Civilian and military vehicles are vastly different breeds. We look at what it takes to develop one ready for battle.
Forget your modified 4×4 bakkie with its tweaked suspension, body kit, aftermarket wheels and bull bar with an integrated winch. Compared to the SVI Max 9 armoured personnel carrier (APC) standing in front of me, the pick-up resembles a Dinky toy. Just getting into the Max 9 takes two steps up the side holding onto the open door that is locked into place. Without this mechanical catch mechanism, the sheer mass of the door can cause a loss of limb if closed carelessly.
Ergonomics and aesthetics play second fiddle to function, although there are luxuries like air-con and even a digital instrument cluster.
Starting the 6.75-litre Cummins turbodiesel engine sends a vibration through the body. Select D on the auto transmission, release the parking brake and lean on the accelerator. I have never experienced such a feeling of invincibility as the 7 500kg APC powered over every obstacle at Gerotek without breaking a sweat. Even a stray landmine or assault-rifle attack would be a mere annoyance.
We spoke to SVI CEO and chief design engineer, Jaco de Kock, to find out what it takes to produce a vehicle for combat.
1. CLIENT REQUIREMENTS
With many military projects, the client requires a vehicle to fulfil a specific role in the field: as a simple troop carrier; an ambulance; a riot-control vehicle; or even a strike unit loaded with weapons. The lengthy requirement document states the mission profile including all the performance criteria (see right), carrying ability, blast and ballistic protection against Nato specifications and, ultimately, the cost. The design engineers have to translate these requirements into fixed engineering’s specifications before the design phase can commence.
In some cases, the market for APCs is evaluated and a vehicle will be developed to meet the requirements of a broad spectrum of users before any orders are received.
This speculative development is risky but can demonstrate a company’s capability and allow a reduced time to market and a competitive edge when a tender becomes available.
2. THE DESIGN
This is the most important phase of an APC project and computer-aided design (CAD) packages enable the design of components, their assembly and spatial visualisation of the concept.
De Kock jokingly remarked that designing a military vehicle is easy as most components can be ordered off a military-spec catalogue. It is not as trivial as this, but it helps that engines, transmissions, axles, differentials and suspension can be procured from trusted suppliers.
In the case of the Max 9, the monocoque hull forms the “chassis” for all the components to bolt onto. The reason for the V-shape is to dissipate the energy of a mine blast away from the occupants who are
suspended on special seats with integrated footrests. Other interesting features are various escape hatches in the roof where troops can evacuate in case the doors are jammed; for example, following a rollover.
Once all the components are digitised in the CAD program, first-order analysis can determine the mass, identify areas of interference and calculate material stress when subjected to bending and twisting.
An interesting analysis is blast protection. A simulated mine is placed underneath the vehicle and a sideways blast created with 50kg of TNT next to the APC. Whereas civilian vehicles are crash-tested and the deceleration occurs mostly in a longitudinal direction, the accelerations on the dummies in the military application are predominantly from below and the side. Structurally weak areas are identified for further improvement (more than 90% of the occupant cell must be optimally enforced). The result is a complete model including the bill of materials for procurement and manufacturing.
Unlike the civilian motor industry, which produces numerous mules and prototypes of a new model for evaluation, the military industry usually starts with the production of a single unit to demonstrate compliance of the client’s requirements before the project and funding are given the green light. A blast-certification vehicle and a few preproduction units are then built. Thereafter, a production facility can be set up with the size and level of automation as a function of the volume of order.
The result is the initial manufacturing process is hands-on with no robots in sight. Laser-cut, armoured panels of 9 to 22mm thick (depending on armouring level and area of protection) are metal-inert-gas welded to form the hull. Just this component can take a single, specialist welder up to a week to complete.
Then follows the assembly process where all the components are fitted to the hull and the systems are integrated. Interestingly, modern military vehicles employ a CAN bust for all the control modules (such as engine, transmission and instrument cluster lights) to communicate with each other. It took the SVI team three months to build the Max 9 prototype.
Performance and durability testing can be compared with the standard OEM testing of a commercial vehicle, bearing in mind the elevated military requirement levels.
These extra requirements are mostly related to climatic testing as an APC must be able to withstand a wide range of temperatures (-40 to +63 degrees Celcius) and even sandstorms.
Unsurprisingly, steering feel on the Max 9 is non-existent because the overpowered hydraulic steering must be able to turn those massive wheels in thick mud and there should be no kick-back when hitting a giant boulder at speed.
The major difference with military-vehicle testing is certification to prove the armouring level. This involves ballistic and blast testing conducted on a component and vehicle level. This kind of validation is extremely costly, especially if the full vehicle has to be repeated.
5. SYSTEM SOLUTIONS
If you think the options list on a German executive car is extensive, think again. The military vehicle is a blank canvas that can be kitted out with an array of weapons, radar and communication systems, fire suppression solutions, a central tyre inflation system and many more.
The cost of a .50 calibre, turret-mounted gun with gyro stability to keep it locked on the target while travelling over rough terrain is more than the vehicle itself. Then there’s the addition of an infrared, night-vision camera system for the operator. Rocket systems are even more expensive. It is a massive task to integrate and test a new system but the supplier is usually on hand to help as it could mean a healthy purchase order if successful.
So, money is no object and you like the look of an APC; can you buy one for your next overland trip? It’s more complicated than you think because the military industry is highly regulated. Firstly, the vehicle maker must be registered with the Directorate Conventional Arms Control (DCAC), which is a South African legislative requirement to market, manufacture and export armoured products. A buyer must register with the DCAC to apply for a permit to buy an APC and be audited to determine if they are allowed to own a military product (civilian ownership is usually excluded).
The divide between civilian military vehicles hinges on the armouring level (lower levels are allowed in bullet-resistant vehicles), the readiness to accept weapons and the installation of any military specification equipment like a high-level communication system.