Excalibur Was A Vulcan Gatling Gun Wielding Air Defense Vehicle Straight Out of G.I. Joe

The US Army never adopted the eight-wheeled design, but the service is now looking at wheeled anti-aircraft vehicles once again.

US Army

Late in the Cold War, the Standard Manufacturing Company pitched a new type of short-range air defense vehicle, called Excalibur, to the U.S. Army. Looking like something out of a G.I. Joe playset or a 1980s action movie, this Vulcan cannon-armed vehicle was just one of many designs the company suggested could revolutionize the service’s mechanized units.

It’s not clear exactly when Standard Manufacturing, situated in Dallas, Texas – and apparently unrelated to the Connecticut-based gunmaker of the same name – built the first prototype design, but one was available for tests by 1985. The firm had applied for a patent for the vehicle’s unique 8x8 trailing-arm suspension in 1984, which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted two years later.

According to Fred Crismon's Modern U.S. Military Vehicles, Excalibur, also known as the Vulcan Wheeled Carrier, combined this suspension with a 135-horsepower Detroit Diesel V8 engine, which reportedly gave it a top speed on improved roads of 45 miles per hour. On top of the chassis, there was a lightweight, open-framed crew-cab in front and a turret in the rear with a radar-assisted 20mm M168 six-barrel cannon, a variant of the M61A1 Vulcan cannon found on fighter jets and other aircraft. The entire vehicle weighed approximately 16,000 pounds.

More importantly, Standard Manufacturing claimed that the suspension system, in which every one of the eight wheels could articulate up and down independently, would give it the same mobility on uneven ground as a tracked vehicle. At the same time, Excalibur would have significantly higher speeds on rough terrain and improved roads, but with fewer maintenance requirements, reducing the operating costs compared to traditional tracked designs.

US Army

The Excalibur Vulcan Wheeled Carrier vehicle during a US Army exercise in 1985.

At the time, the Army’s had tracked and towed Vulcan Air Defense Systems, or VADS, in service using the same manned turret. Excalibur would have been lighter than the M113 armored personnel carrier that served as the basis for the tracked system.

The tracked VADS, also known as the M163, was significantly heavier than the standard M113, as well, necessitating a reinforced suspension and additional floatation gear to maintain its amphibious capabilities. On roads, that vehicle could hit a top speed of 40 miles per hour, but at the cost of increased wear and tear on its tracks and the road surface.

The M167 towed version was limited in its mobility by whatever vehicle was pulling it along. In 1985, the system's prime mover was the first iteration of the new ubiquitous Humvee, which had better mobility off-road than its predecessors, but still could not match the capabilities of a tracked vehicle, especially when pulling a heavy trailer.

Even so, it’s not clear what the exact impetus was for the Texas-based company to develop this vehicle, since the Army had two versions of the VADS in service already, primarily to provide short-range defense for ground units against low-flying aircraft and helicopters. But it did come at a time when the Army had become increasingly concerned that its ground units and their vehicles might be too heavy and bulky to rapidly deploy in response to far-reaching conflicts. 

The rapid collapse of the Shah's regime in Iran and the speed at which the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, both of which occurred in 1979, pushed the service to craft what it first dubbed a High Technology Test Bed and then renamed as the High Technology Light Division. Excalibur would have been well at home in this organization, which for a time had an entire battalion of militarized dune buggies

US Army

Chenowth Fast Attack Vehicles from 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry during a training exercise in South Korea in the 1980s.

The same organization subsequently experimented with various light tank and assault gun concepts, Humvees carrying Hellfire missiles, and other state-of-the-art, but highly mobile systems. Likely with this type of organization in mind, Standard Manufacturing’s patent outlines an entire family of vehicles based on its 8x8 suspension, including cargo trucks, armored personnel carriers, scout vehicles, mobile artillery rocket launchers, and platforms for communications nodes and electronic warfare systems. 

The drawing of the last vehicle actually looks very much like a truck carrying the Franco-German-designed Roland surface-to-air missile, which the Army had planned to acquire in the 1980s. We don’t know exactly what happened to Standard Manufacturing’s concept. None of the vehicles based on its proprietary chassis, which also included a variety of civilian trucks and construction equipment, ever entered series production.

