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Joint Light Tactical Vehicle Re-Compete Can Propel DoD’s Wheeled Fleet into this Decade

Reuters recently broke the news that Apple is developing revolutionary battery technology for electric vehicles, with a source describing the new tech as “like the first time you saw the iPhone.” Subsequent reports were skeptical—at a minimum, Apple has very little direct manufacturing expertise. Still, the tech giant’s decision to push forward in the electric vehicle market, despite established competitors like Tesla, is a reminder of how quickly electric vehicle technology is advancing. Despite a thriving commercial sector, the Department of Defense remains locked into a vehicle fleet with technology from the 1990s.

The  U.S. Army's wheeled vehicle fleet represents the best in manufacturing technology from nearly 30 years ago. Once again, the Pentagon has missed the transformation of automotive technology that has already occurred in the civilian sector. This presents a unique opportunity—with low risk, short timelines, and immediate impact—to set a new direction for troops. Given President Biden's priorities to move to cleaner energy, the Army-Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) is a natural program from which to launch a greener military. The Army should use the re-compete for its Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) to begin bridging the tech gap for the Pentagon’s wheeled vehicle fleet.

Use Combat Support Vehicles to Incorporate Technology Faster

Earlier in 2020, Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, head of the Futures & Concepts Center at Army Futures Command, in describing the Army's slow shift to electric power, said, “Let’s be clear. We’re behind. We’re late to meet on this thing.” Back in April 2020, the Army's Future Command stated that for JLTVs, "If it [the technology] exists now, you can anticipate that we're going to have to transition some of this in the next 10 years."  In the case of electric vehicles, it is looking at electric scouts by 2025.  Given that it is now 2021 creating a new vehicle for production that can get to soldiers for a combat mission in four years does not seem credible. Starting with a support vehicle, such as Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, seems more believable.

The Electric Light Reconnaissance Vehicle is an armored truck modeled after the MRAPs that became ubiquitous during the Iraq war. While JLTVs are engineered around the priorities of armor and diesel-powered propulsion, they are completely devoid of modern automotive functions—such as driver-assisted technologies, rearview cameras, built-in diagnostics, and most importantly, electric power.  

For comparison, the Tesla S model and the GM Hummer are both commercial examples of vehicles brimming with features that could be adopted by the Army. Both are marvels of technology and electrification. Both are production-ready and available to consumers today. They have backup cameras, 360-degree cameras, automatic braking, driver assistance automation, diagnostics, and they are electric with 350-mile ranges. The GM Hummer, named after the military version that remains trapped in the 1980s, even has the capability to drive diagonally. 

To be fair, the Army is already working on making the new Infantry Squad Vehicle (ISV) electric, along with fielding the Electric Light Reconnaissance Vehicle (ELRV) by 2025. Until the Electric Light Reconnaissance Vehicle reaches the fleet, the JLTV will complete scouting missions for the Army. In addition to the JLTV serving as the catalyst for a much needed technological uplift of the Army wheeled fleet, it can also provide a leg-up for the service’s transition to more technologically-advanced combat vehicles.

From “Dumb” to Military “Smart” Cars

Of course, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle will probably not be able to incorporate every new feature that exists commercially. However, the potential comparative advantage from even minor progress cannot be understated. By making the JLTV just slightly “smarter,” for example, the Army will have the opportunity to begin gathering critical data that can inform its future vehicle designs. Right now, soldiers are driving tens of thousands of miles in “dumb” vehicles where information is not being collected. By procuring a new fleet of JLTVs with more advanced technologies, the Army can begin mapping and learning how servicemembers drive and potentially training new artificial intelligence systems on real information.

Other new technology would provide immediate benefits. Suppose the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle was equipped with 360-degree sensors and videos, for example. In that case, it could provide real-time intelligence, giving new meaning to the concept “Every Soldier is a Sensor.”

Wrenching the Army’s vehicle fleet closer to the 2020s could also motivate the Department of Defense to jumpstart its information technology and artificial intelligence program for vehicles. Consider, for example, the potential benefits of connecting a technologically-enhanced Joint Light Tactical Vehicle with the Army’s new Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) of high-tech goggles for soldiers. Ensuring such interoperability will cut a decade or more off integration efforts and provide enormous benefit to the warfighters today. The video and sensor feed on one IVAS set can feed others in their squad and platoon, while the new Tesla-like JLTVs could serve as the cloud-like data docking station for IVAS in austere environments, thus enabling a platoon to operate within a degraded communications environment and also with a lower electromagnetic signature profile.

Lingering Questions About Incorporating New Tech Shouldn’t Be Excuse to Wait

Electric vehicles are not without their flaws. Perhaps most obviously, it’s not yet clear how to charge them in combat. However, these problems won’t be solved without advancing smart car programs to create the appropriate incentives. The military does not have electric vehicles today, so innovative companies have little to gain from fixing a problem that currently exists in an uncertain future that might arrive in four years … or ten. However, should President-elect Joe Biden’s administration push the Defense Department toward being a leader for electric vehicle production, then companies such as Tesla, Apple, and others will be more motivated to become part of the solution. The US military is unlikely to run out of internal combustion engine wheeled vehicles in the meantime.

For the new administration, there is a unique opportunity to stop talking about electric vehicles in the military and start building them instead. Beyond the Pentagon, it’s worth remembering that, given its scale, when the Pentagon enters the electric vehicle market, positive feedback loops are likely to dramatically decrease production costs and encourage further technology advancements. Today, most of the private sector is on board with the promising future of electric vehicles: Oshkosh recently acquired Pratt Miller signaling Oshkosh’s desire to leverage Pratt Miller’s advances in dynamic growth areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous and connected systems and electrification. GM’s CEO committed $25 billion to bring electronic vehicles to the market, and financial markets have tellingly raised Tesla’s market value to $780 billion, which is 5x the combined market value of Lockheed and Northrop combined. By using the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to jumpstart the Pentagon’s incorporation of cutting edge commercial vehicle technologies, the Army can take an overdue step in the right direction. 

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. John Ferrari is a visiting fellow at AEI. From 2013 - 2019, Ferrari was the U.S. Army’s director of program analysis and evaluation. After 32 years of service, he retired with the rank of Major General. He is a member of the Board of Advisors for GM Defense, LLC.

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