U.S. Army officials said a program to replace a third of the Humvee fleet with new light-duty trucks remains on track despite uncertainty over future budget cuts.
Officials with the service's Combat Support and Combat Systems Support office on Wednesday gave an update on the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program during the third and final day of an annual conference in Washington, D.C., organized by the Association of the United States Army, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia.
The next round of competition is set to begin early next month, with a request for proposals from companies interested in building production versions of the vehicle. Prototypes of the armored trucks were on display on the showroom floor. Defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin Corp., truck-maker Oshkosh Corp. and Humvee-maker AM General LLC are vying for the production contract.
"I am absolutely convinced that the proposals will be less than what that unit cost will be," said Col. John Cavedo, who manages the Army and Marine Corps acquisition effort, referring to the target price tag of $250,000 per vehicle.
The Army aims to purchase about 49,000 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, while the Marine Corps plans to acquire about 5,500 of the armored trucks. Both services have pledged their commitment to the program despite facing automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
The Pentagon has estimated the effort to develop and build the vehicles at almost $23 billion, or about $400,000 per truck, according to a 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service. Leaders have maintained each vehicle will cost about $250,000.
Cavedo said the discrepancy was due to different methods for analyzing cost and said the average unit production cost remains stable at a quarter-million dollars.
He also pointed to a report last month from the Pentagon inspector general's office that concluded program officials "appropriately assessed the affordability" of the acquisition effort. The document hasn't been publicly released, though the IG's office lists the title and some identifying information about the audit on its website.
"The onion was completely peeled back to the core and they saw that the affordability analysis was on target," Cavedo said of the assessment.
Heidi Shyu, the service's top weapons buyer, said the program is one of the service's top acquisition efforts, but acknowledged even it may not be spared from budget cuts and manpower reductions.
"JLTV right now is high-priority for us, so not currently being targeted, but we don't know how bad our cuts are going to be," she said in a panel on Tuesday. "At this point, in the president's budget, it looks fine. But beyond that, I can't tell you -- I can't guarantee anything since I have no idea what our budgets are going to be."
The Army plans to release the request for proposals in early November, Cavedo said. After receiving the proposals by early January, it will convene a selection board to review the bids over a period of several months, he said. A defense acquisition board will meet sometime next summer to identify a winning proposal, after which point a contract will be awarded, he said.
Each of the companies has delivered 22 JLTV prototypes to the Army for testing under engineering and manufacturing development agreements signed in 2012. They're competing against each other — and potentially eligible outside vendors — to build 17,000 of the vehicles under a low-rate initial production contract.
The vehicles have been undergoing user testing at Fort Stewart, Georgia, over the past month, Cavedo said. Soldiers evaluated the trucks in three so-called mission cycles, each of which lasted four days and involved a number of tactical missions, he said. Beginning next week, Marines will do similar testing, he said.
"We've already gained incredible insights," he said.