With one of the higher global demand signals within the Family of Special Operations Vehicles (FOSOV), the Non-Standard Commercial Vehicle (NSCV) fleet is based on commercial vehicle platforms that are enhanced with mission-specific modifications to increase protection, mobility performance, and durability. Battelle Memorial Institute is currently providing several different models of the modified vehicles under a seven-year indefinite delivery/ indefinite quantity contract that began in July 2016.
According to program manager Jim LaBine, the NSCV concept is not really new for Battelle, with the institute having provided a range of modified and up-armored vehicles to various customers for several years.
“We started a long time ago doing ‘Humvees,’” he explained during a tour of one of Battelle’s manufacturing facilities. “We also did the Polaris RZR before Polaris realized that we were selling their RZRs with modification. In fact, we donated one of ours to the Navy SEAL Museum.”
LaBine said that the original vehicle armoring was done with composites, with the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) contract representing the institute’s first all-steel solution.
“We had been doing ‘NSCV-type vehicles’ for years, not for SOCOM, but for other clients,” he said. “But SOCOM was a large contract, and we decided to take the lessons learned from some of our earlier clients and apply them to the SOCOM solution. That’s kind of where our ‘bolted solution’ comes from, because in the beginning, we couldn’t weld composite, so we bolted everything into the vehicle. So when we went to steel, we maintained that philosophy and bolted our steel into the vehicle. We bolt armor to armor and then armor to the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] steel, so it’s all integrated tightly.”
Adding that the bolt-on approach eliminates the amount of welding done on the armor, he observed, “When you weld armor, it gets soft and it leaves vulnerability lines where the weld is. Sometimes people tried to minimize that by not putting as much heat on the armor. They’ll weld a stitch, then go somewhere else and then come back to weld another stitch. I guess they do that to make it less of a vulnerable area. We eliminate that with our bolt-on design.”
For its armor, LaBine said that Battelle purchases the raw material and then forms and cuts the panels.
“We’ll do armor searches,” he acknowledged. “We go to the different armor manufacturers. Some are steel manufacturers. Some are composite manufacturers. And then we say, ‘Here’s our threat. Do you have a solution?’ We bring in all that data. Then we look at the weight and cost per square foot, that kind of stuff. And we actually validate it. We’ll test it in the lab to make sure that its stated performance is true. We found that a lot of them don’t perform as advertised. But some do. And then we go to the client with that cost, weight savings, or extra weight, whatever it might be. And we address ‘the triangle’ of protection, weight, and cost. Of course, the customer always wants the lightest weight, lowest cost, and highest-level ballistic protection. And we have to say, ‘Well, this is what’s real and this is what we can actually do. Is cost important to you? Is protection important to you? Is weight important to you?’ And then we’ll work through that with our client.”
He continued, “Our strength is in our engineering. We’re not vertically integrated. We don’t buy all the tools and machinery to cut armor and do all that kind of stuff. We tend to use local suppliers, which reduces shipping costs and tends to just be more convenient. But with our recent increase in production, we are starting to ‘move outward,’ because we need more suppliers.”
LaBine offered several examples to illustrate Battelle’s engineering expertise on NSCV.
The first involved an infrared (IR) light used on the NSCV. The light was originally purchased from a small manufacturer. However, when that manufacturer went out of business, they could not find another source for the IR lights. As a result, Battelle engineers built their own design and began installing them on the vehicles.
“We put that on the vehicle until Baja Designs came up to speed and started producing IR lights,” he said. “The client tried them out and liked them. They were less expensive too, because the new manufacturer was building them for everybody in the off-road world. So we just stopped building that light. The customer said they wanted Baja, so we put Baja in there. But we’ll fill the need if it’s necessary.”
In another example, he pointed to Battelle’s development of a high output alternator for the NSCV.
“American Power [Systems Inc.] was also doing alternators for the State Department,” he said. “We tested ours versus theirs and theirs actually performed a little bit better at high temperatures. So we acknowledged theirs was better and we just stopped making ours.”
In another area of the facility he pointed to the design of both front and rear window lifts for the heavier protective glass windows, explaining that the original design involved an electric window coupled with a very fine worm gear that provided the necessary mechanical advantage. However, customer concern about potentially lost power and the possible need for emergency egress led to the elimination of the electric motor.
“We thought about just changing it to a hand crank, but with the hand crank, it was about 70 turns to get the window down,” LaBine said. “Not surprisingly, the customer said they couldn’t do that. They wanted it to be like in a car. So we put in a more aggressive gear and got the design to somewhere around 15 to 19 turns to get the window down.”
NSCV modifications occur at multiple discrete locations in the United States. The site tour offered considerable evidence of NSCV user popularity that has resulted in recent program expansion.
“We started out in this facility and we were doing around 20 to 30 vehicles a year,” offered a factory representative, whose name is withheld by request. “Although that’s been gradually growing, we typically don’t have a multi-year backlog. Instead, our backlogs have been around five months. That’s made it a little difficult to grow and to change, but it is why we started ‘the other facility,’ just because we grew out of this one recently. This area in front of you was all material, but as a result of the most recent order for a couple of hundred vehicles, we just did not have the space and the ability to handle that amount of material here.”
