Demands placed on SOF will continue and it will drive demand for more sophisticated and varied SOF vehicles. Developments which are considered the cutting edge of today’s research will become the norm over the next one to two decades.
Despite the recent trend to focus more on major power conflicts, the demands placed on SOF will continue to increase for two reasons. First, the increase in tensions between the US and its allies versus Russia or China will do nothing to reduce the number and intensity of nonconventional conflicts in the world; on the contrary – Russia and other state actors such as Iran will only increase their support for insurgencies in order to force the US and its allies to divert military resources there. Secondly, any conflict with Russia or China will require a large scale deployment of SOF to conduct reconnaissance and sabotage operations in support of conventional forces. These developments will drive demand for more sophisticated and varied SOF vehicles. Developments include: lighter-weight but resilient materials to reduce the weight of the base vehicle and of armour while ensuring occupant safety (and reducing the likelihood that the vehicle will be incapacitated by a single hit); “stealth” attributes such as coatings to reduce vehicle visibility to optical and infrared sensors as well as to laser targeting systems; hybrid drive to enable silent and low-thermal-signature approach to target; more efficient engines to increase range without resupply; on-board power generation capable of feeding sophisticated weapon systems including lasers, electronic warfare systems, and perhaps even railguns; the ability to carry and control unmanned reconnaissance and strike systems (both aerial and ground). Another major area of interest: remote operability and full-scale autonomy. Advantages would include allowing dismounted forces to use their vehicle as a scout, a fire support platform or a distraction during an assault or extraction. Alternately, SOF preparing for prolonged dismounted operations could send their vehicle back to a safe location or to echelon to prevent its detection, then summon it for extraction.
The United States armed forces maintain the largest special operations community in the Western world. The joint US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) develops, procures, and operates a variety of vehicle types which together comprise the Family of Special Operations Vehicles (FOSOV). This family includes the medium weight Ground Mobility Vehicle 1.1 (GMV 1.1), the Light Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle (LTATV), and the Non-Standard Commercial Vehicle (NSCV). In addition to these currently operational types, USSOCOM is researching and developing upgraded or new vehicle classes to augment the fleet.
Ground Mobility Vehicle 1.1
USSOCOM took delivery of the first GMV 1.1 in 2015. The initial procurement plan calls for delivery of 1,297 units through August 2020. The vehicle is being built by General Dynamics on the basis of that firm’s Flyer 72. The modular vehicle can be customised according to mission requirements which range from deep reconnaissance to strike missions. Various enclosed and open-top configurations are available. Depending on configuration, accommodation ranges from three to nine operators.
The GMV 1.1 features an enhanced vectronics capability ready to plug into current and future battlefield networks. The 5.33-metre-long vehicle has a curb weight of 3,100 kg. Payload capacity is rated at 2,800 kg. Occupant protection includes an integrated rollcage which can withstand 100% of vehicle weight, preventing a turned-over GMV crushing the crew. External storage boxes on all four passenger doors enhance storage capacity while simultaneously adding to ballistic and blast protection. Standard armament configuration includes a central ring mount with a choice of 12.7mm machine gun, 7.62mm minigun, or 40mm automatic grenade launcher, although the vehicle can accommodate a 30mm cannon. Mobility attributes include the ability to climb a 60% gradient and master a dynamic side slope of 40 degrees. Road speed tops at 120 km/h, with a cruising range of nearly 500 km at mission profile, or 800 km on flat ground at 70 km/h cruising speed. The GMV 1.1 can be internally transported by fixed wing tactical aircraft and helicopter, with (depending on configuration) up to two vehicles fitting inside a CH-47; a single vehicle can be sling loaded beneath a UH-60 BLACKHAWK helicopter.
The Pentagon plans to continue procurement of the GMV 1.1 past the current contract. Beginning this fiscal year, USSOCOM will also begin pursuing improvements to the GMV 1.1. Of foremost interest is introduction of a hybrid propulsion system that would allow operators to switch to electric drive when approaching a target. USSOCOM is planning to issue a Request for Proposal (RfP) during the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2021 (FY 21), i.e. between October and December 2020. Contract award is tentatively scheduled for the first quarter of FY 22.
Light Tactical All Terrain Vehicle
Currently, the LTATV role is filled by the Diesel fuelled Polaris MRZR-D in both a two-seat and four-seat variant; the latter has a payload capacity of 680 kg and can actually carry up to six combat-ready soldiers or four soldiers plus two litters. The transition to Diesel was made in 2018 because of the 80% greater operational radius when compared to the previously used gasoline variant MRZR. The highly mobile vehicles measure 287 and 356 centimetres respectively, and have curb weights of 856 and 953 kg, enabling internal carriage by helicopter. The LTATV will reach the end of the initial procurement cycle this year. A follow-on open procurement competition for additional LTATV is planned, with contract award expected in early FY 21. Current upgrade research is focused on reducing the acoustic signature of the vehicles as well as adding a hybrid propulsion system. According to FOSOV deputy programme manager Logan Kittinger, the LTATV has also been targeted to become the first special operations vehicle capable of autonomous operations by circa 2030. USSOCOM plans to introduce that capability for resupply and casualty evacuation as well as extraction of forward-operating forces.
