In 2020 the US military requested an eye-popping $247 billion dollars for acquisition programs. The United States fields not only the world’s most expensive military, but also the best equipped one. But equipped for what?
After nearly two decades of “forever wars” in the Middle East, and amid large, continuing commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military machine has slowly optimized itself for the conflicts it has become accustomed to, and acquisition programs still reflect the needs presented by those conflicts. The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, or JLTV, is an example. The military plans to buy over fifty thousand of these vehicles in total. It will eventually replace the bulk of the services’ Humvees and stay in service for decades. However, it is increasingly clear that the JLTV, largely due to its size and weight, is not ideal for the future operating environment that the Army and Marines envision. It is a vehicle designed from the bottom up for the simmering counterinsurgencies in the Middle East with limited applicability in the Pacific or European theaters.
From MRAP to JLTV
In the months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) quickly became the most prevalent weapon insurgents used against US and coalition forces. The immediate response was to send all of the M1114 armored Humvees that the Army and Marines had to Iraq and order more. This armored variant of the Humvee had been developed after the US experience in the Balkans and the 1991 Gulf War. While helpful, these vehicles still did not provide enough protection for occupants. Existing armored vehicles like the M1114 were designed to protect soldiers and Marines from expected conventional threats like small arms and rocket propelled grenades, not large IEDs buried under roads and along routes used by US forces.
Over the course of the war in Iraq, 60 percent of all US casualties were caused by IEDs, and they caused 50 percent of the US casualties in Afghanistan. US military vehicles at the time were vulnerable to these weapons. IEDs could be made from a variety of widely available materials, like artillery shells or even fertilizer, and triggered with radios, cell phones, pressure plates, or even garage door openers. More sophisticated explosive weapons called explosively formed penetrators—widely believed to have been supplied to insurgents by Iran—proved especially effective even against up-armored Humvees.
Initially, many troops fashioned their own “hillbilly armor” for their vehicles by bolting on extra scrap metal and ballistic glass to their Humvees or lining a vehicle’s floor with sandbags to better protect themselves against buried IEDs. In an infamous exchange between Iraq-bound National Guard soldiers and then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the lack of adequately protected vehicles, the secretary told the soldiers, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
In 2005, Marine leaders in Afghanistan wrote an urgent need statement for vehicles that could protect troops from IEDs. But it wasn’t until early 2007 that the effort to acquire better-protected vehicles moved forward when it became a pet project of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Gates championed the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle program personally, making sure defense officials knew that “the MRAP should be considered the highest priority Department of Defense acquisition program.” The program was sped along by Gates’s personal involvement, ruthless prioritization, and the removal of regulation—thousands of vehicles were ordered, costing billions of dollars. For example, the Defense Department waived a restriction on imported steel allowing procurement from more countries and foundries, and got industry to ramp up production of the heavy-duty tires that MRAPs needed.
By 2008 Marine leaders like Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway III were complaining about the weight of the vehicles. “Those vehicles weigh 40,000 pounds each in the larger category,” Conway noted. “Frankly, you can’t put them in a helicopter and you can’t even put them aboard ship.” He added, “As expensive as they are, that is probably not a good use of the taxpayers’ money.” MRAPs were much better armored than their predecessors, but that meant that they were also heavier.
Advocates of the program point to the relatively short time it took for MRAPs to be fielded in Iraq and Afghanistan by a department that can take decades to field other new platforms. It is frequently cited as a case study of successful, rapid acquisition, even though some critics labeled the program a “boondoggle” because of the vehicles’ high price tag. Ash Carter, the deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics under Gates, lauded the program, calling it “one of the most important acquisitions to come off the line since World War II.” While these vehicles likely saved hundreds or thousands of lives, they are increasingly abandoned as the United States continues to draw down in the Middle East. As the United States’ involvement in its post-9/11 ground wars has wound down, the military has left thousands of MRAPs in the Middle East because they are too expensive to move. It has transferred many more to law enforcement agencies in the United States under the 1033 program. Ironically, some of the vehicles left behind in war zones have been repurposed by ISIS as improvised explosives. In short, albeit at the high cost of a million dollars each, MRAPs served their purpose as a stopgap capability and saved lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, the US military has turned its attention to the JLTV, a “light” vehicle in name only. As a Marine program manager said, the vehicle has a “factory curb weight of 16,000 pounds, [and when] fully dressed out [is] 21,000 pounds. The first thing we do is take the ‘L’ out of JLTV, because it’s not [light].” It comes in a four different versions and is a significant improvement on the MRAP family of vehicles in terms of mobility and protection. Because it is intended to replace several different MRAPs with a single type of vehicle it will reduce the logistics burden. Most importantly the JLTV has a V-shaped hull that directs IED blasts away from the vehicle. But by the time it had overcome issues in testing and was arriving on the battlefield, the United States had drawn down and redeployed most of its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and DoD had shifted its focus away from the Middle East to Europe and the Pacific, where it anticipated the potential for a very different type of fight. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that both the Army and the Marines have indicated they will reduce their JLTV orders.
