The Pentagon Enlists the Racing Mind-Set

Perhaps you've read that the U.S. military's basic four-wheel transport, the Humvee, is literally falling down on the job in Iraq. That's because the 6000-pound vehicle, which was designed to carry a maximum load of 4400 pounds of soldiers, equipment, ammunition, and fuel, has been burdened with 5000 pounds of armor plating. As a result, the Humvee can barely go on a single patrol without a tire failing and endangering lives, and mechanical failures appear on average at 300-mile intervals.

It's unfair to blame this snafu on the military—the Humvee is all it has. Designed in the early 1980s as an all-around military transporter, the Humvee had been pressed into duty in the Middle East as an armored car, which is why it has been jury-rigged with the heavy load of armor. That extra weight, of course, doesn't improve the Humvee's speed, handling, or range, either.

Clearly, the Pentagon needs a new vehicle that is designed expressly to safely transport soldiers in a war zone. Several designs are under consideration, and one of the more interesting ones was created by an old friend, Scott Badenoch.

Badenoch was educated in architecture and aerospace and mechanical engineering at Princeton and has had a variety of jobs, ranging from CART and NASCAR team strategist to the head of advanced development in Delphi's electronic-stability-control group (The Steering Column, November 1997). He is a conspicuously creative guy who not only thinks outside the box but doesn't acknowledge any boxes at all.

Badenoch put together a loose group of kindred technical spirits and working under contract for the Office of Naval Research came up with the vehicle, which Badenoch has dubbed the Ultra AP, shown here in a computerized rendering.

You'll notice that its main body looks vaguely egg-shaped, with several distinct facets. The idea is to provide a shape that is inherently rigid and will tend to deflect and shed projectiles and explosive blasts more readily than a flat-sided box. The underside of the Ultra AP is similarly shaped to provide protection against mines and the seemingly ubiquitous IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Shape alone provides only so much protection, so this central hull of Badenoch's war wagon has a new type of armor that Badenoch has developed and tested. It's made from two layers of aluminum sandwiching a combination of unusual ingredients that shouldn't be disclosed on these pages. But the end result is reasonably thin and able to resist much larger and higher-velocity projectiles than existing, and much heavier, steel armor.

Explosives need not penetrate armor to cause casualties, however. Their powerful blasts can cause structural failure and injuries from their violent shocks alone. To overcome these problems, the Ultra AP's driver sits in the middle of the vehicle so that his feet are now farther away from the points where his tires run over enemy land mines, thus reducing the odds of foot injury.

Badenoch has placed the Ultra AP's three other occupants in a circular position around the driver, almost all back-to-back—one man pointed straight back, one looking out each side. This layout moves the torsos of the occupants farther away from the walls of the vehicle, which often deflect so extremely that they cause injury during explosions. It also gives the occupants 360-degree visibility and a wide field of fire through the 10 gun ports.

Another source of injuries in combat occurs when an explosion swats a vehicle so violently that the occupants suffer spinal compressions and fractures, either from the upward acceleration of the blast or when the machine comes down on its side or roof. To counteract this problem, each seat is on shock-absorbing material that can compress a full 10 inches to reduce an 80-g shock by a factor of 10. They also have easy-to-fasten shoulder belts that are designed to be worn loosely to provide freedom for shooting and other activities by the equipment-laden soldiers. These belts have integral airbags that inflate during an explosion to prevent the occupants from bouncing around the hard cabin.

The Ultra AP also abounds with clever details, such as secure internal and external ammunition and supply storage—loose, heavy metal boxes cause injuries when a vehicle is rocked by a blast—fenders attached with rip-stitched energy-absorbing cords, and tires tethered to the chassis to prevent them from flying off and causing secondary injuries.

Badenoch has built a prototype of this design using a philosophy called COTS (commercial off-the-shelf technology). The chassis of the Ultra AP is a Ford F-350 truck. The A/C system comes from Vintage Air, a street-rod air-conditioning specialist. The shock-absorbing material under the seats is simply multiple layers of Skydex, the stuff used to pad the outfield walls at Major League Baseball stadiums.

In proper racing fashion, Badenoch has tried to make parts serve multiple functions. The central roll cage, for example, provides structural support for the hull and seat mounts, funnels air into the engine so the vehicle can ford an 80-inch-deep stream, and routes fresh air to and from the air conditioner.

Whether this vehicle will ever be built is a question that's as much political as technical. But the thinking that it represents is exactly what the military needs right now when our troops are staking their lives on a quarter-century-old design.