Non-Standard Commercial Vehicle The term NSCV refers to SUV and pickup-truck style vehicles based on various consumer grade brands. Externally indistinguishable from the commercial models, these vehicles allow SOF personnel to blend in with the civilian populace. The Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio has the current contract (through 2023) to convert the vehicles to military specifications. Battelle’s ground vehicle team takes existing vehicles, reengineers them with protective armour and adds other durability features, such as reinforced chassis, enhanced brakes, stronger suspensions for operations in rugged terrain, and enhanced alternators to withstand extreme climates. Military grade vectronics, communications systems and electronic countermeasures are also frequent elements of the upgrade. While the NSCV helps personnel blend in, the armour and other military systems add up to 4,500 kg of weight, considerably reducing the commercially built vehicle’s service life to a mere 3-5 years. USSOCOM hopes to procure more durable vehicles which still look like the commercial designs but are purpose built for military requirements. These Purpose-Built Non-Standard Commercial Vehicle will feature improved performance, a better weight-to-power ratio and a lifecycle approaching 10-15 years. Production of purpose built NSCVs is expected to begin as early as this year, and will for the time being run parallel to continued procurement of commercially built NSCVs. Research for future improvements focuses on the development of lighter weight armour (including transparent or opaque materials); a common chassis and drivetrain including a lower cost, lightweight wheel assembly that is run-flat compatible; and modular exterior elements which allow modification of vehicle silhouette and colour.
Armoured Ground Mobility System
USSOCOM plans to replace its current, 30-year-old heavy armoured personnel carriers with a next generation Armoured Ground Mobility System (AGMS). Requirements are still being finalised, but will likely include: a ten-person transport capacity; C-130 compatibility; and better ballistic and blast protection than that of USSOCOM’s current MRAP AGMS. The acquisition programme is expected to launch in FY2022 or FY2023. According to Logan Kittinger, DoD might resort to an OTA (Other Transaction Authority) agreement to contract for prototypes; the OTA is a relatively recent instrument which allows the Pentagon to minimise bureaucracy and speed up contracting for vital equipment and services.
The Polaris DAGOR introduced in 2014 falls midway in size between the GMV 1.1 and the LTATV. While not officially part of the FOSOV, it was designed to meet criteria expressly demanded by USSOCOM, and has been purchased in limited quantities for US Army airborne forces as well as allied services. This includes the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command which ordered the DAGOR in 2016 to fulfil the Ultra-Light Combat Vehicle role; the first vehicle was delivered in early 2018.
The 452-centimetre-long vehicle has a gross weight of 3,860 kg and a payload capacity of 1,815 kg. The vehicle seats up to nine combat-equipped soldiers: four in forward facing seats, the remainder in rearward seats, with a sling seat for the central gunner’s position. A large choice of weapons is available, including a 12.7mm machine gun in the permanently fixed central ring mount, plus smaller calibre guns on side-mounted pintels.
Mobility is the central concept around which the unarmoured DAGOR was built. The open-topped vehicle has no doors, facilitating immediate egress and mounting. It can be internally transported via CH-47 (up to two vehicles) or CH-53; sling-loaded via UH-60; or low-velocity airdropped from fixed-wing aircraft. Vehicle range is 800 kilometres with an on-road speed of 135 kph. The suspension is inspired by off-road racing technology, giving the DAGOR excellent handling on all terrain. In 2019, Polaris introduced the next generation DAGOR A1.
Europe SupaCat HMT
Britain’s SupaCat produces one of the largest and heaviest SOF vehicles. The HMT (High Mobility Transport) EXTENDA resembles a fire truck rather than typical high-mobility vehicle. Specifically designed for SOF, it is in service with six nations including the UK (which acquired the original HMT 400 for the SAS in 2007) and Norway, which acquired its vehicles in 2018-2019. The EXTENDA is available in 4×4 and 6×6 configurations. Length and curb weight register at 580 centimetres and 4,900 kg, or 705 centimetres and 5,900 kg respectively. Width (205 centimetres), minimum/maximum vehicle heights (188.5/224.5 cm) and minimum/maximum clearance (18.0/48.5 cm) are the same for both configurations. The HMT is agile for its size, mastering a 60% gradient and a 32-degree side slope, as well as approach and departure angles of 40 degrees and a ramp-over angle of 150 degrees. Fording depth without preparation is 100 centimetres. The turning circle ranges from 13.5 to 17.5 metres. Maximum range on internal fuel is 1,000 kilometres, with a top speed of 120 kph.
