Armor: The Off-Road Revolutions


July 15, 2020: In June 2020 the U.S. Army selected the GM (General Motors) candidate for the new, lightweight, ISV (Infantry Squad Vehicle). The two other competitors were familiar with special operations vehicles, the GD (General Dynamics) Flyer 72 and a variation of the old SOCOM (Special Operations Command) favorite, the Polaris DAGOR. SOCOM was already using Flyer 72 and DAGOR and the competition between these two vehicles for special operations orders worldwide led to the ISV competition. The army took advantage of a new fast-track acquisition program that allows new items to be selected (via competition from existing equipment) in less than 16 months versus the usual 36-month bureaucratic marathon that often went on much longer. Each of the three ISV competitors was given a million dollars to modify their vehicle to meet army requirements. The GM entry was seen as a long shot by outsiders who misunderstood what the GM candidate was.

The third underdog competitor from GM was one of their newest and most popular off-road vehicles, the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison. This vehicle was introduced in 2016 and is the culmination of two decades of vehicle modification by individual entrepreneurs and companies like GM. All this largely unnoticed work was recognized and merged by GM into their new 21st century off-road pickup trucks. Individuals and small firms modifying commercial vehicles for special uses is something that has been around for decades. Think of this as “vehicle hackers” and you have an accurate view of what is happening. The Chevrolet Bison was very much the right hack showing up at the right time. Vehicle designers in GM saw the army ISV contract, looked at the Bison and it didn’t take long (at least on the computer design software) to turn the Bison into the GM ISV. Removing the commercial shell and the Bison becamer the ISV, with a modified diesel engine and a few tweaks to the suspension and other mechanical components.

The ZR2 Bison is a four-wheel drive 2.52-ton vehicle built to carry five passengers and 590 kg in the cargo bed behind the four-door passenger cab. To become the ISV, the Bison lost its passenger cab and cargo area along with air-conditioning doors and so on. There is no body on the ISV, it is an open configuration like a dune buggy with seats for an infantry squad (nine troops). The seats are minimalist compared to civilian vehicles and can be folded down to allow a two-man crew to transport over half a ton of cargo or prone casualties. Most Bisons have a 308 HP gasoline engine but an option is a 181 HP diesel. The ISV has a 186 HP turbo-diesel. The cross-country wheels and suspension of the Bison are largely intact. The existing Bison cross-country capability is one asset that was largely unchanged and allowed Bison to win the ISV competition.

The ISV can be carried by sling under a UH-60 helicopter or inside a larger CH-47 helicopter as well as transports like the C-130 and C-17.

A baseline Bison costs about $50,000. The ISV costs about twice that because it is in effect a custom version of the Bison sold in very small quantities, at least at first. Unlike the original Hummer, the ISV is legal for use on civilian roads if you can get insurance. That is easier in some places than in others. Like existing dune buggies, as an off-road vehicle, especially in remote areas, a civilian ISV would be an ideal vehicle for whatever civilian commercial or recreational activities are going on.

The GM ISV had 90 percent commercial parts and was basically a stripped-down Bison that now looked like a military vehicle. Because the Bison already performed well off-road and as well-engineered it was, it beat DAGOR and FLYER 72 which were also based on commercial off-road vehicles and were already popular with special operations forces worldwide. The GM ISV was competitive and cheaper and could be produced more quickly by a major automobile manufacturer. The army wants 2,065 ISVs at a cost of about $100,000 each.

The army search for an ISV is a side effect of the U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) search, since 2012, for what they called the ULCV (Ultra-Light Combat Vehicle). Such a vehicle was meant to deal with several major problems SOCON operators had with hummers, even models customized for SOCOM operations.

This led to a competition to win a contract for 1,100 vehicles to replace special SOCOM hummers. Whoever won not only for SOCOM contracts but a lot of export orders as well as a significant number of orders from police and even civilians. This competition produced two finalist vehicles; DAGOR and Flyer 72.

DAGOR is a two-ton light truck that can carry 1.4 tons or nine troops. It can be carried inside a CH-47 or slung under a UH-60 helicopter. DAGOR can also be dropped via parachute and be ready to roll within two minutes of reaching the ground. Some are calling this a “21st century jeep” but there are some important differences.

Flyer 72 is a 2.5-ton vehicle that is 72 inches (201cm) wide. It can carry 2.6 tons for a total combat weight of 5 tons. It is open, with a roll cage and no doors so that operators can quickly get out while fully equipped for combat. It can be used with up to nine seats (three front, three rear, two rear deck and one gunner). Top speed is 152 kilometers an hour and range on internal fuel is about 1,000 kilometers cross-country at 64 kilometers an hour on largely flat ground. That can be halved on rough terrain.

Basically, SOCOM wanted a hummer in terms of carrying capacity but a dune buggy in terms of maneuverability and ease of getting in and out. A major shortcoming of the hummer (for commandos) was the extra second or two is required to get in or out.

While the hummer (or HMMWV) was an improvement on earlier military vehicles, it did not address the special needs of SOCOM personnel. Meanwhile, the 2.4-ton HMMWV, which replaced the 1.1 ton jeep and 3 ton M37 "3/4 ton" truck in the late 1980s, is being replaced by still heavier vehicles of the same size that are designed to absorb combat damage. The World War II concept of the unarmored light vehicle for moving men and material around the battlefield has been radically changed for the regular troops, but not for SOCOM. Special operations were willing to trade protection for mobility, especially since they often travel cross-country and not through places where they were likely to encounter mines or roadside bombs.

What led to DAGOR and Flyer 72 was SOCOM long noting that civilian markets were developing (for recreational purposes) the vehicles they needed. Thus in 2009 SOCOM bought 1,625 Mule 4010 4x4 vehicles, calling them Light Tactical All-Terrain (LTAT) Vehicles, and using them for commandos and Special Forces in combat zones. Basically, a dune buggy, LTAT weighs 637 kg (1,400 pounds) but can carry 591 kg (1,330 pounds, including four passengers, plus a rear cargo area and a roof rack). The mule can also tow up to 1,200 pounds (546 kg). Top speed is 40 kilometers an hour, and the fuel tank carries 25 liters (6.2 gallons).

Special Operations troops are very fond of dune buggy type vehicles. These are also becoming more popular as civilian recreation vehicles, for cross country travel. The four-wheel drive LTAT can easily be moved by helicopter to wherever, and then let the SOCOM operators move on cross country, often at night (with the driver using night vision goggles to navigate). DAGOR and Flyer 72 take advantage of the “dune buggy” tech to deliver a larger vehicle. Each is expected to cost under $200,000 each when bought in quantity. The main reason for the price (higher than civilian models) is the need to build military vehicles to a more rugged standard.

The army ISV competition took the SOCOM vehicle concepts farther and sought a cheaper but just as rugged vehicle and that’s what the GM ISV was able to provide. While the original Bison was not a military vehicle, it had undergone considerable off-road use and the basic design handled that. This was again demonstrated in the field tests of the three ISV candidates.

The FLYER 72 won the SOCOM ULCV competition while DAGOR continued to sell well to a wide variety of special-operations, police and civilian customers worldwide.


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