Light Utility Vehicles of the Future

3 December 2008 (Last Updated December 3rd, 2008 18:30)

Making sure light utility vehicles are fit for purpose and ensuring the safety of troops is a top military priority. Huw Kifford explores the latest designs and technologies.

Light Utility Vehicles of the Future

A modern fighting force needs good land transport, whether it is for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering; routine patrols; or transportation of troops, small or large fighting forces, or vehicles. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the theatre of warfare is forever changing and allied troops continue to fight a deadly insurgent and guerrilla war where roadside bombs and mines form a large part of the attacks made on allied vehicles.

The rules have changed and vehicles need to change with them to guarantee the safety of troops. As international forces continue active service, their organisations are beginning to step-up to protect them with a number of new vehicle systems in development.

"With additional armour vehicles can becomes heavier, cumbersome and difficult to manoeuvre."

Against attack

The most important factor to consider during R&D is the vehicle's purpose.

Mike Sweeney of BAE Systems Land Systems says that if the vehicle is to go into a combat situation it needs to be armoured to protect troops against small arms attack as well as the possibility of mine attack. But with this additional armour the vehicle becomes heavier, cumbersome and difficult to manoeuvre.

To make a vehicle resistant to roadside bombs and mines side armour is needed for defence against lateral attack, while an armoured hull can resist mine attack from beneath. Shaped hulls and chassis underneath the vehicle can direct the blast away from the cabin but injuries can still occur if the shock of the blast is transferred to the personnel inside the vehicle. The only way to reduce this is for the armour to be thick and heavy – again making the vehicle weightier.

Increasing the mobility of the machine to ensure optimum safety also needs to be considered. Many light utility vehicles are based on four wheels but an attack might make the vehicle immobile and a sitting duck by virtue of losing a wheel. Therefore, newer vehicles are now adopting six and eight-wheel drive systems.

Weapons systems for these types of vehicles also have to be relatively light – 7.62mm and 12mm heavy machine guns or light recoil-less cannon weapons offer a good rate of fire and effective stopping power. For patrols conducted by forces in recent conflicts, lower-echelon vehicles have been subject to substantial attack and so measures need to be adopted for these protected mobility vehicles to secure the survival of the troops being carried.

In conjunction with the actual body of the vehicle, electronic countermeasures against roadside bombs, shock-mounted seating, inner spall liners against small arms attack and run-flat tyres, all offer additional safety.

Two-pronged approach

Light utility vehicles are now becoming much more specialised and the days of the modified, all-purpose vehicles like the Snatch Land Rover could be almost over. To ensure that troops are protected to the best level that technology can offer there are two ways to go: either make a vehicle very light, fast and manoeuvrable, or produce a highly armoured heavy vehicle for maximum protection of forces on patrol.

For both of those extremes there are light vehicles in use. On the one hand is the BvS 10 Viking which runs on rubber tracks and has a low ground pressure (to avoid mine detonation) but still has armour and is commonly used by the Royal Marines.

In addition there is the Mastiff, which was introduced into the Iraq theatre at the end of 2006. It has substantial blast and ballistic protection being based on the 6x6 Cougar platform used by the US Marines (a similar vehicle in this vein is the BAE Systems Land Systems RG-33). This 23.5t vehicle can proceed at 90km/h and provides the highest level of protection, but is not highly manoeuvrable.

"Roadside bombs and mines form a large part of the attacks made on allied vehicles."

At the other end of the scale are the quad bikes being used by some special forces which have no protection but are highly mobile and very light. In support of this second approach is the fact that the lighter a vehicle is, the less likely it will give the pressure required to set off larger mines. However, the latest Afghan Taliban tactics favour using a lighter anti-personnel mine on top of a heavier mine because much less weight and pressure is required to detonate the smaller mine.

An important development in vehicle development is the US joint light tactical vehicle (JLTV) programme, which will produce a range of four or more vehicle types based on the same platform but for different duty levels that will replace today's models. The scheme has set a number of design demands for the vehicles including a 30kW generator to support operations, a trailer, a standard spare ammunition carrying capacity, jam-resistant doors, automated fire-extinguishing system, extra spall liner to give further protection to troops and multiple additive armour kits for different duties.

Fit for purpose

An example of a range of armoured vehicles designed for varying operational and combat situations is that from Force Protection Inc. The range includes the Cheetah, the Cougar 4×4, the Cougar 6×6 and the Buffalo (mine handler).

The Cheetah is a light utility vehicle for urban operations and reconnaissance of just 16,000lb but with a capability of being able to go over 80mph. It is lightly armoured but still with the good design of the V-shaped monocoque hull. The more highly armoured, thus heavier, Cougar is available in two basic variants – 6×6 or 4×4 – and these have been designed with mine-resistant armoured protection in mind. More importantly they can be easily modified to fit the electronics and armour specification required by a range of different armed forces.

The Cougar 6×6 has already been very successful, as the Mastiff for the British Army, the Badger ILAV for the Iraqi Army and of course in several variants for US forces such as the HEV (hardened engineer vehicle) and the JERRV (joint EOD rapid response vehicle). Other variants have also been sold to the Italian and Canadian Armies.

"An important development in vehicle development is the US joint light tactical vehicle (JLTV) programme."

In many ways the range of vehicles from manufacturers like Force Protection Inc has provided a good base for the JLTV programme because of the extensive vehicle range and the customisability of these vehicles.

Other refinements are now being introduced to light utility vehicles to increase their operational usefulness. These can include additional power units that can be used in case of engine failure to get the vehicle out of trouble or allow the vehicle to be used as a remote control drone for unmanned reconnaissance, as is the case with the spider light strike vehicle.

Remote control is also becoming popular with weapons systems, whereby the troops have the ability to operate them from the inside of the vehicle – this is possible in both the Cougar and Ridgback. In addition, weapons active protection systems such as the 'Quick Kill' from Raytheon are being introduced to intercept and destroy attacking anti-tank missiles, rockets and grenades.

As individual vehicles become more specialised to fit varying purposes so the cost implications of the build and the training needed to handle the machines rise. But critically, so does the safety of the troops and their ability to tackle enemy forces. As active service continues for troops across the globe, this has to be a priority and a critical spend for international militaries.