By Sue Mead If we didn’t know better, the scene playing out in front of us could have easily been mistaken as a staging for war, or at least, the set of a war movie. There were camoed military trucks performing maneuvers in a 100-foot-long pea-gravel pit, motoring at sharp 45-degree sidehill angles in the figure-eight area, throttling up the 120-foot-long pyramid hillclimb and inching through a six-foot-deep V-ditch with 45-degree sides. Drivers and passengers wore Army-green helmets, and trucks of many sizes and types had machine gun turrets and M-16 rifle holders. The recent opening of an extreme 4x4 test course in Quantico, Virginia, heralds the near completion of a $14 million project that began nearly four years ago with the Big Three American automakers, the National Automotive Center, branches of the military and other federal government agencies. Created by off-road guru Mark Smith of Jeep Jamboree and Rubicon Trail fame, the two-mile-long track, on a 20-acre plot of ground, was built with the help of the Navy Seabees, and its first use is for the new COMmercially BAsed Tactical Truck (the Army types call it COMBATT) program. Both Army and Marine Special Forces will use this Severe Off-Road Track (SORT) for training purposes. Its primary purpose, though, is as a permanent demonstration and evaluation track for military personnel, members of Congress and the Pentagon, and representatives of federal government agencies to evaluate commercial vehicles beefed up for military and other back-country needs, in an area near the nation’s capital. “This unique off-road oval track features numerous challenges designed to approximate what a military vehicle might encounter in a military environment, on a border patrol assignment or during a homeland defense mission. The variety and severity of the SORT obstacles give the military and industry an opportunity to obtain a quick assessment of real-world, off-road vehicle performance,” said Chief Warrant Officer-4 Gary Dickerson, Transportation Demonstration Support Area. Punch through the jargon and the acronyms and you find COMBATT’s goal is mostly to replace the military’s Humvee (H1) light tactical truck for those purposes in which its extreme performance is not required. Humvee, a design nearly 30 years old, is due for replacement. It is expensive to buy, to maintain and to operate, and the feds think trucks based on civilian models would be more affordable and suited to many of the purposes for which the H1 is now used. The stated goal is to develop military vehicles with enhanced off-road mobility, improved durability, state- of-the-art technologies and lowered cost. Remember that Jeep, Hummer and many other trucks in American garages (Dodge Power Wagon, for one) originated with military contracts. Now, though, the feds are starting with civilian models and upgrading them like it was the Monster Garage in a Quonset hut. Think what the boys at SEMA could do with the Pentagon’s budget. This is bound to influence what you can buy for use around the ranch. Offered at a savings of close to $30,000 per vehicle over the H1, prototype models being evaluated at SORT include a modified Dodge Ram 2500/3500, Ford F-350 and Heavy Duty Chevrolet Silverado. Dodge has also built a hybrid version of its truck, and GM is working on a similar hybrid that might be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in January. The modifications of these trucks may also appeal to government agencies and other customers who need off-road vehicles for severe duty such as logging and mining and rural firefighting, as well as to countries that do not have highly developed highway systems. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Border Patrol and state law-enforcement organizations are among the 26 other government agencies evaluating the COMBATT vehicles. COMBATT models include GM’s four-door, five-passenger extended-cab pickup, with a 6.6-liter turbodiesel mated to a five-speed auto transmission and an NVG transfer case with a 2.72 low-range set of gears. It also has a combination front- or rear-mounted 12,000-pound winch with remote control, run-flat tires with bead lock, a chassis that has been raised six inches for additional ground clearance and wheel travel, and a water-fording depth of 30 inches. Ford’s model is based on the F-350 Super Duty Crew Cab pickup, with a 6.0-liter Power Stroke V8 turbodiesel mated to a TorqShift five-speed automatic with a 4WD drivetrain, with a two-speed manual locking transfer case. It is available as a Super or Regular Cab, with a 6.5-foot or an eight-foot cargo bed, and includes a central tire inflation system. The military version of the Chrysler Group’s previous model Dodge Ram 2500 pickup comes with a 5.9-liter high-output turbodiesel engine, matched to a four-speed auto transmission with a two-speed heavy-duty transfer case and a towing capacity of 22,000 pounds. It also features a state-of-the-art hydropneumatic suspension system able to negotiate severe off-road terrain. The Dodge Ram COMBATT HEV (Hybrid Electric Vehicle) achieves about a 15 percent improvement in fuel efficiency and reduced tailpipe emissions over a comparable conventional Ram. When the vehicle is parked, the hybrid powertrain converts to an electric generator to provide 12.5 kW continuous electric power or up to 30 kW peak electric power, eliminating the need for portable generators at remote sites. Based on the 2002 Dodge Ram 2500 Heavy Duty Quad Cab 4x4 pickup, this model can be operated in either diesel-electric hybrid or electric-only (“stealth”) mode, which also provides a “Silent Watch” capability. Chrysler Group is also developing this vehicle, available in a 1500 or 2500 model with either 2- or 4wd and various gasoline engines, for commercial applications such as in the construction and utility industries. It will be sold commercially beginning in 2004, and is designed to meet the off-site electrical generating capacity needs of construction contractors, farmers, campers and even homeowners. So there you go, trickledown into the civilian market already.