deployed by the U.S. military and its allies to support armed forces and security personnel in conflict zones. “With troop deployments and resources shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan, we’ve been upgrading our vehicles in the field used by both U.S. and coalition forces with the necessary off-road capabilities. One of our primary missions as a supplier of blast- and ballistic-resistant wheeled vehicles is to continually modernize and enhance their already significant survivability to meet new and evolving combat situations.”
The South Carolina-based company’s specialty armored vehicles include the Buffalo® and Cougar® platforms, designed specifically for reconnaissance and urban operations to protect occupants from landmines, hostile fire, and improvised explosive devices (“IEDs”; also commonly referred to as roadside bombs). The Ocelot® and JAMMA® vehicle platforms are similarly blast- and ballistic-protected for lighter weight used where modularity, speed, mobility and concealment are the primary considerations. In support of all its vehicles, the Force Protection provides long-term life cycle services encompassing development of technical data packages, supply of spares, field and depot maintenance activities, assignment of highly-skilled field service representatives, and advanced on and off-road driver and maintenance training programs.
Employing 1300 worldwide, founded in 1997 and originally located in the Charleston Naval Yard, Force Protection is headquartered on a 260-acre campus in Ladson, with additional facilities in Edgefield and Summerfield, S.C., Roxboro, N.C., and Sterling Heights, Mich. That together total over a million square feet in manufacturing, research and development engineering and testing space. In addition, a maintenance and support facility in Kuwait “greatly shortens response times for spare parts, fleet service, upgrades and training for our vehicles deployed in the mideast and central Asia,” Pruitt notes.
In early 2009, Force Protection established a European base of operations located in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, United Kingdom. The light protected patrol vehicle, the Ocelot, is entirely designed and built from this location, and was developed for the British military. The Ocelot’s demountable, protected pods allow for multiple configurations – troop transport, fire support and materials transport – that are easily interchangeable in the field. Along with the rest of the vehicle, the modular pods are made with light, advanced composite materials designed for survivability, adaptability and reliability.
“Like the auto industry, we’re concerned about reducing weight, which of course also reduces cost, to make a more fuel-efficient vehicle with enhanced mobility in difficult terrains,” Pruitt says. “Unlike the auto industry, our challenge is also to build a vehicle that can withstand significant explosive force and allow the occupants to walk away unscathed.”
Towards that end, the company recently acquired rights to JAMMA (Joint All-Terrain Modular Mobility Asset) technology, originally developed as a first response vehicle. A technological leap over similar vehicles, this high performance platform can handle challenging terrain at high speeds even with a combat payload. JAMMA has innovative rollover protection and modular, threat-specific armor for multiple mission profiles, including reconnaissance, rescue/recovery, medical evacuation and mobile security. The optional state-of-the-art hybrid engine optimizes vehicle efficiency and generates 22 kilowatts of continuous exportable power. As nimble as JAMMA is on the ground, yet another value-add in terms of quick mobility is that it can be easily transported inside the V-22 Osprey or larger aircraft.
“We think there’s a significant emerging market for lightweight protected vehicles, not just for use in Afghanistan, but in different kinds of military challenges around the world, particularly in urban areas,” Pruitt says. “In addition to our expansion into the U.K., we expect to sign a contract in Australia to provide more of these lightweight armored vehicles.”
Pruitt says that while cost is always a primary factor in fulfilling any government contract, there are also a number of value adds that Force Protection vehicles and the company behind them have to offer. “This isn’t just a simple matter of attaching armor onto a vehicle. There’s a science to the technology. Force Protection is well known for its innovation, not only in researching and testing vehicle ballistic protection, but also in its unwavering attention to a variety of environmental factors. One example is ergonomics. Soldiers themselves are weighted down with their own personal armor and other gear. So we look carefully at how someone so heavily outfitted can most easily get in and out of a vehicle. The ability to get quickly get in or out unimpeded while under attack is essential to personal survivability. We’re not just making armored trucks, we’re developing survivability solutions for specific applications and for the people in that application.”
Which is why Force Protection is also very concerned that even while surviving a blast may leave life and limb in once piece, the human brain is frequently traumatized by an explosion’s shockwaves. Indeed, traumatic brain injury (TBI) has become a signature casualty of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The Force Protection Center for Brain Research is developing an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)-compatible “phantom brain” to learn how to minimize TBI or prevent the effects of it altogether and integrate its findings into the design of its survivability solutions to counter the effects of these shockwaves on the human body.
Another example of Force Protection innovation is the development of a new class of MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected) Buffalo- and Cougar-class vehicles. These vehicles are characterized by high ground clearance, a V-shaped under-carriage, and capacity to carry heavy armor. These vehicles performed extremely well in surviving mine and IED attacks, not only saving many lives, but also returning quickly to service with a few repairs.
The Buffalo program has led the way in developing solutions that apply to a wide range of vehicles. In 2004, the Buffalo was the first vehicle outfitted with bar armor, an upgrade to slat armor, that helps protect against rocket-propelled grenades. When explosively formed penetrators (EFP) first emerged as a threat, the Buffalo EFP kit was the starting point for EFP protection kits designed and installed on a range of MRAP vehicles.
Another case in point is the highly specialized Buffalo Mine Protected Clearance Vehicle (MPCV), a 13-foot-high, 26-pluston behemoth equipped with a remote-controlled, 30-foot hydraulic arm used to handle suspected explosive devices and execute the delicate work of clearing routes of explosive hazards. Key to the success of this vehicle was Force Protection’s decision to spend considerable time with end-users in real-world conditions to determine the needs the vehicle had to meet. This resulted in more than 25 add-on capabilities that were integrated into the Buffalo, including fire suppression, additional armor, an air digger and various other survivability capabilities. So far, the Army has fielded 215 Buffalo MPCVs in three configurations.
“Like a government contractor, we get RFPs that lay out certain specifications that must be satisfied,” Pruitt says. “But we also make it a point to talk to the people who actually use the equipment and incorporate their needs.”
Despite being a specialized vehicle maker, Pruitt emphasizes that Force Protection products rely on widely available commercial off the shelf components. “That serves two purposes,” Pruitt explains. “First, it keeps our own production costs down. And, during the last five years, we’ve worked successfully with all our suppliers to achieve a just-in-time inventory, which has further resulted in savings that we can pass along to the customer. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, using common commercial components helps to ensure maximum availability of spares worldwide. The last thing anyone in a combat theater wants to hear is that a vital vehicle is in the shop for repairs and isn’t available until someone can make a part for it.”
Despite the war effort in Afghanistan, many government contractors have experienced reduced orders as many defense department budgets have been pared back. “Sales last year were a bit soft, but at the same time there’s been ongoing need for our products that’s been funded mostly out of supplemental budgets,” Pruitt concedes. “What we’re hearing is that there may be some long-term budget strategy that may result in more opportunities, but that remains to be seen.”
He adds, however, “Our long-term strategy is to continue to develop survivability solutions for military and patrol applications around the world. Even when American and coalition armies eventually wind down operations in Afghanistan, there will continue to be a need for our vehicles to operate in a variety of different environments, from jungle to urban, mountainous to desert.”
Wherever there are forces to be reckoned with, Force Protection will be there to protect against them.