The Army Wants New Tracked Vehicles That Will Run In Deep Snow At 50 Below

As the prospect for conflict in the Arctic increases, the service is moving to replace its obscure fleet of aging Swedish-built vehicles.

BAE Systems

For the first time in more than three decades, the U.S. Army is looking to buy a purpose-built cold-weather vehicle. The requirement comes as the U.S. military as a whole is looking to increase its capability to operate in and around the immensely strategic Arctic region in response to similar developments by potential opponents, such as Russia.

On June 5, 2018, the Army issued a formal request for information for a high-mobility tracked vehicle family that it is calling the Joint All Weather All Terrain Support Vehicle, or JAASV. Though they do not refer to any existing vehicles already in service, the requirements make it all but certain that this is a replacement for the aging Swedish-made Small Unit Support Vehicle (SUSV), which the service first bought in the early 1980s.

According to the contracting notice, the Army wants the JAASVs to be able to be capable of operating in deep snow, as well as marshy ground and rocky and otherwise rugged terrain, all while carrying a 9-man infantry squad or similarly-sized element. It also needs to be fully-amphibious and able to cross rivers, streams, and lakes.

It has to work in “extreme cold weather” conditions with temperatures of as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit. And it needs to be light enough that a UH-60 Black Hawk can carry it slung underneath. The Army also wants it to be air-portable under the larger CH-47 Chinook and inside a C-130 Hercules-type airlifter.

US Army

A US Army SUSV navigates an incline.

Beyond that, so far, the service is asking prospective vendors to let them know how fast and big their vehicle is overall. Any company making an offer will have to be able to provide its design in four different configurations, which are general purpose, ambulance, command and control, and cargo-carrying types. With those rear-echelon utility roles in mind, the Army has only specified a need for rollover protection, rather than any defenses against enemy fire, for the vehicles.

The Army previously purchased SUSVs, a version of the Hägglunds Bv206D articulated carrier, in those exact same configurations. The American versions used a 125-horsepower Mercedes OM617A in-line five-cylinder diesel engine in place of the less powerful original German-made Ford Cologne V6 gasoline engine.

US Army

A US Army CH-47F carries a SUSV during a training exercise.

The U.S. Marine Corps subsequently acquired a number of the vehicles, as well. The “Joint” in the JAASV implies the new vehicle be for both services.

In the Army, the older SUSVs primarily went to units in Alaska, though they also filtered down to National Guard elements in cold-weather and mountainous states, such as Colorado, Minnesota, and Vermont. The Marines maintained their fleet primarily to support their forward-deployed presence in Norway, as well as their own Mountain Warfare Training Center.

USMC

A US Marine Corps SUSV.

The boxy vehicles have incredibly low ground pressure thanks to the wide, rubber band-type tracks and lightweight bodies. Over deep snow, the vehicle can exert as little as 1.8 pounds per square inch of force. A typical human male has a ground pressure of around 8 pounds when standing.

The two distinct sections give them good mobility over rough and uneven terrain while still being able to carry an infantry squad or cargo. Larger, single body vehicles might get stuck in various inclined positions or have difficulty getting up and over certain obstacles. Both portions of the vehicle are powered, with a single drive chain providing power to both sets of tracks.

USMC

The chassis of the front portion of a SUSV undergoing maintenance.

Even so, it can travel at 10 to 15 miles per hour, much faster than an individual walking and much more capable over rough, uneven ground than a fast-moving snowmobile. SUSVs have a top speed on improved roads of over 30 miles per hour and a maximum range of between 120 and 200 miles depending on the terrain.

The top half of the front portion of the vehicle and the rear compartment can both come off, which makes the vehicles small enough to fit inside a CH-47. C-130s or larger cargo aircraft can also airdrop them if necessary. The modernized Bv206S model was actually low profile enough to drive straight on and off a Chinook.

NATO

Italian troops load a Bv206S onto a CH-47 helicopter in Afghanistan.

They remain capable utility vehicles, but they’re also becoming increasingly unsupportable. In the intervening years since the Army bought the first examples, Hägglunds has changed hands numerous times and is now part of BAE Systems. It no longer makes either the Bv206D or the Bv206S at all, having replaced them in its product line with the significantly larger and more capable BvS10.

The SUSV in U.S. military service was always a niche item and often received little support and attention. For years, the Army National Guard had been one of the SUSV’s biggest supporters, since the vehicles could swim and navigate all sorts of terrain. This made them ideal for getting around during natural disasters and for rescuing stranded civilians in mountainous areas.

US Army

A US Army SUSV goes for a swim.

