A conversation with John Bryant of Oshkosh Defense 

Yesterday morning I had the opportunity to sit down with John Bryant, a senior vice president at Oshkosh Defense, to talk about his company’s big win this week. Before retiring from the Marines, the colonel was an acquisition program manager; afterwards, he taught program management at the Defense Acquisition University. So I took serious interest when he seemed at least as interested in extolling the program as his truck. Indeed, Bryant thought that the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle would eventually prove a teaching case at DAU, and not in a Joint Strike Fighter Way way. We could think about aspects of a program according to Dan Ward’s celebrated FIRE construct: if the whole thing is fast, inexpensive, restrained, and elegant, you’ll have a greater chance of success. I’ll rate JLTV well on three of those attributes. Fast this program hasn’t been, and that’s just fine. Because sometimes, as Daniel Kahneman might say, one needs to go slowly to go quickly.

Admittedly, there’s little visually elegant about an armored truck. There’s probably lots of elegance in the engineering details, but Bryant was cagy about the details of the Core-1080 protection system. He was even less forthcoming about the TAK-4i “intelligent” independent suspension, but we know that hydrodynamic suspensions have been a major area of research for military vehicle manufacturers in the US and Europe. Regardless, Bryant’s reticence was appropriate. In this particular program, the losing bidders are already making noises about protesting the decision. And why not? Whining is no more elegant, but the incentives are clear. For a few million in legal fees, one can buy a chance at overturning a decision worth hundreds of millions in profits. I’ll expect to need to say more about that later.

There are, though, some aspects of the design that are restrained. While Lockheed Martin opted for a tricked-out four-cylinder on its truck, Oshkosh chose a pretty standard General Motors eight-cylinder Duramax, and actually de-tuned the engine from its commercial rating of 400 horsepower. Less stress, particularly in a diesel, means greater reliability, longevity, and growth potential over the long haul. Because in the next war—and I’ll yet bet on another war—someone will find a reason to add something to a JLTV. Just about every new program needs some room for modification in the face of future, unknowable threats, so restraint ex ante can be a wise long-term choice.

Is $400,000 inexpensive for an armored truck? For those who found the MRAP program a “boondoggle”, perhaps not. That calculation changes, though, once one factors in the cold-blooded cost avoidance of millions in casualty care per passenger. At that rate, paying a hundred thousand per passenger seat—roughly the same as with an MRAP of ten years ago—seems a good price. In the past, I’ve questioned whether another program for a wholly new vehicle was needed on a tight budget. But if the land forces want a blast-resistant vehicle that’s far more strategically and tactically mobile than its predecessors, this is it. Combine transpacific distances with adversaries’ potential for hybrid tactics, and one can make the case.

Fast? Well, that’s not always the Pentagon way anyway. Just yesterday, the Duffel Blog reported how “American military officials are reportedly shocked” at how quickly the French can award their highest military award—to Americans. And frankly, the JLTV program hasn’t been fast either. Recall that the promise of the program was being held up as an excuse for not buying more MRAPs, way back in 2007. Eventually, the military bought over twenty thousand MRAPs, because as Bryant put it, “no one was dying in Afghanistan because his armored vehicle wouldn’t fit on an amphibious ship.” 

Even the more recent M-ATV, on which Oshkosh gained valuable experience for this project, was “designed for an urgent requirement in a particular theater.” That was particularly helpful as Oshkosh was buying its way back into the process, spending its own money, after falling short of selection for the technology development phase of the project. Bryant described the JLTV effort as a “more deliberate process,” which then proceeded through another three years of engineering and manufacturing development. Back in 2006, over lunch with Vernon Joynt, then chief scientist at Force Protection, I got a two-hour lesson in how hard blast mechanics can be to understand. Testing and repeated testing, my South African friend stressed, are crucial. Over the past nine years, it’s clear that the computer models have improved, but there’s still nothing like experience—whether on the range or in combat. “It’s an iterative process,” Bryant told me, “you adjust the design, adjust the model”—and blow up another prototype. Along the way, “your ability to predict how to get to the next level constantly improves.”

In this program, the company had plenty of time to optimize how every single element in the vehicle behaves in a threat event—whether it hurts or helps the occupants. External drive trains are generally helpful, as their parts are frangible, and carry away energy in an explosion. Frame rails are usually steel, but counterintuitively, they’re not so helpful. So Oshkosh just designed an armored truck without them. On production lines, trucks are generally built from the frame rails up, so the radical design change required a new design for the production line. And with three years for manufacturing development, that new high-speed line would become possible.

Ultimately, all this would prove a “very low risk” approach on the part of the government. When the resources and the technology can support the requirements, much can be accomplished. In this case, the Army and the Marines were able to synchronize their initial ideas about requirements, and without the shoehorning of a Joint Strike Fighter program. Not every wartime project needs to be a rush-job, and not every leader needs to be a wartime consigliere. Just like the people who brought us the MRAP, the whole government team behind JLTV deserves some commendation on their work to date.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.