The EXTENDA is a modular vehicle which can be reconfigured over the course of the service life in order to meet changing requirements. Modular blast and ballistic protection packages are available, as is a wide range of other optional equipment. Weapons load can include several machine guns, grenade launchers, and javelin missiles. The vehicle can be sling loaded under a CH-47, or internally transported by C-130, M400 or C-17 class aircraft.
The Dutch firm Defenture was founded in 2013 as an R&D startup, and by 2017 transitioned into manufacturing vehicles for special operations forces as well as for special mission police units and disaster-relief agencies. The common GRF 5.12 chassis forms the core of Defenture’s Ground Force Vehicle, which is available in four configurations: combat, pickup truck, logistics truck (with an enclosed cargo shell) and ambulance. The GRF 5.12 platform features a rugged central spine chassis suitable for all-terrain operations. It features an independent rear suspension and optional four-wheel independent steering; a multi-fuel engine capable of running on Diesel or aviation kerosene; and multiple tie-down points to facilitate vehicle transport by rail, sea, and air, including sling transport by helicopter. The Ground Force Vehicle is certified for operations between -40 and +49 degrees Centigrade. The basic curb weight is 2,450 kg, with a maximum payload of 2,150 kg and a range of 1,000 kilometres.
The ATTV (Air Transportable Tactical Vehicle) is a further development of the Ground Force Vehicle. It entered service with the Dutch army’s commando regiment in late 2017, and was subsequently also provided to the Netherlands marine corps’ special operations unit. The Netherlands SOF officially designated the vehicle as the VECTOR (Versatile Expeditionary Commando Tactical Off Road). The last of the 75 purchased units will be delivered to the Dutch special operations command in April 2020.
The ATTV is 510 centimetres long, has a curb weight of 3,000 kg, and a payload of 1,440 kg. It seats a standard crew of five, and mounts two machine guns including a ring mounted 12,7mm weapon. The 4×4 vehicle has an operational range of 800 kilometres, and is suited for special reconnaissance patrols and interdiction/strike missions. The turning circle is 13.5 metres with standard steering, or 9 metres with optional four-wheel steering. Modular ballistic and mine armour up to STANAG Level 1 is available. The vehicle can be airlifted as a sling load or inside a CH-47.
Rheinmetall Serval LIV (SO)
The Serval Light Infantry Vehicle – Special Operations (LIV-SO) was developed by Rheinmetall on the basis of the militarised Mercedes Benz G-Class, but features a longer wheelbase. It is specifically tailored for the requirements of SOF (including long-range reconnaissance missions and strike missions), and was acquired by the German armed forces for the special operations command (Kommando Spezialkräfte – KSK) beginning in 2003. The 4×4 vehicle is combat proven in a variety of challenging climate zones and terrain environments including Afghanistan. Capabilities include mastering a 60 percent gradient, 30-degree side slope, 50 centimetre trench, and a 60 centimetre ford.
The 4.89-metre vehicle has a curb weight of 3,300 kg and a payload capacity of 1,200 kg. The vehicle can be internally transported by CH-53 helicopter. The SERVAL accommodates four soldiers, and carries sufficient supplies to keep the team in the field for prolonged reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Operational range is 800 kilometres, with a top speed of 120 kph. The body and floor are lightly armoured but the vehicle is open-topped and has no doors; this minimises weight while enhancing field of view and dismount speed. A cloth top can be added for sun protection. Protective panels can be temporarily mounted around the body and engine compartment, and the windscreen can be replaced with bulletproof glass. The Serval is known for excellent terrain handling. Armament options include either a 12.7mm machine gun or 40mm automatic grenade launcher on the ring-mounted Rheinmetall 609K weapon station, augmented by two 7.62mm machine guns mounted fore and aft. The 609K is stabilised to maintain accurate fire while moving over uneven terrain. A smoke dispersal system is integrated into the front and rear bumper area. GPS and satellite links promote navigation, communications, and situational awareness.