With the new production facilities and configuration, they said that the NSCV conversion time for a commercial vehicle is “somewhere between five and six weeks,” elaborating, “We’ve done some at four, but there is variation based on the type of vehicle, the amount of modifications to the vehicle, and the content within the vehicle. There’s a long list of CLINs [Contract Line Item Numbers], and they just pick from it. Some could have no C4. Some could have C4. We build for all of the SOCOM groups, and they all want the vehicles their own certain way.”
In addition to the vehicles for USSOCOM elements, they highlighted a recent Foreign Military Sale, stating, “It was an urgent need, so they [the U.S. government] came to us through our contract for the lines that were up and running. And what we did is ‘decontent’ that vehicle down. It’s not identical to the SOCOM vehicle. I would just call it a decontented one. We kept it as simple as we possibly could, assuming that the operator might not have the SOCOM operator or maintenance training.”
One of the first challenges is obtaining the right vehicle for modification.
“It’s typically a challenge to get the colors that we want in the quantities that we want in the vehicle type that we want,” they said. “So we spend a lot of time working with our importer to get a specific model with specific options. And if it comes in with something else, it just jams us up.”
They related an early experience where they were unable to get the specific vehicle models that they wanted, but they could get one model “up” from that. The problem was that the higher-level models had sun roofs and some other features.
“But we knew we could get them right away, so we decided that we would just figure it out,” they said. “At the end, we ended up having to build a metal sunroof that would sit in place of the original. We will never do that again.”
Once the new vehicles arrive from the importer, they begin NSCV conversion by going through “a strip process,” where many parts are removed for one of three possible outcomes: It is thrown away, it is modified and installed back in the vehicle, or it is reinstalled “as is” later in the conversion process.
The stripped vehicles are moved through the subassembly line and eventually lined up at the armor “station build” area, with the armor kit placed beside each truck.
“They have to forklift the armor in to each vehicle, and this gives them room to work from the front, so that they don’t interfere with each other,” they said. “I think we can do five or six vehicles in the armor station at any given time.”
BEHIND THE SKIN
They pointed to two company demonstrator vehicles – a Toyota HiLux and LC200 luxury Land Cruiser – being moved through the line, stating that they “presented an opportunity to see what was happening behind the skin.”
“LC200s are great vehicles because the engines are so large,” they said. “We’ve got a twin-turbo V-8 engine in there, and I don’t have to do anything to make it move with the armor and those types of things. But it is more complex on the computer side for things like blackout lighting and other electronics. It’s like a high-end vehicle, so there are some challenges to modifying it. But we’re working on that. We’ve got some people at our cyber group that are looking to try to ‘dummy down’ some of the computers and make it operate a little bit better.”
They related early experiences where engineers were rerouting wires and putting in ground signals, which caused the computer to generate error codes. In response, the engineers reset the codes and turned the vehicle off. Unfortunately, it would not start again, so they kept repeating the process without success. Finally, they realized that the vehicle was on the line without doors. Since the electronics did not “see” the doors open and close, they assumed that someone had broken a window and was trying to steal the car – a high-end OEM feature. Once that change was finally implemented, they discovered that the headlights weren’t going off, again, because the lack of doors meant that the computer didn’t “see” the driver getting out.
Another difference in Battelle’s NSCV design is limiting the armor at the seat pillar, a feature that saves approximately 400 pounds on some vehicle models. Other vehicles feature a door in the armor, which can be folded down to allow the design to meet the user requirement to carry a litter. Other minor design features that have changed due to user comments include things like door latches that were changed from downward to upward release, reflecting the fact that user gear stowage was interfering with downward handle movement. Pneumatically assisted door opening designs also facilitate egress in specific situations.
Noting a number of engine modifications that served to double the vehicle horsepower, they said, “By doubling the horsepower in a hot environment, it actually was boiling our oil. They are operating in heat. They are carrying extra weight. And they are going up hills. The radiator couldn’t handle it, so we had to add an additional oil cooler. So we run oil through there, along with the radiator that’s cooling the engine block. It’s just things like that that make sure it operates efficiently in operating environments.”
Some of the modifications outlined above are representative of a range of NSCV design and producibility enhancements that Battelle engineers have introduced over the last few years.
Along with these lessons learned and user feedback improvements, USSOCOM FOSOV briefings have identified several areas of interest for fleet planners. Not surprisingly, these include lightweight armor materials, a lighter weight vehicle, C4ISR integration cost reductions, suspension technology enhancements, and life-cycle improvements.
One emerging solution to the life-cycle improvements involves a so-called “Purpose Built NSCV” vehicle that would be a replacement to the current NSCV, where, instead of modifying and armoring an OEM chassis, the new NSCV design will be based on a militarized chassis that could then be visually modified to look like a wide range of commercial vehicles. The concept offers benefits in terms of a heavier suspension for up-armoring as well as a platform that could go through depot reset during an extended service life.
This article originally appears in the following edition of Special Operations Outlook: