Aftermarket performance parts racing to front line military service

April 28, 2014
Headquartered just outside of Detroit in Warren, Mich. is TARDEC, the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center. The unit serves all of the nation’s military branches.

Headquartered just outside of Detroit in Warren, Mich. is TARDEC, the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center. The unit serves all of the nation’s military branches along with other federal government agencies – such as the Department of Homeland Security, the National Weather Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy – while also hosting the National Automotive Center (NAC).

“In an effort to provide our soldiers with the best available equipment and resources, TARDEC is partnered with many of industry’s top automotive and research/development corporations and institutions,” says Bruce Huffman, TARDEC’s public affairs officer. “Through this technology transfer, interests of all parties are met and the best equipment is provided to our nation’s warfighters at the least possible cost,” he reports.

“The NAC’s collaborative approach makes it possible to improve vehicle performance, safety, energy use and endurance, while also reducing the military’s design, manufacturing, operations and maintenance costs,” says Huffman. “The application of jointly developed, or ‘dual-use,’ technology has similar impacts – safer cars and trucks, more advanced consumer technology and lower cost due to the broader commercial market base.”

He goes on to point out that “TARDEC is eager to partner with industry and academia to harness new technologies for emerging systems, integrate new energy and propulsion initiatives, reduce operating and maintenance costs of fielded systems and ensure that soldiers have the best performing, most reliable and easiest to maintain ground vehicles in the world.”

In the spirit of an organizational motto aiming to “challenge the existing paradigm,” a TARDEC Ground Vehicle Power and Mobility (GVPM) team of engineers, known as the Mobility Demonstrator Innovation Project, has been tasked to “look beyond their current technologies and think about what is around the corner,” says Mike Blain, GVPM’s deputy associate director.

“This is about thinking more forwardly into the future about combat vehicle design. It was hard to get our engineers to visualize that at first,” he recounts. “Our engineers can get very focused on a particular vehicle component and they don’t prognosticate far enough into the future, so for some of the team it was a struggle to think outside the box.”

Blain says that TARDEC Director Dr. Paul Rogers challenged the team to change direction and, at first, “Just ‘go wild.’ That broke the ice.”

Enter the GAARV

There was no ice in sight, but rather it was the rugged rocks of Utah and his speed shop’s specialization in creating competitive off-road and circle-track racers that had Brandon Johnson thinking outside of the box.

Johnson, owner of BC Customs of Clearfield along with his brother Casey, has risen to new heights by co-inventing the U.S. Air Force’s Storm Guardian Angel Air-deployable Rescue Vehicle (GAARV), which in March began undergoing battlefield shakedowns at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base. Also in the mix is a smaller-sized companion Sword GAARV designed to be mobilized aboard lighter aircraft, as in nimble helicopters.

Arriving off the assembly line in November, the Storm is described as “a multi-purpose utility vehicle intended to help combat search and rescue teams retrieve individuals that have been isolated and can expand the ability to quickly reach further into the battle space to provide a more mobile rescue capability,” according to Capt. Francis Hallada, commander of the 88th TES Guardian Angel Test Division.

“The GAARV may provide capability enhancements for maneuverability, force protection and technical rescue capabilities within the ground domain,” he explains.

Not to be confused with the civilian Guardian Angels who wear the maroon berets, the USAF’s Guardian Angel is a non-aircraft, equipment-based weapons system organized into nine specific capabilities: Prepare, mission plan, insert, movement, actions on objective, medically treat, extract, reintegrate and adapt.

“The GAARV is the first multi-purpose tactical ground vehicle intended to support combat search and rescue operations and other Guardian Angel missions,” says Master Sgt. Michael Butler, the 88th’s squadron section chief. “This delivery marks the first vehicles delivered for operational testing of a new combat search and rescue capability that ultimately may enhance the Air Force’s personnel recovery core function.”

A dual-purpose flexibility involves being able to move through rubble and debris fields during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts to haul rescue equipment and transport survivors.

“The GAARV may be employed in a variety of physical environments across the range of military operations,” Hallada says. “During a major combat operation, the vehicle has the potential to provide a capability for the rescue team to keep terrain and distance separation from enemy forces in order to provide enough time for the recovery package to reach the objective area.”

