Prototype military vehicle aims to cut casualties

As roadside bombs cause an increase in UK casualties, a prototype vehicle aims to improve survivability. Jon Excell reports

As the number of UK soldiers killed in Afghanistan nears 200, the familiar accusations that our troops are poorly equipped are growing louder.

In recent weeks the Jackal, the British Army’s light-patrol vehicle, has come in for particularly harsh criticism. Since it was first deployed last year, 14 soldiers have been killed in the vehicle, all of them victims of roadside bombs. Some have suggested that the vehicle’s design makes it particularly vulnerable to such attacks.

An unusual-looking truck unveiled earlier this summer at Millbrook’s Defence Vehicle Dynamics (DVD) event provides an intriguing glimpse of how the armed forces may be better equipped to cope with these threats in the future, not least through an unusual V-shaped hull and a design philosophy that takes protecting the crew as its starting point.

Developed and demonstrated by Lockheed Martin in the UK, the AVA-2, a 6×6 armoured truck, is the second prototype vehicle to be produced using the company’s adaptive vehicle architecture (AVA). A 4×4 variant, AVA-1, was demonstrated last year.

Heavily armoured, capable of a sprint speed of more than 50mph and based on the same basic High Mobility Truck (HMT) design that underpins the Jackal (Lockheed bought HMT from Supacat in 2006), it’s tempting to view the vehicle as a direct replacement.

But according to Lockheed Martin, this is just one potential application of the technology. The aim of the AVA programme is to use the same basic components to build an entire fleet of land vehicles — from troop carriers to command-and-control vehicles and cargo trucks. Lockheed Martin believes the concept could help significantly reduce the cost of meeting several emerging UK requirements, including the Operational Utility Vehicle System (OUVS).

Explaining the background to the concept, Phil Ashworth, Lockheed UK’s land systems business manager, said that when the UK arm of the defence giant entered the land-vehicle arena three years ago, it made a conscious decision to buck the existing trend of developing bespoke military vehicles. ‘We decided to take a different approach and develop a flexible vehicle architecture that could be easily modified and form the basis for a variety of different military vehicles.’

The AVA concept can be broken down into three core components: the chassis, the cab and the mission module.

Subtle modifications to these components can lead to very different types of vehicle, explained Ashworth. ‘We have a family of vehicles that don’t just fit one set of requirements: simply change out the design at the back, change out the cab, reconfigure the driveline slightly.’

Expanding on the potential roles of AVA vehicles, Ashworth said: ‘We can make it for a command-and-control vehicle, with a four-man cab and a work area behind the cab within a secure, protected environment, but you could also just simply have a two-man cab and a flat bed so it could be a straight cargo truck.

‘On the same basis, you could put a fairly small two-man cab at the front with a crew under protection and you could put a recovery system… or a C4I system on the back. If you… put an updated, beefed-up, even armoured Jackal-style cab, you could make it a fire-support vehicle, you could make it a reconnaissance vehicle and a protect-and-patrol vehicle.’

Despite the concept’s adaptable nature, Ashworth scotched rumours that the company is working on a so-called ‘extender’ variant: a vehicle that can be converted on the battlefield from 4×4 to 6×6. ‘The extender is not on our timetable at the moment,’ he said. ‘It could be later on because effectively the 6×6 is an extension, all the component parts are exactly the same, but we’re focusing on developing the 4×4 and the 6×6.’

Much of the underpinning technology is the same as that on the Jackal. Driven by a 300hp Cummins engine, the vehicle employs the same type of space-frame chassis, uses an uprated version of the wheel-independent air-spring suspension system used on the Jackal and also boasts an automatic transmission.

‘It is,’ said Ashworth, ‘an evolution from an already in-service vehicle with a proven track record. We’ve just made it a bigger, stronger, more capable vehicle… but it’s very much the same.’

Nevertheless, there are some key differences, not least the vehicle’s most eyebrow-raising characteristic: its V-shaped hull. Ashworth explained that this was specifically designed to help the vehicle occupants survive roadside bomb blasts. ‘The strange, sloping front was all about the risk of where you put the driver and commander. The traditional forward cab always sits them above the wheels, which is a high-risk strategy. What we’ve done is push the driver and commander inside the wheel so any under-wheel blast will be pushed away.’

While he declined to comment on whether these improvements are a direct result of the problems encountered with the Jackal, Ashworth pointedly emphasised the fact that working alongside Israeli armour specialist Plasan, Lockheed Martin’s engineers took protection as their starting point in design of the cab. ‘That gives us the edge over the traditional way of doing things,’ he claimed. ‘Because they’re designing the protection solution, they can do it from scratch.’

He added that the vehicle has already fared well in a series of blast tests designed to go beyond the kind of blasts experienced by existing vehicles.

Lockheed Martin is now working with a number of partners to further the design. Some of these, such as Babcock Marine and Marshall Aerospace, are familiar faces in the defence industry. But as Lockheed UK is new to land-vehicle design, it’s also tapping into automotive expertise from beyond the military realm. Although he declined to reveal the identity of these industrial collaborators, Ashworth did comment generally on what can be learned from the car industry. ‘We need to learn about vehicle performance,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of understanding that we don’t have with regard to vehicle homologation so we’re bringing the experts in.’

Although still at the prototype stage, work has progressed quickly and Ashworth is confident that, should the need arise, Lockheed UK isn’t far away from producing a fully operational vehicle based on the AVA concept. ‘We think we’re mature enough to push for an opportunity if one were to arise next year,’ he said.