Loading up: Replacing Heavy Equipment Fleets
BY CHRIS THATCHER
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 6)

They’re not fighter jets, frigates or tanks, but for anyone who grew up with Tonka Toys, the Common Heavy Equipment Replacement (CHER) project might be among the Canadian Armed Forces’ most appealing acquisition programs.

Heavy support and material handling equipment (such as bulldozers, graders, excavators, backhoes, compactors, trailers, container handlers and forklifts) play a critical role in the construction of foreign installations such as a forward operating base, remote airfields, expeditionary headquarters, austere field hospital, or Special Operations Forces tactical infrastructure, and sometimes in high-threat environments or in humanitarian scenarios such as recovering from earthquakes or other natural disasters at home and abroad.  

It’s not the first equipment that comes to mind when the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) deploy, but it is vital to the success of operations. What began in the mid-2000s as a small and simple project to replace the Canadian Army’s frontline ageing fleet of late 1980s and early 1990s support equipment has expanded in recent years to encompass a Forces-wide endeavour that is far less straightforward.

CHER has its origins in the Army’s efforts to protect operators from ballistic and blast threats in Afghanistan. At the time, requirements for better protecting the people and equipment building the berms around the bases were being considered, however, the project never got off the ground as adding armour to the fleet of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) and introducing mine-resistant route clearing vehicles soon took priority.

A decade later, however, the need remains, and not just for the Army’s Regular and Reserve forces. Canadian Joint Operations Command, the Royal Canadian Air Force, Military Personnel Command (which oversees hospitals such as Role 2 medical facilities), and Canadian Special Operations Forces Command all own various types of heavy construction equipment and material handlers that are nearing or at the end of their operational life and, desperately in some cases, need new equipment that is deployable and militarized.

“We’re bringing this support fleet to a modern standard, in line with other new support fleets, to improve our mobility, counter mobility, communications, sustainment and force protection capabilities,” explains Major Ryan Adams, the project director with the Directorate of Land Requirements.

The CHER project, valued at $250 million to $499 million in the most recent Defence Acquisition Guide, is currently in the options analysis phase, and is not yet funded in the Department of National Defence’s capital investment plan. But like several other support equipment programs such as Logistics Vehicle Modernization (LVM), it is among 18 projects deemed high priority by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

The date for the release of a request for proposals (RFP) is still to be determined, but Adams said the CAF is aiming to reach initial operating capability by 2022.

Balancing Protection with Performance
Bundling everything in one project office has streamlined the procurement process, centralized the development of requirements, and reduced the potential for duplication. But the program now involves almost 640 vehicles in 15 different platforms – over 30 of which require armour. 

May 2015 – Combat engineers of the Disaster Assistance Response Team clear a road using a mini-excavator in the town of Sankhu, Nepal, after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the area.
May 2015 – Combat engineers of the Disaster Assistance Response Team clear a road using a mini-excavator in the town of Sankhu, Nepal, after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the area. (Photo: Sgt Yannick Bédard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

And that could create some complications, says retired Brigadier-General Peter Holt. He served as Director General Land Equipment Program Management (DGLEPM) between 2002 and 2005, when the project was first proposed, and has followed its evolution through several Letters of Interest and industry engagements.

He understands the logic of “aggregating multiple projects with similar objectives,” but cautions that with “a lot more moving parts […] what we have now is an extremely interesting and challenging project to manage.”

Drawing on its extensive experience in Afghanistan and projecting future engagements, the Army has developed common high-level mandatory requirements (HLMR) for most of its logistics and support equipment. For CHER, those include chemical resistant surfaces; the ability to negotiate off-road; operate with NATO standard fuels in dry and humid conditions ranging from –46 to +49°C; and be air transportable by the C-17 Globemaster. 

Oct 2015 – Cpl Michel Vaillancourt, a Traffic Technician from 5 Service Battalion directs the forklift driver as new supplies arrive in  Portugal to augment supplies for  Jointex as part of Exercise  Trident Juncture.
Oct 2015 – Cpl Michel Vaillancourt, a Traffic Technician from 5 Service Battalion directs the forklift driver as new supplies arrive in Portugal to augment supplies for Jointex as part of Exercise Trident Juncture. (Photo: MCpl Chelsey Hutson, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

The heavy support vehicles will also be capable of fitting the Combat Net Radio Enhanced, a $286 million project involving General Dynamics Canada and Rockwell Collins Canada to upgrade the CAF’s current combat net radios with improved voice and data communications linked to GPS, two functions the current fleet does not have.

Considering the ever-evolving threats from improvised explosive devices and small arms, ballistic and blast protection is a top priority. But that can challenge manufacturers seeking to protect the operator without compromising vehicle performance, even on equipment with heavy-duty chassis like bulldozers.

“Armour is a really big deal,” says Holt, who helped stand up a survivability cell in DGLEPM and remembers the problems that arose from bolting armour onto old LAVs. “You can't just slap steel on because it really reduces your power-to-weight ratio. You have to look at more innovative solutions like composites.” 

