On a recent trip to AM General's main research plant in Livonia, Mich., I found out that the manufacturer of the military's primary utility vehicle has begun research on an armor kit intended to protect troops against the most deadly roadside bomb threat in Iraq.
AM General, which makes the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle - more popularly known as the "Humvee" - is helping the Army develop a new "Frag Kit 6" armor package for some of its Iraq-bound vehicles to defeat specialized explosively formed projectile munitions that can pierce current Humvee armor.
The Frag Kit 6 is stronger than the recently-fielded Frag Kit 5, which was primarily designed to protect Humvee crews from roadside bombs that detonate under the vehicle or ones with force enough to split an armored troop carrier in two.
The move comes as the Army and Marine Corps work feverishly to field Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, manufacturers say are designed to withstand EFP bombs. The curved hulls, massive wheels and thick armor of MRAPs help deflect the molten metal projectile of an EFP that current Humvees can't withstand.
The Frag Kit 6 armor uses various metal combinations and spacing to absorb the ballistic impact of an EFP without penetrating the crew cabin. It will be placed over the armor plating of an M1151 Humvee, the most protective Humvee design fielded in combat.
But company officials admit the Army Research Lab-designed package isn't a perfect solution.
"It's a significant weight increase on the truck - about 1,000 pounds - and it adds about 12 inches each side of the truck of the entire width," said Larry Day, program executive with AM General Defense.
The doors are so heavy, troops may need a mechanical assist device to open and close them and drivers will likely require built-in visual references so they'll know if they can fit the vehicle in narrow spaces.
Though Day said there is no current order for a Frag Kit 6-configured Humvee, his company is hedging its bets in case the call comes for the newer armor.
"We have not been given the go-ahead to put them into production or even finalize the design," Day said. "But it's our responsibility integrate them onto our doors, so it would be better for us to do it."
AM General is planning to outfit about 3,000 M1151 Humvees with the Frag Kit 6 doors if the Army decides that's the way to go.
Despite continued armor upgrades to the venerable Humvee - which traces its developmental lineage to the early 1980s - company officials are scrambling to meet the evolving improvised explosive device threat in Iraq that always seems to be one step ahead of Humvee designs.
With the current popularity of the MRAP - which supporters claim boasts a record of no U.S. troops killed inside its heavily-armored cabin - AM General is holding to the idea that the Humvee will still play a major role in a post-Iraq U.S. military force.
The company is cranking out standard-armored Humvees in its South Bend, Ind., plant at a rate of about 80 per day, but has the capacity to ramp up that number significantly.
And AM General engineers are fine tuning a new Humvee design to bridge the gap between the current vehicle and any future Humvee replacement, such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.
The so-called "Evolutionary Concept Vehicle II" looks similar to the Humvee, but features a hydraulic suspension that can raise and lower the truck, pulling it further away from an IED blast and allowing the 83-inch high vehicle to fit in the same spaces as the 76-inch tall Humvee.
The ECV II's increased height helps provide a roomier crew cabin - without making the vehicle any wider - and it will sport a more powerful engine and configurable armor for specific missions.
"We've got a truck that subjectively, when you've got it loaded, feels faster than the current Humvee loaded, but it's 33 percent heavier," said John Smreker, AM General's executive director for engineering.
"This was sort of the result of a whole bunch of different little programs we had over the last five or six years and we kind of [brought] together all the things that we learned," he added.
AM General plans to deliver ECV II test vehicles to the Army in November, with a target date for a full-scale production contract in 2009.