Years after the United States decided to “pivot” to the Pacific, the military was still largely preoccupied with the fight against ISIS in the Middle East. In 2018, the Department of Defense codified its shift to great power competition, which meant prioritizing China and Russia. The Marine Corps has led the military in reorganizing for a Pacific fight. In 2019, new Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger released his planning guidance in a bold document that heralded changes to the service in order to support its new operational concept, “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.”
In the Pacific the Marine Corps will need a lighter, more agile ground combat force that can rapidly deploy and seize key maritime terrain. It seems unlikely that in a conflict with China IEDs will be a significant threat to US forces compared to the modern weapons employed by the People’s Liberation Army. Gen. Berger has also said that the Marine Corps needs to lighten its equipment. “We have to get rid of legacy things in the Marine Corps,” he told Marines. “We’ve got to go on a diet.” He explicitly called out “big, heavy things,” “things that don’t fit aboard ship,” and “manned logistics vehicles”—all labels that can apply to the JLTV.
The Marine Corps has also realized that JLTVs are not ideal for the amphibious operations that are central to its identity. The Office of Testing and Evaluation found not only that could the JLTV only accomplish “shore-to-shore amphibious operations on a non-contested beach,” but that “fewer JLTVs can fit on Maritime Prepositioned Force ships than [Humvees].” So the force will have to cut other vehicles from its prepositioned stocked in order to make room for the JLTV.
According to a recent report, the growing weight of US tactical vehicles like the JLTV is one of the primary factors straining US sealift—the ability to deploy the military overseas. Marines have also had issues fitting JLTVs and their predecessors onto their amphibious ships that were designed with Humvees in mind.
The services have also seen that the decision to field the JLTV has had ripple effects across their acquisition programs. Partly because the JLTV is so heavy, the Army and Marines were both pursuing new heavy-lift helicopters. The Army has since canceled its program but the Marines are moving ahead. A former Marine heavy-lift Program Manager put it this way: “Why is the Marine Corps buying the 53K? Very simple. Our gear has gotten a lot heavier.” He narrowed in on one item in particular: “The vehicle of the future is the JLTV. It’s even heavier. It’s in the 16,000-pound range, depending on what configuration it’s in, and that’s why the Marine Corps is buying 53K because we have to be able to move that equipment from ship to shore.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper decided to cut the Army’s heavy-lift replacement program because it too was rooted in requirements from Iraq and Afghanistan—specifically, the need to carry the JLTV:
Why the [heavy-lift replacement]? Got to carry a heavier payload and fly higher in a hotter climate. What was the heavier payload? JLTV. What drove JLTV? IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq. . . . In many ways they were designed for a different conflict. . . We’re in this transition period and some folks are caught in that transition, and that’s what we’re up against.
An Alternate Future
Ultra-light vehicles like the Utility Task Vehicle currently used in Marine infantry and special operations units is a much better fit for the types of operations envisioned by the Marine Corps in the Pacific. These vehicles are far cheaper than the JLTV because they are commercially available. They are small and light enough to be carried internally on the MV-22 Osprey aircraft, yet can still carry at least four Marines or soldiers and their gear.
The Army and Marine Corps are already eyeing lighter tactical vehicles to operate with the JLTV, a sign that the JLTV is not meeting all of their needs. Both services want tactical vehicles that can be internally transported by their helicopters but still carry troops and their gear. The Marine Corps is also seeking to adapt the JLTV to its vision of a Pacific fight by using the JLTV chassis as the base for an autonomous anti-ship missile platform called a ROGUE Fires Vehicle.
The services have also made clear that while they plan to procure tens of thousands of JLTVs, the venerable Humvee will continue to stick around. The previous commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller, told reporters that the “Humvee is going to be around for a while,” with its use depending on “what the threat is.” Retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, an adviser to the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, said of the HMMWV, “In a European scenario, for which the Humvee was designed, it’s perfectly fine,” and that it didn’t need to be replaced with the JLTV for that theater.
Long after the “aftermath of these improvised bombs” passes into history as the enduring image of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the JLTV—a vehicle designed to survive them—will remain in service with the US military. If the JLTV is in use as long as the Humvee has been, soldiers and Marines will be riding in them into the 2050s, even though the JLTV is optimized for conflicts that the United States is now deprioritizing and it is a poor fit for the future operating environment envisioned by the military. For better or for worse the JLTV is here to stay, and the services will buy tens of thousands in the coming years. If the MRAP is remembered as a case study in rapid acquisition, hopefully the JLTV won’t become a case study in myopic acquisition.
Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer currently serving as an exchange officer in Cartagena, Colombia.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Nathan Franco, US Army