USPTO

Drawings depicting various vehicles that could use the Standard Manufacturing suspension system as shown in its patent. Figure 35 looks very similar to US Army's truck-mounted Roland launcher.

The complexity of the independent suspension system may have made the vehicles too costly or unreliable for military use, especially during rapid deployment operations where there might not be the immediate benefit of established repair facilities or robust logistics chains. It would also undoubtedly have needed additional armor protection for the crew cab and other military equipment. This, in turn, might have increased its overall weight and reduced the potential mobility and speed benefits.

Especially after the Cold War ended in 1991, and the U.S. defense budget began to contract, Excalibur may just have been too expensive when compared to the existing mix of traditional tracked and wheeled vehicles. By the end of the 1980s, the Army had already shelved the entire High Technology Light Division concept and returned most of the test units to more conventional force structures.

US Army

A Standard Manufacturing Company cargo truck using its 8x8 independent suspension system during a US Army exercise in 1985.

The basic underlying concepts didn’t go away, though. In the 1980s, the U.S. Marine Corps had purchased a fleet of 8x8 wheeled armored vehicles based on the Swiss-designed MOWAG Piranha, known as the LAV-25 family, for a variety of roles. This fleet included a small number of LAV-Air Defense variants, or LAV-ADs, which featured a turret with a Vulcan cannon and eight Stinger short-range surface-to-air missiles. Early prototypes iterations also included a 70mm rocket pod for attack ground targets, a concept that carried over to a similar, proposed Canadian design known as the Multi-Mission Effects Vehicle (MMEV).

In the early 2000s, the Army finally followed suit with the Stryker series, derived from the MOWAG Piranha III. By that point, however, the service had largely dismissed the need for short-range air defense in the future and did not buy an air defense type. This decision that has since proven to be immensely short-sighted, which you can read more about in detail in this past War Zone feature.

Some foreign VADS operators have put the turrets on various other wheeled vehicles, as well. The Saudi Arabian National Guard acquired a version of the Cadillac Gage V-150 4x4 armored vehicle straight from the manufacturer with the Vulcan weapon system.

More recently, Jordan’s state-owned King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau (KADDB) defense company modified a number of the country’s 6x6 Cougar Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to carry the VADS turret.  This combination is more about providing massive firepower against ground targets, though, which was always a secondary role for the tracked and towed Vulcan systems.

Jordan Pix/Getty Images

KADDB-modified Cougar MRAPs of the Jordanian Army with the Vulcan turret near the Al Roqban refugee camp in 2017.

The turrets themselves appear to be relatively durable and the basic components of the gun system remain in production. Variants of the Vulcan cannon remain in service as air-to-air weapons and as part of the Phalanx close-in defense system on ships.

The Army even adopted a trailer-mounted version of the Phalanx as a means of protecting forward outposts against small rockets and mortar bombs. Just in November 2017, reports emerged that South Korea was upgrading its towed variants with new thermal optics as an interim defense against North Korean threats such as low- and slow-flying An-2 biplanes and small unmanned aircraft.

Especially when it comes to the increasing proliferation of small drones among state among state and non-state actors, the VADS system, or weapons like it, are increasingly relevant again. Combined with a short-range surface-to-air missile system, such as Stinger, the old turrets might be a good interim short-range air defense option in many cases, regardless of what platform carrying them.

As it stands now, the Army is looking to field a Stryker-based air-defense vehicle in the near term to address its aforementioned and increasingly glaring short-range air defense gap, both with regards to the threat of low-flying manned aircraft and small drones. Though the service appears to be focusing largely on missile-based systems, OrbitalATK has demonstrated a vehicle carrying both an electronic warfare jammer to target small drones and an XM914 single-barrel 30mm cannon.

OrbitalATK

OrbitalATK's prototype Stryker with its Anti-Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Defense System, or AUDS, and an XM914 30mm cannon.

The Army wants prototypes of the air defense Stryker ready for testing by 2019, but has yet to settle on a particular design. If everything proceeds on schedule, the first batch of vehicles could join units in Europe the following year.

At that time, more than three decades after Standard Manufacturing designed its Excalibur prototype, the Army may finally have an 8x8 air defense system.

Boeing/GDLS

Another Stryker air defense configuration from Boeing and General Dynamics Land Systems.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com