Initially 61 GAARVs were ordered, and just recently the deal was upped to 80. “We should be busy through 2017,” says Johnson, still marveling at the whirlwind of accolades. “We were the little shop on the corner; we sold suspensions and we had a body shop. To win some of these contracts over the huge companies has been pretty surreal in just about every way possible.”

The Storm GAARV is largely comprised of off-the-shelf aftermarket racing products, although some are modified to better conquer the demands of the battlefield. Innovations are ongoing. “We can make changes quickly,” he says, “not like you’re trying to sell them what you already have in your inventory.”

Finished in combat-ready coloring, regrettably the GAARV does not sport decals touting the easily recognizable brands of the aftermarket components – and you won’t be reading about them here because they are kept under wraps for national security reasons. “Some of our suppliers are disappointed that we can’t advertise that we use their parts,” says Johnson.

“The invention took flight when he met up with a friend back from the service. We were having some beers and talking shop,” Johnson recalls, “and he said it seems like a lot of the military stuff was not transpiring like it was in the industry.” It appeared that the private-sector performance segment had better attributes than what was available to our armed forces.

The wheels began turning for the two brothers. “Basically we did all sorts of off-road and on-road racing vehicles, so it wasn’t too far of a stretch for us. Now the military is 90 percent of our business,” says Johnson.

“The majority of the components we use are aftermarket-based parts for racing applications. That’s where the beauty of the racing industry comes in,” he says. “In racing you’re not designing most of the parts from the ground up; you’re taking an existing part and making the engineering better.”

Multiple supply streams

A mutual industry colleague put Johnson in touch with Douglas E. Hahn, a disabled veteran who had served as a medic in the Air Force. As president of EngineTec, Inc. in Virginia Beach, Va., Hahn had been selling his lineup of motor enhancements to the military for 20 years in addition to marketing high performance engines and chassis at his Virginia Speed custom car shop.

The Storm GAARV power plant utilizes beefed up gasoline and diesel engines from General Motors that at the beginning were purchased from local car dealers. “We pull a lot of parts from the Virginia Speed side,” says Hahn of the engineering process.

“We have a multiple stream of components,” he says. “We try to work with local businesses here as much as we can, but we get parts from every state. A lot of times it’s based on price and whether they can deliver within our deadlines.”

Two procurement sources are lined up for each part – a primary supplier and a backup waiting in the wings. “If one vendor can’t supply us or goes out of business we have another vendor standing by. We’ve got their lead-times and everything.”

It took about a year to source the supply chain by determining “who was on the ball, who wasn’t, and who stuck to their price.”

Johnson and Hahn’s collaboration on designing their GAARV turned out to be a momentous undertaking. Hahn recalls struggling to write what seemed to be 600 pages of documentation directed to military procurement officers.

“That was immensely difficult,” agrees Johnson, adding that the development saga started in 2004 and didn’t come to fruition until 2012. “If it wasn’t for divine ignorance I wouldn’t have done it. It was a huge learning curve – it’s easier for us to build stuff that’s in our heads – but I didn’t view it as a business investment; it was more of a personal investment to bring our guys home safely.”

Manufacturing partnership

As it turned out, Hahn’s sister-in-law is Robin Stefanovich, director of business development for SOCOM Programs at HDT Global’s Expeditionary Systems division. SOCOM is the unified command for the worldwide use of Special Operations elements for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. And HDT is an established vendor of military tactical vehicles.

“They actually chose us,” says Stefanovich of Johnson and Hahn. “They were the designers and they needed a manufacturing partner.” Factory tours were conducted, negotiations commenced and Stefanovich stepped in to pull together the voluminous paperwork, culminating in the duo’s GAARVs being built at HDT’s plant in Geneva, Ohio.

“The HDT Storm facilitates the Guardian Angels’ mission success, providing capabilities unavailable to operators previously,” says Don Schoolfield, HDT’s principle program manager on the project. “Although extremely lightweight, this vehicle has the necessary power and performance to deliver personnel and equipment to their desired destination, away from an area of high threat to a defendable location.”

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