After years of debate over a replacement for the High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee, it appears that the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) is finally moving toward a prototype and testing phase that could result in production orders from the U.S. Army and Marine Corps for more than 55,000 vehicles.

A final requirements document, issued in January, states that two variants will be built. The Combat Tactical Vehicle (CTV) will seat four and carry 3,500 lb., while the Combat Support Vehicle (CSV) will carry two troops and transport 5,100 lb. There will be two armor configurations: the basic protection package as well as an add-on kit; and one for multiple missions. A third variant that would have been a six-seat infantry carrier with a mid-weight payload has been scrapped.

Six bids for the JLTV were submitted at the end of March for the 27-month engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase contract. The Army is expected to issue three awards in June, each worth up to $65 million. Contractors will have 12 months to build and deliver 20 prototypes for government testing, which will last another 15 months. The decision to begin full-scale production is expected in the second quarter of fiscal 2015, with actual production to start in 2016.

In an era of declining defense budgets, it's no surprise that the competition for one of the last remaining major vehicle modernization contracts is fierce. The JLTV program is expected to cost well over $10 billion, though some put that figure as high as $70 billion, depending on per-unit cost and the number of vehicles ordered.

A joint venture between the Army and Marine Corps, the JLTV is expected to provide better protection for passengers and better payload capacity than the Humvee, while retaining mobility and reducing overall weight. The Army intends to purchase at least 50,000, while the Marine Corps is expected to acquire 5,500 vehicles, though final numbers will depend on cost.

The Humvee was done in by the effectiveness of improvised explosive devices (IED) and roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though it has been the primary tactical vehicle for the Army and Marine Corps for 25 years, it was unable to withstand these threats.

At a March 27 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Lennox, Army deputy chief of staff, explained that the vehicle can no longer be used off-base. “The Humvee . . . is incapable of going off the forward operating base,” he said. “It doesn't provide protection for soldiers today.”

The JLTV has been an option for some time, but like most major acquisition programs has had its share of cost overruns and delays. In 2010, inter-service tension erupted over the project's direction, with the Army putting a priority on survivability, while the Marine Corps expressed reservations about the high price and expected weight, which could prove problematic for transport. It seemed as of February 2011 that the Marine Corps might abandon the JLTV, which would have caused the Army's expected price per vehicle to rise, jeopardizing the program.

Last September the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee recommended the program be terminated, noting “excessive cost growth and constantly changing requirements.” The subcommittee said the services should focus instead on recapitalizing the Humvee, which would modernize and prolong the life of those vehicles. In response, the Army and Marine Corps agreed to coordinate more closely on the JLTV and relax the weight and transportability requirements. They also agreed to bring the target cost down to roughly $250,000 per unit, which made the Humvee recapitalization project's expected cost of $200,000 per vehicle less appealing. With these changes, the JLTV escaped the budget axe, and in October a draft request for proposals (RFP) was issued to industry for a lighter, cheaper JLTV.

One of the three companies that had been selected to participate in the earlier technology development (TD) phase of acquisition is Lockheed Martin, which offers a family of vehicles that have accumulated more than 160,000 combined testing miles and exceeded the TD blast-protection expectations. In contrast to other bidders, Lockheed Martin has had a team working on the JLTV program for seven years.

“Our improvements removed hundreds of pounds of weight from our TD design, which was already proven in helicopter lift tests,” Scott Greene, vice president of ground vehicles at Lockheed Martin's Missiles and Fire Control unit, said in a statement. “We've demonstrated our JLTV can reliably meet protection standards of many existing mine-resistant vehicles in combat today. This vehicle is ready to meet our customers' needs with lower-cost materials at full-rate production.”

Also participating in the TD phase was a team led by BAE Systems, which has entered the new EMD phase competition without its TD partner Navistar, which opted to submit its own vehicle. BAE's Valanx will use a Power Stroke 6.7-liter turbodiesel engine—the same used in the Ford F-Series Super Duty pickup truck. Ford had expressed early interest in the JLTV, but could not meet the aggressive development timelines the Army required for an independent bid.

“We have worked hard over the last year to strengthen our team and our offer, bringing together the best of the defense and automotive industries,” said Ann Hoholick, BAE's vice president of amphibious and new programs, in a statement. “Ford products have a reputation for dependability and performance, even under challenging conditions. With their experience in commercial trucks, we see this as a great fit for our JLTV offer.”

Navistar turned heads last October when it unveiled the Saratoga light tactical vehicle at the Association of the U.S. Army show despite its partnership with BAE on a TD phase option. But Navistar was hedging its bets between the JLTV and the Humvee recap, opting to design a vehicle that filled the gap between the two sets of specs. The changes to the JLTV requirements and the axing of the Humvee recap program provided Navistar the opportunity to submit the Saratoga to the EMD competition, with minor adjustments such as power-generation capabilities and a reduction in weight.

General Tactical Vehicles (GTV), a joint venture between Humvee manufacturer AM General and General Dynamics Land Systems, was selected as the third TD phase participant. Its EMD proposal, the JLTV Eagle, offers a double-V hull design based on the German army's Eagle IV (manufactured by GD's Swiss subsidiary Mowag), which is used in Afghanistan.

“With the Eagle, we offer a modified, non-developmental, low-risk vehicle with inherent manufacturing readiness that is built for program success and an accelerated path to production,” said Mark Roualet, chairman of GTV's board of directors, in a statement. “We have a team . . . that is offering a mature, fully transportable and highly reliable solution that is ready now.”

In addition to its involvement with GTV's entry, AM General submitted an independent bid. The Blast Resistant Vehicle-Off Road (BRV-O) was a last-minute entrant into the bidding process, though Chris Vanslager, AM General's executive director of business development and defense programs, said work on the BRV-O would not detract from participation in the GTV entry. “Once we received the final [RFPs] with the requirements the government identified, we determined that we had multiple approaches to satisfying the requirements,” Vanslager said. AM General offers in-house engine, transmission and vehicle production and more than 50 years of experience with light tactical vehicles.

The only EMD bidder not involved in a TD phase team, Oshkosh Defense, put forward the Light Combat Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle, or L-ATV. Oshkosh wants to apply the experience and lessons learned from the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV), which was developed to counter IEDs and landmines but has drawn criticism in some quarters for being too large and heavy.

“We learned a lot not just with the development of the M-ATV, but with the underbody protection kit for the M-ATV,” Rob Messina, vice president of defense engineering, said in a recent interview. “What we had with JLTV was the opportunity for a clean-slate approach. We have developed a very well-protected solution.”

While the Humvee will still be used for homeland defense and logistics support, and the MRAP will remain available for route clearance, for now the JLTV is where the Defense Department is placing its bets. “The major modernization effort for the Army when it comes to tactical wheeled vehicles is with the JLTV,” said Col. Mark Barbosa, division chief for force development logistics.

William Graveline, assistant director for the Government Accountability Office's Acquisition and Sourcing Management Team, suggests that developing better protection capabilities that do not add weight to vehicles will be crucial.

Nevertheless, the intensity and breadth of the JLTV competition suggests that the tactical wheeled vehicle sector is entering an age of austerity in good shape.