The hot technology at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army was not on the trade floor, but in a blast-tested Humvee on private display at an art gallery around the corner from the Washington Convention Center.
Those invited to the "After the Blast" event had the chance to view a new chimneylike technology developed by Maryland-based Hardwire LLC that promises to give Humvees and other vehicles the protection afforded by a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.
Called the Structural Blast Chimney, or SBC, the technology vents explosive energy up through the vehicle, working like a pressure relief valve. The blast energy traveling through the chimney also creates an enormous downward pressure that keeps the vehicle from flying into the air.
"We call ourselves the anti-NASA sometimes; our job is to keep everybody on the ground," said George Tunis, Hardwire's chairman and CEO.
The technology could affect upcoming Army and Marine Corps vehicle programs, including the Humvee recap effort, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Army's Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program, according to sources.
For the Humvee effort, AM General, the creator and longtime supplier of Humvees to the military, has teamed up with Hardwire. The chimney technology itself was developed by Hardwire as part of a program with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency 12 months ago.
"Without DARPA, this never would have happened," Tunis said.
The goal was to develop improved vehicle underbody armor that would meet or exceed the protection provided by MRAPs or the newer MRAP-All Terrain Vehicles (M-ATVs) but at lower weights.
Tunis said the company started doing blast tests and quickly realized that if they could vent the energy, they could neutralize its explosive force.
Hardwire currently supplies all of the armor specifically made to withstand explosively formed penetrators for the M-ATVs in Afghanistan.
Tunis said there was raw excitement at the off-site display, where AM General and Hardwire were displaying a 7-ton Humvee that had been hit by a mine under the driver's seat at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. It survived the same explosive force that a 12.5-ton M-ATV is required to withstand.
Invited Army and defense VIPs were allowed to crawl underneath and inside the vehicle, giving them a chance to see how little damage was done to it. Access was strictly controlled and at least one reporter was turned away from the gallery.
"Now, the transmission looked like shredded baloney," said Tunis, but the rest of the truck looked brand new.
AM General was not the only vehicle company showing off products they hope to sell to the Army when the service launches its Humvee recapitalization program.
Oshkosh and BAE Systems showed off modified Humvees. Textron has teamed with Granite Tactical Vehicles to develop the Small Combat Tactical Vehicle Capsule, which the Marine Corps has been testing.
At their booth on the trade floor, AM General displayed three other Humvee survivability options, including a vehicle the company developed with Israeli armor-maker Plasan.
AM General has "very interesting options," a company spokesman said. Its offering for the Army's Humvee recap program will depend on what the Army's asks for, the spokesman said.
"There have been a lot of people that have been working real hard on this Humvee recap," said Kevin Fahey, Army program executive officer for combat support and combat service support.
Fahey oversees an enormous portfolio of equipment that encompasses everything from Humvees to tugboats.
"You can see out here, there are some people who say they have a Humvee recap and for all intents and purposes, it's almost a new vehicle," Fahey said. "You've got other people that really did focus on just the survivability piece and really the thing that they replaced is the capsule around everything else."
As for the AM General-Hardwire team's offering, "It's exciting," Fahey said. "Hardwire did good; we're excited about it, but it's an option."
Because there are so many options, Fahey is pushing to hold a competition.
Last spring, the Army asked Congress permission to shift money away from procuring new Humvees toward a Humvee recap program. That request was denied.
"If there was anybody that wasn't a supporter, it's because they weren't convinced we could do a lot with it," Fahey said. "I think based on what they see out here, they see there's a lot of stuff that we could do for it."
So now the Army is working to identify a new source of funding for the effort.
"We're hoping within the next couple of months we'll be able to identify and get funding to start the program," Fahey said. "Our goal is to buy as many as three different concepts and compete them against each other to see what works."
Fahey said the Hardwire technology has implications for other programs, including the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. Three teams have delivered prototypes, and a new competition will be held to award contracts for engineering and manufacturing development.
Tunis said the company has done 107 blast tests to date, and not just on Humvees.
"We've put it on GCV-style vehicles and it's made a huge impact," Tunis said.
At Aberdeen, the technology was blast-tested on the Humvee on Aug. 30, in September, and on Oct. 15.
This week, the company will begin high-level blast events, testing just how much the vehicle can take.
"I don't know how far we can go," Tunis said. "That's really where we're heading with DARPA and the Army now, to find the limit state."
The chimney, which is no wider than a laptop computer, works like a lightning rod, in the same way that lightning does not have to be over the rod for it to work, Tunis said.
"Once the energy finds its way up that path, it tends to all go up that path," Tunis said.
The chimney innovation does not replace a V-hull, but rather amplifies its protective effects, Tunis said. The chimney allows for much steeper Vs because the energy being directed toward the center of the vehicle can now escape up the middle, he said.
The explosive energy traveling through the chimney also creates thrust, like a rocket motor pointing down, driving the vehicle back onto to the ground, Tunis said.
This means that in the instant of a blast, a 15,000-pound vehicle will effectively weigh closer 60,000 pounds because that explosive burning in the tube is actually pushing the vehicle back down, he said.
The exit velocity is as high as Mach 4, producing a big net thrust downward, keeping the vehicle on the ground.
A lot of work has also been done to the seats and the floor systems, which have barely been stressed during tests at Aberdeen.
"We have a design philosophy where we never want to see broken legs on intact floors," Tunis said. "We'd rather see the floors destroyed in the event and the legs of the soldiers be fine."
He said during the MRAP-threshold testing, both the legs and the floors are fine.
"Until you've tested at Aberdeen and been certified, it doesn't count in my book and it doesn't count in the Army's book," he said.
The company is looking forward to seeing how far the technology can go, believing it has the potential to be revolutionary.
"We're using the IED against itself," Tunis said. "Like jujutsu or aikido, we're using the energy of the attack itself to defeat the attack."