The US Military’s Legacy Vehicles are Vulnerable to Rollovers

The death of Spc. Vincent Sebastian Ibarria, this July in Afghanistan, is yet another tragic reminder of just how much can go wrong when military vehicles rollover.  Little information has been released about this specific incident, but the broader set of data highlights the military’s legacy vehicles as being particularly vulnerable to rollover accidents.

Legacy vehicles refers to the military’s older kit, typically vehicles which have seen a decade or more in service.  Keeping older equipment in service can be a more cost-effective and dependable way to deliver results on the battlefield in lieu of developing entirely new and untested technology.  As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  However, this sentiment only holds true if legacy vehicles are well maintained and modernized to keep pace with evolving technology.

The military’s priority should be to address safety concerns regarding its aging fleet of HMMWVs.  Even with plans to gradually phase out the HMMWV with the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), the Army and Marine Corps will still be operating a larger fleet of HMMWVs than JLTVs by 2028, according to present plans.

The military have been aware of the HMMWV’s rollover susceptibility for several years.  Between 2015 and 2019, 93 HMMWV rollover accidents left 10 service personnel dead and a further 122 injured.  Prior to this, a significant number of HMMWV rollover accidents and fatalities were recorded during the heights of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Data-driven and anecdotal evidence from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have established a strong link between the up-armored HMMWV variant and an increased risk of rolling over.  During counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East HMMWVs were found to be vulnerable to IEDs and were retrofitted to better counter this threat.  This gave troops more protection against enemy mines, but the top-heavy weight distribution destabilized the vehicle, especially in rough terrain.  Approximately half of the Army’s HMMWVs are up armored, and those without additional safety retrofitting are especially susceptible to mishaps.

The technology already exists to significantly lessen the risk of vehicle rollovers.  Some of the military’s older HMMWVs have already been retrofitted with rollover mitigation kits.  These kits include additions like anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and electronic stability control systems.  In fact, some of these additions have been made mandatory for civilian passenger vehicles since 2011 but have still not been rolled out to the entire fleet of HMMWVs.

Since rollover accidents are most prevalent during conditions of reduced visibility, depth perception technology also presents an opportunity to improve vehicle safety by providing better situational awareness.  The use of display systems and cameras to improve depth perception for vehicle crews would be a beneficial addition to HMMWVs, as well as a multitude of other vehicles.  It is often more difficult for the crews of heavier vehicles, like the LAV-25 or Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV), to see oncoming obstacles, especially under closed-hatch conditions.  Any technology which could improve visibility from within these vehicles could play an important part in preventing accidental injuries and deaths.

Frustratingly, the slow uptake of technology to improve the safety of legacy vehicles is rooted in politics.  The House recently scrapped plans presented by the Pentagon to procure funding to retrofit the entire HMMWV fleet with safety kits and instead opted to purchase newly built HMMWVs.  The new HMMWVs, built in Indiana, are designed with new safety measures in mind, but this will still leave at least 4,400 of the older HMMWVs without the necessary retrofitting to better avoid rollovers.

Had the House instead chosen to grant the Pentagon the $93.75 million it requested, the entire fleet of legacy vehicles would have been retrofitted, which would also have been cheaper than buying the new vehicles.  This means that by the time the JLTVs are adopted in serious numbers, the average legacy HMMVW still in service will be over 35 years old.  This is a lot of time for something to go wrong in an old vehicle without the bare minimum of retrofitting.

Nevertheless, at least there are practicable steps which could be taken to reduce the risks associated with operating older vehicles.  As we continue to invest in upping the lethality and effectiveness our troops’ equipment, we should also invest in their survivability and safety.

Written by Alexander Gale on behalf of Convergent3D