In 2015, the Marines sent theirs to Production Plant Barstow at the Marine Depot Maintenance Command in Yermo, California for an overhaul. This was their first ever depot-level maintenance on the vehicles after more than two decades on the job.

In 2017, the 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry took some SUSVs out on an exercise nicknamed Spartan Pegasus near the aptly named town of Deadhorse, Alaska. According to the Army’s own reporting, most of the vehicles had stopped working by the end of the drills, largely due to failed pressure pumps in the engines and dead batteries.

US Army

Soldiers from 1-40th Cavalry gather near a SUSV during Spartan Pegasus in 2017.

1-40th Cavalry is part of the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division based further south at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. As an airborne unit, its soldiers more commonly get around using Humvees, other types of trucks, or on foot.

The 2017 exercise was one of an increasing number of U.S. military drills near the Arctic Circle. Thanks in no small part to global climate change, the shrinking polar ice cap, and the steadily dropping total amount of ice that reforms in the winter months, the prospects for competition and conflict over the region have only increased.

CO ARNG

A SUSV belonging to a special "Snow Response Team" of the Colorado Army National Guard with a police-style light bar on top.

The Arctic holds immense natural resources and serves as an increasingly viable international trade route and numerous countries, especially Russia, have been particularly keen to stake their claims. The Kremlin is dramatically expanding its military and civil presence above the Arctic Circle and has been buying increasing amounts of ships, combat vehicles, and other equipment specifically suited to the environment.

JAASV is almost certainly a response to the same security concerns and while there are no plans for combat-centric designs as of yet, the new tracked vehicles will provide important additional mobility for any units operating in the frigid cold. The ability to rapidly insert them via helicopter or fixed wing aircraft could at least help units get closer to their objective faster in a more serious contingency even if they would likely dismount before any final assault. In the same way, it could also help support conventional scout and special operations units on reconnaissance missions.

As such, the new vehicles will almost certainly have to have at least as good performance as the older SUSVs. If the program proceeds, the most obvious choice for the Army would likely be the BvS10, which remains in production.

US Army

A Black Hawk sling-loads half of an SUSV during training in Alaska. 

In 2016, BAE Systems also unveiled a further improved version, the Beowulf, at the annual National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) symposium with a clear eye toward pitching the vehicle to the Army. Beowulf has a top speed of over 40 miles per hour and a range of at least 250 miles, while remaining air portable slung under a CH-47 helicopter. UH-60s would carry it in two halves with troops reassembling it after it arrives at the destination, which the Army trains to do with its existing SUSVs.

The BvS10s are also combat proven, having made trips to Afghanistan with the U.K. Royal Marines, British Army, and Dutch Marines. The Netherlands also sent them to Chad to support peacekeeping efforts there. The Italians have deployed older Bv206S types to Afghanistan, as well, while the Swedes have sent their S models to countries in Africa.

It proves the point that these vehicles might have added utility beyond the Arctic and in entirely non-combat roles, as well. The carrier’s ability to cross rocky and sandy terrain means it’s just as much at home in Central Asia or Africa as it is in the Far North.

Crown Copyright

British Army troops in Vikings in Afghanistan in 2009.

The British vehicles, known as Vikings, have received up-armored weapon stations and slat-armor to help defeat rocket-propelled grenades to make them more capable of performing routine patrol duties. A mount for a machine gun above the main cab was always standard on the Bv206S and BvS10 and some operators even turned them into carriers for TOW missiles and other heavy weapons.

Otherwise, the Army has few other options when it comes to articulated carriers. ST Kinetics in Singapore offers the Bronco, while Finland’s Sisu sells the Nasu, both of which are visually similar to the BvS10, though they completely different designs. The other major manufacturers of these types of vehicles are in Russia, putting them off limits to the U.S. military.

ST Kinetics might be best positioned to challenge BAE. In 2015, the company, in cooperation with defense contractor SAIC, won a deal worth around $100 million to build prototypes of one of the two vehicles the Marines are now considering as part of their Amphibious Combat Vehicle 1.1 program. The two firms have teamed up again to compete for the Army’s new light tank program.

Limkopi via Wikimedia

An ST Kinetics Bronco.

It is also possible that the Army could ditch the articulated carrier concept entirely and pursue a more traditional type of tracked vehicle with a single body. Beyond the service’s desire for the design to be tracked, there is no requirement for it to be in one configuration or another.

It will be interesting to see what the service eventually considers to replace the worn SUSVs. The request for information says any company interested in submitting an offer has to do so by June 21, 2018. So we may not have to wait long to see the initial proposals.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com