Contractor shoots for battle-ready Jeep

U.S. Army Soldiers, carrying M1 Garand rifles, depart aboard an M38 jeep for their patrol points on the frontlines somewhere in the Republic of Korea on Aug. 31, 1950.


By TYREL LINKHORN | The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 20, 2016

In Jeep's 75th anniversary year, a North Carolina defense contractor is working on a project that could put the iconic vehicle back on the battlefield.

The U.S. Army wants to find an inexpensive, lightweight, unarmored vehicle that could be flown into remote locations and used to ferry troops and cargo over rough terrain in situations that don't call for heavy armored vehicles.

Sound familiar? It should. That's essentially the same role the Willys MB — the forerunner of the modern Jeep — filled during World War II.

Officials with Hendrick Dynamics see no reason not to circle back on that idea.

The Charlotte company has developed a specially modified Jeep Wrangler aimed at filling the role.

Though the project is in the early stages — the Army hasn't yet begun any official testing — executives with Hendrick Dynamics said they're excited about the Wrangler's potential.

"We've got a really good opportunity to deliver to the Army a highly capable platform at a significantly reduced cost," said Marshall Carlson, Hendrick Dynamics general manager. "One of the best points of the project is you're starting with such an incredibly capable vehicle which comes right off the line in Toledo."

Hendrick starts with a diesel-equipped Wrangler Rubicon, converts the electrical system to 24 volts, adds additional safety features and military-spec equipment, upgrades the suspension and brakes for higher payload capacities and modifies the vehicle so it can be transported within an aircraft cargo hold.

One thing that doesn't need to be upgraded is Wrangler's off-road chops.

"That Jeep has performed in absolutely the most difficult and austere conditions known to man," Carlson said.

The company has built about two dozen prototypes, one of which is on display, in the downstairs level, at the North American International Auto Show in Cobo Center in Detroit.

Hendrick officials say they serve as Jeep's official developer for U.S. military applications. Should Hendrick be selected, it would have a distribution deal with Jeep.

"They've been all in," Carlson said. "I just couldn't say more about Jeep and [Fiat Chrysler Automobiles] and their commitment to supporting the needs of the U.S. military in this regard. They're doing that through us, because they're not a defense contractor, but they have provided us a lot of good information and support."

A Fiat Chrysler spokesman said she couldn't speak about the company's involvement with Hendrick.

After modifications, the prototypes cost about $75,000. That's more than $40,000 more than a base-model Rubicon, but roughly in line with the original unarmored Humvee. As the Army began adding armor to the Humvee, the cost ballooned to $160,000, according to a 2010 report from the Pentagon.

The upcoming heavily armored JLTV to be made by Oshkosh Defense is expected to cost in the range of $300,000 per unit, the report said.

Hendrick demonstrated a prototype Jeep — different from the vehicle at the Detroit auto show — before Army officials during an open exhibition at Fort Bragg in late 2014. The base is home to the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. The ultralight vehicle is particularly envisioned to serve those troops.

One of Hendrick's selling points on the modified Wrangler is the fact that it's based off a production vehicle, which reduces startup and development costs and provides a well developed service and parts network spanning much of the globe.

Last year, Fiat Chrysler's Toledo Assembly Complex built 244,720 Wranglers. Carlson said total expected volumes from an Army contract haven't been released, though the first fulfillment would likely be a couple hundred vehicles.

Army officials did not return a message from The Blade seeking information on the project, but a September report from DefenseNews said the Army plans to release a request for proposals by the end of this year.

In the DefenseNews article, Lt. Col. Garth Winterle described the purpose of the vehicle as getting "soldiers to the fight, refreshed, with a larger amount of gear, from Point A to Point B."

Winterle told the newspaper there were multiple vendors interested and "all options are on the table."

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134 or on Twitter @BladeAutoWriter.
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