KMW Special Operations Vehicle
The first prototype of Krauss-Maffei-Wegmann’s Special Operations Vehicle (SOV) was presented in 2014. The 4×4 light armoured vehicle was designed in cooperation with Italy’s Bremach, which supplied the heavy-duty chassis. Its primary mission profiles cover special operations and long-range reconnaissance. Features include ballistic protection, a mine protected undercarriage, and elevated crew seats for further protection from IEDs. The five-metre-long vehicle has a curb weight of 5,000 kg, and can be configured to match the user’s requirements. It is available with an open top, an enclosed and protected cabin, or as an armoured pickup or flatbed truck. Depending on configuration it can accommodate three to six troops including the driver. The primary weapon is either a 12.7mm machine gun or a 40mm machine grenade weapon on a ring mount; it can be augmented by up to two pintle mounted 7.62mm or 5.56mm machine guns front and aft. Optionally, the SOV can mount a remote-controlled weapon station, as well as the Wegmann 76/40mm grenade launcher for smoke and other obscurants. A five-ton winch with a 25-metre steel cable for self-recovery is standard. At 2,500 kilos, the payload is larger than standard for vehicles of this class. The SOV is highly mobile on all terrains, and achieves 130 km/h road speed. Operational range is circa 1,000 kilometres. The vehicle can be airlifted internally by CH-47 or CH-53 with weapons in place, enabling immediate combat readiness after unloading.
French manufacturer Arquus designates four of its vehicles as SOVs. The 4,200 kg AREG 4×4 light tactical vehicle is specifically designed for SOF deep penetration missions. The vehicle can be airdropped, making it ideal for commando-style strike missions in hostile territory or far from friendly bases. The modular body can feature an enclosed or open passenger cab accommodating four soldiers. A ring mounted 12.7mm machine gun and a 7.62mm MG on an articulated arm by the commander’s seat constitute the standard armament.
The 11-tonne SABRE is utilised by SOF in a large number of countries, especially in the Francophone world. Arquus defines it as a multi-echelon and joint combat vehicle. The SABRE’s size enables high endurance and long-range missions deep behind enemy lines; range is augmented by the ability to carry additional fuel tanks. The central ring mount is augmented by three additional weapons mounts, allowing the five-person crew to maintain a 360-degree arc of fire. In addition to machine guns and grenade launchers, the SABRE can be equipped with anti-tank or anti-personnel missiles. A wide range of communications systems can also be installed, enabling the weapon to be used as a command or fire-control platform. The 12 tonne PATSAS is a variant of Arquus’ BASTION armoured personnel carrier. In contrast to the BASTION, the PATSAS is specifically designed for SOF. Unlike the fully protected BASTION, the PATSAS has an open cab with two side doors and a rear door. The sides retain the heavy armour of the original vehicle, affording a higher level of crew protection than most SOF vehicles. The bulletproof windshield consists of two panes, both of which can be folded down as required. Armament includes a ring mount capable of taking either a 12.7mm MG or an anti-tank guided missile. An additional three mounts can accommodate 7.62mm MGs. The standard crew consists of two soldiers in the cab and three in the rear. The 12 ton 4×4 TORPEDO is designed as an open-bedded truck. An enclosed driver’s cab is optional. The heavy-duty off-road vehicle is designed for sturdiness and ease of maintenance in austere environments. Intended for autonomous operations, the vehicle can carry additional fuel tanks to increase range. The weapons load mirrors that of the PATSAS and SABRE. In addition, the eight-person crew – six of whom ride in the open back section – can deploy communications scramblers and jammers.
Israel DS Raider DH4
The HD4 developed by Israeli firm D.S Raider is considered a new category of SOF vehicle. The HD4 is an electrically powered four-wheeled all-terrain scooter which can carry up to two soldiers standing. It has a 76 centimetre wheelbase and a length of 170 centimetres. Maximum payload is 200 kg, although this can be augmented by up to 250 kg by attaching a motorised trailer with the same dimensions as the scooter. An optional seat can be installed to minimise rider fatigue over longer routes and its capacity is not limited to one soldier. Users can choose between a rear-wheel drive or a 4×4 variant. The suspension system provides each wheel with independent horizontal and vertical movement, maximising stability on broken terrain. Ground clearance of the baseboard is 25 centimetres. The scooter attains speeds up to 50 km/h and a range of 75 kilometres, depending on configuration, terrain, and payload. The battery functions within a temperature range of -20 to +80 degrees centigrade.
Advantages include a silent approach to target, and the ability to traverse narrow terrain where few other vehicles except motorcycles can go. At 130 kilos curb weight, the DH4 can be carried on any standard sized vehicle; three can be airlifted with their crews internally via Blackhawk helicopter, ready to operate immediately upon roll-off. According to the manufacturer, only minimal training is required to operate the scooter. The DH4 is currently being evaluated by SOF in several countries ranging from the United States to Israel.
The Way Forward
Of course, engineering cannot be forced. Despite enhanced budgets for SOF technology research, fielding enhanced capabilities will take time, and will occur sequentially as progress is made. Hybrid drive and carriage of short-range UAVs are already in service on some vehicle types; enhanced materials, power systems and full autonomy will take longer. Yet it seems safe to say that the sons and daughters of today’s special operators will command vehicles which are much more powerful and sophisticated than currently deployed systems.
Author: Sidney E. Dean
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