Budget cuts fueling military collaborations

  • 04-Oct-2011 04:39 EDT

“We want to interact with as many industry partners as we can,” said Lieutenant Colonel Graham Compton.

Collaboration has become a watchword for the many aspects of vehicle development projects over the past years as cost-strapped vehicle makers added complex electronic features and functions to vehicles. Military developers also are planning to use even more of these linkups as military budget cuts loom.

Military design teams have been increasing their use of commercial-off-the-shelf products and modules for years, often working closely with vehicle providers and their suppliers. These efforts are expected to increase as rising debt curtails investments by the U.S. Department of Defense. As the funding climate has changed throughout this year, military speakers have increasingly begun presentations with a mention of reduced resources.

This trend was evident at the SAE Commercial Vehicle Engineering Congress in Rosemont, IL, in September. Budget cuts were mentioned twice before all the introductions were finished during a Blue Ribbon Panel titled “Commercial Vehicle Integration for Military & Homeland Defense Applications.”

Join the team

Collaboration is one of the strategies that military leaders plan to use to help make sure U.S. forces have access to well-equipped vehicles that help them complete missions safely. These leaders are keenly interested in working closely with commercial-vehicle suppliers and the companies that make equipment used on military vehicles.

“We want to interact with as many industry partners as we can,” said Lieutenant Colonel Graham Compton, the U.S. Army’s Product Director for Non-Standard Vehicles. Non-standard vehicles are typically those that are designed primarily for commercial markets but are altered to fit military environments.

The focus on teamwork is taking several different tracks. While they turn outward to commercial suppliers, military agencies are also forging alliances with fellow members of the military.

In past periods of belt tightening such as the one that came as the Cold War faded out, military commanders often battled each other for a share of the remaining funds. That seems to have changed in the current environment as members of the armed forces join forces to make better use of the available funding.

“What happened during the drawdown of the 1990s is that everything was siloed and one group would fight another for resources,” said Brigadier General Michael A. Stone, Assistant Adjutant General, Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, Joint Force Headquarter. “In the current environment, there’s much more collaboration.”

Stone, who is an officer in the Michigan National Guard along with his role in Joint Forces, noted that this spirit of cooperation extends beyond the military and its suppliers. He added that universities and a range of government agencies are also being tapped.

He cited a project that uses National Guard facilities that have seen less usage since the military cutbacks of the 1990s. These buildings are being used for the test and development of unmanned vehicles that are seeing increased usage in modern warfare.

“We’re working towards getting a robotics test lab,” Stone said. “I would never have dreamt five years ago that we’d be partnering with universities, but now I do a lot of conference calls to set up our program. We’re even collaborating in the public sector, working with the governor of Michigan and the mayor of Detroit.”

University partnerships are also becoming more common for the businesses that provide military vehicles. Collegiate research teams are often tasked with long-term research projects, and they are also being used to develop improved manufacturing and test processes. “Our university partnerships also continue to expand,” said Lennart Jonsson, CTO for Eaton Corp.

Not always easy

Though partnerships and joint projects can provide big benefits, panelists noted that those gains don’t come without considerable effort. Tight relationships require some work up front to set guidelines.

Once the programs are in place, team members must balance needs between the shared project’s goals and the larger goals of the company or agency they work for. That’s especially true for companies that are providing innovative technology.

“It’s a big challenge to collaborate on things and be successful,” said Gary Schmiedel, Executive Vice President of Technology at Oshkosh Corp. “You need to balance the pressure to collaborate and still manage your intellectual property.”

As companies in all slices of transportation increase collaboration, they are looking at related ways to trim costs. One of these is by using common hardware and software interfaces such as AUTOSAR that make it easier for design engineers to use existing modules rather than creating their own solutions.

“Interoperability is extremely important,” Jonsson said. “We as manufacturers have to do more to create open standards.”

While many issues associated with partnerships are universal, some of these considerations are specific to linkups with military organizations. One of these aspects is the long time frame for military vehicles, which are often in development for years and also have very long lifetimes once they move into production. Another is the need to protect the technical secrets that keep America’s armed forces ahead of their adversaries.

“Program times are much longer and military operations are regulated by International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR),” said Robert F. Combs, Director of Military Applications at Allison Transmission.

Another is the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that can be involved with publicly funded programs. The regulations that govern government expenditures have been growing for years as legislators have attempted to avoid all sorts of financial issues such as bribery and overcharging.

At large companies, teams typically include at least a member or two who have worked with these regulations. But many innovations come from small companies that don’t have much experience with government requirements. Military agencies that encourage these small companies to bid on government contracts find that they must often help them maneuver through the paperwork and other requirements that come when taxpayer money is spent.

“It’s a real challenge to get together with small businesses that don’t know the processes and checks and balances developed,” Compton said. “When we bring in small businesses we need to provide mentorships so they can succeed.”

Compton also highlighted an unusual challenge he’s currently facing in Afghanistan. As U.S. forces turn that country’s defense over to the Afghani government, America is providing military forces with a number of non-standard vehicles. These commercially designed vehicles are now being maintained by U.S. forces, but that will change as fewer U.S. troops remain in that theater.

Many Afghan soldiers can’t read, and a large percentage of them have a minimal understanding of vehicle and engine repair.

“We need something the Afghani forces can work with. They don’t have a long history with internal-combustion engines, particularly the more modern ones,” Compton said. “We’re looking at techniques that guide them through repairs. We may use something like an iPad with an app that shows a picture of a truck and they tap on the hood to get to a section on engine repair.”

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