Feb 2004 – Personnel from 1 RCR B Coy based in Drvar, Bosnia-Herzegovina wash an excavator at the sea port in Split, Croatia before being returned to Canada.
Feb 2004 – Personnel from 1 RCR B Coy based in Drvar, Bosnia-Herzegovina wash an excavator at the sea port in Split, Croatia before being returned to Canada. (Photo: WO Peter Veldhuizen Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Whether that means a bolt-on solution or an armoured cab that can be swapped out is still to be determined. “We will define the level of ballistic and blast protection we require,” says Major Adams, “how [manufacturers] integrate that, is their business. Manufacturers have various versions of armour that they have [used] before, and not one has the same solution across all of its chassis. We will cite our ideal solution, but we will seek to be flexible as opposed to forcing a specific solution.”

Fortunately, allies with similar experience in Afghanistan and Iraq have gone down this road in recent years, he says, noting that the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps as well as the British and French armies have replaced heavy support equipment and will be able to provide advice as the project moves into the definition phase.

“A lot of the R&D has been done and we should be able to piggyback on that,” Holt confirms.

The CAF will also be looking to capitalize on many of the gains that have been made in the commercial sector since it last acquired loaders, graders and dump trucks. 

Most heavy construction equipment feature digital controls and self-diagnostic systems, and can be monitored from almost anywhere in the world. While that can provide valuable data on vehicle performance, it also means an electronic signature.

May 2015 – Combat engineers of the Disaster Assistance Response Team clear a road using a mini-excavator in the town of Sankhu, Nepal, after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the area.
May 2015 – Combat engineers of the Disaster Assistance Response Team clear a road using a mini-excavator in the town of Sankhu, Nepal, after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the area. (Photo: Sgt Yannick Bédard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

“In Afghanistan, it was surprising how much information the Taliban were able to collect with just cell phones,” Holt recalls. “And high value assets like this equipment are like honey to bees – they attract attention. So you don’t want to identify them in any distinct way.”

The importance of this is not lost on Army project managers. “It is not about providing blue force tracking. We are not going to seek a live data feed because there are other [CAF] systems that will compete for that bandwidth,” Adams says. “But we will leverage the onboard diagnostic systems that allow you to plug in and get a read-out when they experience a problem or go in for servicing.”

As for other advancements, a human factors team from DRDC Toronto has been advising the Army on all recent vehicle projects. In addition to environmental controls, the requirements will specify a cab that allows a fully kitted soldier to operate comfortably.

As well as freeing up some space in the cab, the introduction of touch screen consoles has also made the vehicles easier to operate – a significant change from levers that required years of experience and a deft touch. Combined with the introduction of new simulators, that should also reduce training time. “Today’s generation of operators are used to touch screen capabilities and electronic interfaces, and it is far more intuitive to them,” Adams says.

May 2016 – Cpl Karl Langer directs a load of emergency supplies to be transported by a CC-130J Hercules aircraft from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, as part of the Canadian Armed Forces’ support to the Province  of Alberta’s emergency response to devastating ­wildfires in the area.
May 2016 – Cpl Karl Langer directs a load of emergency supplies to be transported by a CC-130J Hercules aircraft from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, as part of the Canadian Armed Forces’ support to the Province of Alberta’s emergency response to devastating ­wildfires in the area. (Photo: Cpl Manuela Berger, 4 Wing Imaging)

The project office has been monitoring the growing use of automation for repetitive tasks in commercial applications, but won’t pursue robotics as part of the initial acquisition, though Adams notes the equipment could be adapted at later date.

“We feel that the dynamic nature and the wide variety of military operations, and the need to quickly change from one task to another while maintaining a high level of situational awareness, outweighs the need to seek an automated or even remote solution at this point,” he asserts.

While companies such as John Deere, Caterpillar, CASE and Mack Defense will all be interested in the CHER project, it is unlikely any of them would be able to deliver both heavy support vehicles with the necessary armour and material handling equipment on their own, suggesting teams or joint ventures will be needed to fulfill an eventual RFP.

“It’s no longer just your traditional construction equipment, and that opens the door to a lot more companies,” said Holt, who is now a consultant with David Pratt & Associates, which is representing Nortrax, the construction and forestry equipment arm of John Deere.

Mobile Support Equipment Operators use a bulldozer and bobcat to lay down gravel alongside the newly built fence at Camp Canada during Operation IMPACT in Kuwait on August 24, 2016.
August 2016 – Mobile Support Equipment Operators use a bulldozer and bobcat to lay down gravel alongside the newly built fence at Camp Canada during Operation Impact in Kuwait. (Photo: Op Impact, DND)

The Army, too, is aware of the possible need for partnerships and teams. Major Adams says the project office will consult with industry to structure the bid process to support any teaming arrangements – which might also be required as part of a 20-year in service support requirement – while minimizing the number of contracts. 

Ensuring the new fleet has proven support over its lifecycle is “a short-coming of the [current] fleet that we would seek to remedy up front so that we don’t have a parts problems at year 19,” he explains.

Bulldozers, graders and forklifts might not be among the flashiest equipment the Forces will acquire in the coming years, but “they are awfully important to making operations happen,” says Adams. 

With the government’s Defence Policy Review scheduled for release in early 2017, CHER could be among several projects to gain traction. 

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Chris Thatcher is a freelance writer and founding member of Tactical Media Partners.

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