Armor: Mastering The Maintenance Malaise

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October 22, 2016: The U.S. has supplied Afghanistan with over 10,000 (delivered or on order) HMMWV (humvee or "hummer") vehicles so far. Most of these were delivered by 2012 and now the United States is shifting to refurbishing hummers that have been worn out and providing better maintenance for vehicles still running. The normal useful life of a hummer in Afghanistan is 7.5 years and currently nearly 60 percent of Afghan hummers are older than that. These older hummers are often becoming inoperable, not just because of age but because the Afghans don’t have enough troops trained to do simple maintenance and repairs that can keep older vehicles running.

Eventually the U.S. will have bought Afghanistan 14,000 hummers and cannot afford to replace them all with new vehicles when they wear out. Corruption (mainly stolen parts and tools) and poor management of maintenance personnel (assigning mechanics to other jobs) adds to the problem. American advisors are concentrating on getting Afghan commanders to concentrate on the corruption and poor management if they want to maintain the number of useable hummers they have become used to and often insist they need to survive. The Afghan security forces are getting better at maintaining their vehicles but not fast enough to prevent a growing number from becoming inoperable. American trainers are finding that creating a permanent “car culture” is a lot more difficult

Even before World War II new recruits in the U.S. Army found that most of them would spend a lot of time performing maintenance on vehicles and other machines they used. The army slang for these sessions of “preventive maintenance” was" motor stables". That phrase was derived from the term for taking care of horses in the old (pre-1910) army that depended on horses for most transportation needs.

The United States was one of the first nations to adopt motor vehicles on a wide scale and by the 1920s automotive tech was the hot new thing for many young American men. Entering World War II that proved to be an enormous military advantage because those skills made it possible to keep the first totally motorized army operational and moving. Afghanistan has not had widespread use of motor vehicles and most new recruits in the military or police might know how to drive but few have experienced a culture where teenagers could tinker with motors or motor vehicles. Recruits are eager to learn and many of those who do leave the security services as soon as possible to get a safer and better paying job taking care of civilian vehicles, preferably somewhere safer than Afghanistan.

Meanwhile Afghan soldiers and police made good use of the hummers but what they really appreciated were the armored hummers the U.S. began supplying in large numbers after 2010. These consisted largely of M1152 hummers with a gun turret and the M1151 that has a truck bed in the back so that more personnel or cargo can be carried. The M1151/2 is built to handle the additional weight of armor protection without losing its off-road mobility capabilities. The key changes in the M1151/2 are a stronger suspension and a larger engine (a 6.5 liter turbo-diesel). This allows the vehicle to easily handle an additional 700 kg of armor. More importantly, the armor is easily installed, or taken off. This allows the hummers to operate even more efficiently without the armor. The M1151/2 also has some armor underneath. This is not a lot of protection against mines and roadside bombs, but the Taliban prefer to use these weapons against foreign troops. Afghan police mostly get hit by gunfire and RPGs. By 2015 so many Afghan police and soldiers were using armored hummers that the Taliban attacked them less with gunfire and were forced to use the less effective (in causing casualties) mines and roadside bombs.

Another solution for Afghanistan has been the heavier use of non-military vehicles as substitutes for hummers. In 2005 the U.S. bought the Afghan security forces over 5,000 unarmored Ford F 350 SORV (Severe off road vehicle) pickup trucks. These four wheel drive vehicles are based on Fords F 250/350 commercial pick up, which has been the bestselling line of pickup trucks in the U.S. since the 1980s. These Afghan trucks were built in a Ford factory in Thailand. The SORV was provided in five variants, (cargo, emergency response, personnel/tactical and personnel/command trucks, maintenance van). The SORV truck comes with a diesel engines (about 300 horsepower). Costing about $40,000 each, the 4.5 ton vehicle can carry about two tons of personnel and cargo, and tow up to eight tons. It has a 38 gallon/150 liter fuel tank. Depending on the version, the SORV can seat up to eleven people. Afghans are accustomed to cramming as many people as they can into pickups and SUVs.

The Afghans also mounted weapons on some of the SORVs, and gave these vehicles a workout that Ford engineers never imagined. In most of Afghanistan police, and even many soldiers, found the SORV to be suitable transportation. But in dangerous areas, a hummer, preferably an armored one, was preferred. That solution is expensive because you can buy four or more SORVs for the cost of one hummer and there were more Afghans familiar with operating and repairing a civilian vehicle. The SORV and vehicles like it have been popular worldwide, but especially in less affluent and motorized areas throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa and so on. One thing that makes these trucks so popular is that they are built to last without much in the way of preventive maintenance. Automotive engineering has come a long way in the last century but the completely self-maintaining and self-repairing vehicle has not quite reached the prototype stage yet.

Nearly 300,000 hummers have been produced so far, in dozens of variants and versions. About half the annual sales of HMMWV vehicles have been to the U.S. Army, with the rest going to other branches of the American military, and foreign customers. The U.S. military will continue to use the hummer into the early 2020s but other nations will use them for as long as they can keep them running. The U.S. Army ordered its last HMMWV vehicles in 2011. But foreign users are still avid customers. Foreign buyers, especially Afghanistan, will keep production going into the 2020s. Many of these will be paid for by the United States as part of military aid. While the American military is looking beyond HMMWV many other countries see the HMMMWV as a battle-tested, mature and very useful vehicle that works just fine.

 


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