The Humvee has never been a popular vehicle among Marines.
But these days, Humvees are more vulnerable than ever. A Humvee is no match for the latest rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank guided missiles and sophisticated improvised explosive devices that insurgent groups like the Islamic State and the Taliban are now fielding.
Even with additional armor, Humvees are underpowered. Wide and low to the ground, it is an easy target.
“It’s just a God-awful vehicle,” said former Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Martin, a former special operator who left the Marine Corps in 2014. “It was a bad platform that had some armor slapped onto it and was asked to do too much.”
But how the Corps will ultimately replace its fleet of 17,000 Humvees remains unclear.
Facing budget cuts, the Marine Corps in 2015 canceled its program to upgrade 6,700 of its Humvees.
The Corps plans to start replacing the Humvees with the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, a faster and better-armored truck with a V-shaped hull to deflect blasts from below.
But the first of those JLTVs won’t begin to arrive until 2019. Even then, they will come slowly. The first batch will include 69 new vehicles to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The Marine Corps will continue to use Humvees for “many, many years,” Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh told lawmakers this summer.
On combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marines have mostly stopped using Humvees outside the wire.
But in the current vehicle fleet, the options are limited. Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles — the MRAPs — and other all-terrain variants are too heavy to use in rough terrain.
Without a Humvee replacement, the Marine Corps would have to use whatever vehicles it has now if another war broke out.
Martin, when asked what his chances of surviving would be if he had to go to war tonight in a Humvee, he said: “I’d want to talk my wife and Jesus — and not particularly in that order.”
NOT BATTLE READY
Concerns about the Marines’ tactical vehicles fleet have intensified during the past several years.
Anti-American militant groups have far more firepower than they did a decade ago. ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria have deployed Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles, which can destroy M1 Abrams tanks.
“A Humvee is just not going to be able take the blast of an anti-tank guided missile,” said retired Marine Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, a military expert with the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
Meanwhile, the specter of a full-scale war is looming larger on the horizon.
Lt. Gen. Robert Hedelund, commanding general of North Carolina-based
II Marine Expeditionary Force, recently said his force of more than 25,000 Marines should be ready to fight the Russians.
“The MEF command element will have to be ready to support a warfighting effort in Europe,” Hedelund told attendees at a defense industry conference in October.
The threat of war with China is also taking on new urgency. In October, one senior Pentagon official told Military Times that the Chinese air force is “practicing attacks on Guam.”
And tensions with North Korea this year have fueled fears that Marines in the Pacific could be summoned to fight a grueling conventional battle on the Korean Peninsula.
Those conventional opponents have cannons and rocket launchers that can shower U.S. vehicles with submunitions, said John Gordon IV, a military expert with the RAND Corporation.
Marine Humvees would be “somewhere between very vulnerable and incredibly vulnerable” in a conventional fight, Gordon told Marine Corps Times.
A spokesman for Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said the Marine Corps cannot wait until it has thousands of new JLTVs if another war breaks out.
“We have to fight with the gear we have, not the stuff we plan to get,” Neller’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Eric Dent, told Marine Corps Times.
“Our potential adversaries get a vote too. Our job is to fight and win with what we have. Yes, we would prefer to have our full complement of the more-survivable JLTVs right now, but that’s not the reality.”
There is an inherent tension in Marine Corps modernization efforts between investing in existing and future technologies, he said.
“That tension is not made easier with a Byzantine acquisition process while under budget controls and multiple continuing resolutions,” Dent said.
Fielding the JLTV has been delayed because after the Army awarded a massive contract to Oshkosh to build the vehicles, its rival Lockheed Martin protested and took the matter to federal court before ultimately dropping its lawsuit.
The Marine Corps eventually plans to buy about 9,000 JLTVs to replace about half of the Corps’ 17,000 Humvees, said Kurt Koch, combat vehicle capabilities integration officer at Combat Development & Integration.
The Marines will only keep the best Humvees and replace the rest with JLTVs, Koch said in a statement to Marine Corps Times.
The first 5,500 JLTVs will replace the “highest risk portion” of the Humvee fleet. The next 3,500 vehicles will go to active ground combat element units and to Marine Air-Ground Task Forces.
Nevertheless, both Humvees and JLTVs will be part of the Marine Corps’ fleet of light vehicles through 2030, he said.
With the JLTV, the Marine Corps will finally have a light vehicle that provides Marines with the protection offered by an M-ATV but is light enough drive off-road and to be transported by Marine CH-53E Super Stallion and Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters. JLTVs also take up the same amount of space as Humvees on ships and landing craft.
In the long run, the Marine Corps will need thousands of additional vehicles. And they may end up looking beyond the JLTV for something lighter and more agile, Walsh told lawmakers.
