75 years after it was first deployed, will US Army bring back the 'jeep'?

Were it not for efforts by the U.S. military to develop a lightweight, unarmored, all-terrain vehicle for the battlefield there might not be a market for SUVs today. It all began 75 years ago last December when the United States military adopted the 'jeep', and while the iconic military vehicle was phased out and replaced by the Humvee – the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) in the early 1980s – the Army could go full circle and bring back the jeep.

Last year the Army began gearing up its Ground Mobility Vehicle Program for fiscal 2017. It was part of the Army's Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy that sought to procure lightweight combat vehicles for infantry brigade combat teams. The vehicles considered sound very much like what first entered service back in 1940.

The Origins of the Jeep

The U.S. Army saw the need for such a go-anywhere four-wheel vehicle when it went "Over There" to France during the First World War. The Four Wheel Drive Auto (FWD) and Thomas B. Jeffery Company supplied the military with the first four-wheel drive trucks, but with another war looming military planners saw a need for a new light, cross-country reconnaissance vehicle. In July 1940 the Army formalized its requirements, which were submitted to 135 U.S. automobile manufacturers.

In the end only two companies – the American Bantam Car Company and Willys-Overland Motors – entered the process, while Ford Motor Company joined the competition a little later. In the end Bantam won the bid, and did deliver a prototype known as the "Blitz Buggy" to the U.S. Army for testing. However, Bantam lacked the production capacity needed on the scale of the War Department, so Willys and Ford each were sent blueprints and developed their own respective prototypes. In the end Willys won the contract due its design having the more powerful engine, but it also featured elements from the Bantam and Ford designs.


During World War II Willys-Overland produced some 363,000 'jeeps' but as it couldn't meet the production target, Ford then produced another 280,000. The actual name is itself still debated – with some suggesting it was a term used by Army mechanics for any untried vehicle during testing, but another story is that it was named after Eugene the Jeep, a character in the Popeye cartoons. Finally, another story is that it came about from the acronym "GP" for "General Purpose."

Ford unsuccessfully sued Willys over the name, which Willys retained and used to market its first Civilian Jeep – the CJ – the first mass-produced 4x4 vehicle for the civilian market.

"The 'jeep' has an enduring legacy partly because they were the first of a kind, were used all over the world in WWII and their impact and was significant," Randy Withrow, director of The U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Alabama, told FoxNews.com.

Humvee and Other 'Jeep' Replacements

The 'jeep' as the main light go-anywhere vehicle served through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, although it went through numerous upgrades and updates. By the 1980s, however, the U.S. military began to seek alternative options, and opted for a larger vehicle that could do what the 'jeep' did but could also take on the duties of other light military wheeled vehicles.

Paratroopers finish connecting a Humvee to a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during slingload training on Fort Bragg, N.C., Jan. 20, 2016. (Army photo by Sgt. Chad Haling)

Paratroopers finish connecting a Humvee to a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during slingload training on Fort Bragg, N.C., Jan. 20, 2016. (Army photo by Sgt. Chad Haling)

The result was the aforementioned Humvee, which had its baptism of fire in Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. The irony was that this was also to be the final military operation for the 'jeep', which had been in service since 1940.

"The workhorse small utility vehicle for the past many years has been the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles made by AM General," Brad Curran, aerospace and defense industry principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan, told FoxNews.com.

"The HUMMWV was a replacement for several vehicles, including the Vietnam War era Ford MUTT – last of the jeeps to my mind – but also the weapons carrier, the Gama Goat and the Mule," Withrow told FoxNews.com. "All the compromises and combinations resulted in a vehicle that was 'huge' by jeep standards."

Now after 25 years in service it is apparent the Humvee can't do it all. It won't exactly be the end of the road for the Humvee, but the military may be putting drivers behind the wheel of other, more versatile alternative vehicles.

"Many of these units will start to be phased out by the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) made by Oshkosh," added Frost & Sullivan's Curran. "In addition, special operations command operates various small engine and electrical vehicles made by recreational off road makers like Polaris and others."

The JLTV isn't the first vehicle to offer an alternative option to the Humvee – as the military already has the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected or MRAP, the special armored vehicles that were designed to counter land mines. From 2007 until 2012 some 12,000 MRAPs were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just as the MRAP didn't replace the Humvee the JLTV won't replace it either.

"This isn't a complete replacement for the Humvee," Dan Wasserbly, editor at Jane's, told FoxNews.com. "The Army is simply looking for a vehicle that has greater tactical mobility. Something that is lighter and faster than a modern Humvee."

It is instead about finding the right vehicle for the job. What the MRAP provided in armor and protection was offset by a lack of mobility.

"What we have seen from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is that one size doesn't fit all uses, especially when it is a big wide platform like the Humvee," Wasserbly added. "The threat is different and the military needs to weigh its options. The MRAP also isn't ideal for humanitarian missions, as it is too big to fit down many tight streets."

Back to Small Tactical Vehicles

Thus with the JLTV program the military may be going back to small and lighter vehicles that can provide greater mobility. Earlier this year the Army ordered an initial batch of the half truck/half-'jeep' like vehicles.

"With the JLTV Oshkosh has delivered the vehicle the military needs," Col. John Bryant, USMC (Retired), senior vice president of defense programs for Oshkosh Defense, told FoxNews.com. "The JLTV provides the ballistic protection of a light tactical tank, the mine resistance of an MRAP and the off-road capabilities of a Baja racer. It is mobile enough that it can be airlifted where it is needed, and the JLTV is very modular and scalable so that the command can determine how to best utilize it in the field."

The JLTV is in its initial production stage, and throughout 2019 the military will be conducting live fire and reliability testing. Moreover, the JLTV was just one of several options considered, and the U.S. Army had looked at vehicles from Polaris, Lockheed Martin and Boeing-MSI Defense.

Earlier this year the U.S. Army had negotiations with Hendrick Dynamics, which developed a modified light off-road vehicle built on the Jeep Wrangler with a modified JP-8 diesel engine. This Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) vehicle was dubbed the Commando and is now officially designated the Grand Mobility Vehicle (GMV).

"We're right in the transition to light mobility for our military," Marshall Carlson, Hendrick Dynamics’ general manager, told FoxNews.com. "This is much lighter than the JLTV, and it won't be armored – it is what is being called a 'better boot.' The GMV is for those light infantry and airborne infantry that can only move across the battlefield by walking at 3mph. This is literally a people mover that can go anywhere."

What also makes the GMV program notable is that Hendrick Dynamics is contracting the Jeeps from Chrysler, which is bringing the iconic vehicle back to the battlefield.

"Chrysler has been a great supporter of this program," added Carlson, "These are the export versions with the diesel engines, and we're modifying these for the military to provide that needed mobility. We think this is a game changer and one that literally went back to the future and took another look at the jeep."