WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Army plans a competition in 2018 to buy a light ground mobility vehicle that would speed infantry troops off-road across future battlefields, companies showed their wares this week.

Potential competitors — the General Dynamics’ Flyer 72, Polaris Defense’s Dagor and AM General’s Humvee, altered to carry a nine-man squad — appeared at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, or GD-OTS, of Saint Petersburg, Florida, is in final negotiations with the Army and poised to deliver the first of 300 vehicles for five airborne infantry brigade combat teams. The Army preempted the competition with a directed requirement from its equipping directorate to use the Flyer 72, already on contract with U.S. Special Operations Command, for its GMV 1.1 program.

The other main contender, Polaris Defense, of Medina, Minnesota, recently began a partnership with Science Applications International Corporation, or SAIC, of Reston, Virginia, on the Dagor. The partnership was borne of some wariness the Army may steer away from an acquisition strategy that might have advantaged a commercial off-the-shelf vehicle.

“At its core, it’s partnering to mutually pursue the GMV competition,” said Polaris Defense Business Development Director Mark McCormick. “We are awaiting RFP, to really see how closely they will stay to a very traditional Detroit-type procurement, with a lot of additional requirements beyond performance criteria.”

“We obviously bring a very flat, high-energy commercial business model, and SAIC brings a long history of how to provide the capabilities and intricacies that go with a traditional defense contract with a lot of specifics that sometimes that community demands,” he said. “We’re not structured for it.”

AM General, of South Bend, Indiana, is finding ways to cut the weight of its ubiquitous Humvee in preparation to compete. At AUSA, it displayed a 6,300-pound Humvee variant that could carry a nine-man squad — meeting one very likely requirement for the Army vehicle.

Army Joint Light Tactical Vehicles Program Manager Col. Shane Fullmer told reporters there will be a full and open competition, with a request for proposals, “some time next year.” Though requirements are not set, he said, the Army wants a vehicle that can be sling-loaded under a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flying “high-hot,” adding that cost would be a factor.

The intent is to find the best value for the requirements, and the incumbent, GD-OTS, does not necessarily have a competitive advantage, Fullmer said. “In combination with cost, I think it will make for a very aggressive competition. If you look out on the [AUSA expo] floor, there’s lots of people in that market space,” he said.

Some lawmakers have even pressed for a full and open competition. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, whose home state of Minnesota is that of Polaris, proposed in recent months a failed amendment to the Senate’s fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill to direct the Army to hold a competition for a “commercially available off-the-shelf Ground Mobility Vehicle” in 2018.

Since Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, then the chief of Army futures and now the White House national security adviser, introduced the idea of fast-tracking a family of light, fast and lethal vehicles in 2014, plans for a formal competition —then for the ultralight combat vehicle, now the GMV — have since lagged amid budget instability and leadership changes.

The idea then as it is now is for airborne infantry brigade combat teams to use the vehicles to speed from drop zones to objectives while maintaining initiative against a future foe. The Army has since tried and bought various vehicles in limited quantities, and developed an analysis of alternatives; but plans to issue an RFP in 2015 and then 2017 ran aground.

The president’s 2018 budget request proposed $41 million for 100 Army variants of the GMV1.1 special operations vehicle and associated logistics, product development, engineering support and program management. The office of Program Manager, Family of Special Operations Vehicles, would execute the procurement.

“The GMV is a critical program in the Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy. The GMVs mobility coupled with speed will substantially increase IBCT tactical employment options and rapidly deploy infantry elements to positions of advantage,” budget documents say.

Well-known Humvee maker AM General expects to compete in 2018. And at AUSA, it displayed a troop-carrying M1097 Humvee, altered using a kit to carry a nine-man squad. The base vehicles, common across the Army, are already fielded across the XVIII Airborne Corps.

AM General Executive Vice President Chris Van Slager touted the variant’s safer, more comfortable ride, standard weapons ring, and crush-protection bar. He said the kit, long fielded to foreign militaries, can be installed in a motor pool in a matter of three hours. According to Van Slager, the Humvee was among the possible solutions identified by the Army’s analysis of alternatives.

With the kit, the vehicle is sling-loadable under a UH-60 and air-droppable. At 6,300 pounds, the vehicle would have to be lightened to meet requirements, and that work is underway.

“AM General will be prepared to compete,” Van Slager said, calling the kit “a viable solution.”

“We’ll know once the Army publishes the requirements.”

For now, GD-OTS expects to begin delivering the first of 295 Flyer 72s to the Army in the Spring, after safety tests are complete, according to Sean Ridley, the program director at GD-OTS. The company is due to deliver its 180th vehicle to Special Operations Command.

To meet the Army’s interim requirements, the GMV 1.1 has to shed its SOCOM-specific armor and weapons, but not its rollover protection, to make room for a nine-man squad and otherwise meet Army requirements.

“We ended up with a vehicle just under 5,000 pounds, that carries nine, that can fly under a UH-60, that can fly high-hot,” Ridley said. “The unique opportunity it presents to the Army is it is open to all of the kits. They’re not developing a one-off. They can take the four seats and rollover kit and put the comms suite in, they put themselves into a position to own their own GMV 1.1, if you will.”

Whatever toehold GD-OTS may have with its SOCOM vehicle, Polaris is positioning its Dagor as a less expensive option and touting the Dagor's selection as the Canadian Special Forces’ “ultra-light combat vehicle” last year. The U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division has also made a limited buy of 140 Dagors.

Polaris is carefully watching the Army’s directed requirement to field its competitor’s vehicle, though Army acquisition officials have repeatedly offered assurances there will be a competition. In an interview at AUSA, McCormick tried not to sound too frustrated with the pace of Army acquisitions and recent developments.

“SAIC is a wonderful partner, and we have embraced working with them, but how ironic that at one point this could have been the poster child for how the Army didn’t need to go through a long, traditional process,” McCormick said. “We still hope, whatever happens with 2018 appropriations, there might be some encouraging to get this competition moving.”

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

More In AUSA