“Could there be some other type of lighter truck that does not have the same protection requirements that a JLTV would have because not all our vehicles may be operating in a highly contested and threat environment?” Walsh said.
For now, some of Humvees still undergo depots-level maintenance, said Emanuel Pacheco, spokesman for PEO Land Systems Marine Corps.
Pacheco noted that the Humvees were designed and built in the 1980s, before improvised explosive devices fundamentally changed the requirements for ground vehicles.
“Keep in mind that the HMMWVs have served both the Marine Corps and the Army well for several decades, and when they were first introduced into service we were not dealing with the IED threat,” he said.
“It’s also important to note that the Marine Corps and the Army are in the process of fielding the JLTV in order to fill that survivability gap that was created by the threat of the IEDs. Finally, the JLTV is a purpose-built vehicle (meaning you can’t call up GM or Ford and ask them for 50K) it takes a few years to go through the acquisition process.”
Yet many Humvees continue to deteriorate. Staff Sgt. Matthew Caruso, a motor transportation chief at Camp Pendleton, California, said years of use have taken their toll on Humvees, which are “slowly getting worse and worse.”
When Caruso deployed to Iraq in 2007, he constantly worried that his unit’s Humvees would roll over a powerful pressure-plate roadside bomb that would “open up a Humvee like a tuna can,” he said.
By the time Caruso deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, Humvees were not allowed to be driven outside the wire, he said.
“It’s a necessary piece of equipment for use in garrison,” Caruso said, “but in combat operations, I think it’s time for the Humvee to go away.”
STILL HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY
The future of the Corps’ vehicle fleet hinges a lot on Congress and the money it provides to the Marine Corps.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is calling for the Marine Corps and Congress to accelerate the purchase of JLTVs. Wicker is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee.
“For too long, many Marine Corps modernization programs have been hampered by drawn-out development timelines, complicating efforts to replace aging and inadequate systems,” Wicker said in a statement to Marine Corps Times.
“Our Marines need the increased protection and mobility offered by the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. The Marine Corps needs to develop these vehicles and get them to the field as quickly as possible,” Wicker said.
“Congress and the Corps should continue to work together to ensure that our brave young men and women have the very best equipment available to them. We owe them that.”
JLTVs ARE NOT PERFECT
The JLTVs may have the same issues as Humvees against conventional opponents because both vehicles do not have the armor to protect against weapons used by conventional militaries.
“You should not put JLTVs and Humvees in areas where they are going to be frequently exposed to enemy direct fire,” Gordon said. “That’s the business of armored vehicles. Just like the Army, the best protective vehicle the Marine Corps has is the Abrams tank, so you’re going to have to employ those in these high-threat areas — particularly if you are going against an opponent with APCs [armored personnel carriers] with auto-cannon and main battle tanks with guns of 100 mm or larger.”
However, Humvees and other light vehicles still have a role to play, even if it is not going toe-to-toe against a near-peer adversary, Wood said.
“You’re not going to take a Humvee or a JLTV and drive straight into an enemy position,” said Wood, who served on President Trump’s transition team. “You get close; you maneuver around the battlefield, dismount your infantry when you need to, use close air support to engage the enemy to reduce his ability to bring fires on you and then you close with the enemy and try to destroy.”
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
Wood also pointed out that all vehicles are vulnerable to some degree. The Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missile, often used in Yemen and Syria, has proven it can destroy M1 Abrams tanks, he said.
Given these threats, the U.S. military has decided it needs vehicles that provide more protection than Humvees but weigh less than MRAPs, Wood said.
The JLTV is meant to be that solution, but it is not likely that the Marine Corps will replace all of its Humvees with JLTVS, which are more expensive and twice as large as Humvees, he said.
Senior Marine Corps officials warned lawmakers earlier this year that if budget cuts and temporary funding measures force the Marines to buy fewer vehicles, Marines in the field will be at greater risk, Wood said.
Although the Marine Corps has more heavily armored vehicles, it cannot rely solely on MRAPs and M-ATVs, he said.
“You need mobility on the battlefield,” Wood said. “If you fully equip the Marine Corps with MRAPs, then you have a deployment problem. The vehicles are so big and heavy and ponderous that you can’t embark them aboard amphibs; you can’t easily get them into theater via cargo aircraft like the C-130.”
Another drawback for MRAPs is that bridges need to be strong enough to support them or troops need to find places where rivers are shallow enough for them to cross, he said. Vehicles must be light enough so they can be used on the battlefield.
It’s the same issue when deciding how much body armor that infantry Marines should wear, he said. If Marines wear too much gear, they are so weighed down that they cannot move fast enough to get out of the kill zone.
“So you actually sometimes increase survivability by lowering the encumbrances of heavy armor, so that you’re more nimble and agile on the battlefield,” Wood said.