GM Defense Gives The 82nd Airborne A Ride–And That’s Just The Start

The GM Defense Infantry Squad Vehicle gets rapid response forces like the 82nd Airborne to the … [+] battle faster and fresher.

Image courtesy GM Defense LLC

It was only in 2017 that General Motors established GM Defense LLC. A mere two years ago, the U.S. Army selected the new subsidiary’s Infantry Squad Vehicle (ISV) as one of the competitors for its concept of a highly mobile all-terrain vehicle capable of transporting nine soldiers and their gear at appropriate speeds both on- and off-road. And it was just last year that the ISV won GM Defense a contract worth $214.3 million to produce 649 of those vehicles for the Army, with additional authorization to manufacture up to 2,065 vehicles over eight years.

But the automaking giant, the largest one in the U.S. and third-biggest in the world, has a long and proud history with America’s military that dates all the way back to WWI. Fully 90% of GM’s truck-making capacity was redirected toward that war effort, delivering over 8,500 trucks by the end of the conflict. During WWII, most of the company was redirected toward production of war materiel, with more than 100 plants producing everything from cargo trucks and ambulances to aircraft motors, amphibious vehicles, armored cars, and parts for anti-aircraft guns. While the company’s focus turned heavily back to civilian vehicles after that war, its support for the military continued through Korea and Vietnam–GM was the largest producer of the M-16 rifle–and on through the postwar years. In 2003, though, the original GM Defense subsidiary was sold to General Dynamics.

Why is it, then, that GM has re-entered the defense business? There are several reasons. “We have a whole confluence of defense industry, automotive, and government expertise,” said Steve duMont, who was newly appointed as president of the subsidiary this past April. “Then there’s the $35 billion investment Mary Barra [GM’s CEO] has pledged toward electrification and autonomous vehicles. That has direct applicability to defense. And finally, the defense industry is very bureaucratic and slow. For example, modern new aircraft can take 20 years to develop, only to be canceled. We can’t let that happen anymore. That’s the reason we’re here, to transform the industry. That’s something GM can help with. We want to be disruptive.”

Steve duMont, President, GM Defense.

Image courtesy GM Defense LLC

A former U.S. Army aviation officer and Apache attack helicopter pilot with previous leadership roles at aerospace firms like BAE Systems, Boeing and Raytheon, duMont may seem an odd choice to lead the development of ground vehicle capabilities–until you hear him describe his military role. “As an Apache pilot, it was my mission to support the ground troops,” he explained. “That’s ingrained in everything I do.”

He brings that same approach to what GM Defense is focused on. “We’re adapting civilian technology to the defense environment,” he said. That’s evident with the ISV, which is based on the Chevy Colorado pickup platform, but heavily modified for military use. “One thing we did well was listen to the warfighters. We got feedback from them on our demo vehicle and put those recommendations in place. Our first vehicles are for the 82nd Airborne. They used to parachute near their objective, but then have to march to the fight. Now our ISV is dropped with them, and they stow their gear in the roof webbing and ride into battle. They don’t have to waste all that energy marching anymore. We like to say the ISV is a better boot.”

The military’s feedback is valuable for GM’s civilian vehicles as well. “I report up through our innovation group,” duMont said. “We think this is a great opportunity to deliver technologies that will help grow GM proper.”

The ISV is readily transported to the field via helicopter, or parachuted from a cargo aircraft.

Image courtesy GM Defense LLC

There are three key areas duMont sees as principal mutually beneficial development opportunities. “Autonomy is a huge part of our focus,” said duMont. “In the first decade of the 2000s, 52% of Army casualties were due to attacks on logistics support personnel. We have the technology today to enable vehicles to drive themselves, and greatly reduce those casualties.”

Connectivity is a second area of opportunity. “With some of our civilian vehicles right now, the owners can check tire pressures and oil change status with their cell phones,” duMont explained. “We want to bring those same capabilities to our warfighters, and increase the reliability and dependability of their equipment.”

Electrification is the biggest area of focus. “GM has committed to introducing more than 30 electric vehicle models globally over the next 25 years,” said duMont. Despite the recent total recall of Chevy Bolts on battery fire concerns, at a reported cost of $1.9 billion (to be reimbursed by the company’s South Korean battery-making partner, LG Electronics), GM has promised to double its annual revenues by 2030 largely on the back of its new EV offerings. The company announced earlier this month that it was building a new battery facility in Warren, Michigan, the Wallace Battery Cell Innovation Center, to support its plans to develop longer-range and more-affordable EV batteries.

GM Defense–on its own dime–has already developed an EV concept version of the ISV, which not only offers torque advantages that are important for off-road vehicles, but is much quieter than its diesel-powered counterpart. “Every time we show that to our soldiers, they ask us, ‘You mean we’re not going to announce to the enemy that we’re coming from miles away anymore?’” laughed duMont. More seriously, he added, “Tactically, not only can we ingress quietly, but we can then power electronic surveillance systems. And we’re already where we can outperform the range of fueled vehicles.”

GM’s EV battery work goes back nearly two decades. Its existing battery innovation and testing center, on its Warren Technical Center campus, has been expanded eight times and is out of room (hence the need for the new facility). Its aggressive push toward electrification translates into huge efforts to learn from past mistakes–its own and others’. “We test every cell out there,” said Jim Khoury, Senior Manager of Global Battery Engineering. “We buy, tear down, reverse-engineer and test everything out there, to learn from what they do well, and what they don’t do well.”

The facility has extensive test platforms that perform accelerated charge and discharge testing, shake testing to simulate vehicle vibrations and loads, and fire testing. “We’re working on the first two years of production for 33 models,” Khoury said. “The demand has gotten higher as fast as the battery world is moving.”

The ISV 5 Heavy Gun Carrier.

Image courtesy GM Defense LLC

GM Defense, meanwhile, continues to focus on developing what our warfighters and others in harm’s way need. At last week’s AUSA 2021, the annual Association of the U.S. Army Meeting and Exposition, the company presented another concept vehicle, its ISV 5 Heavy Gun Carrier, which is a five-passenger ISV featuring a top-mounted .50 caliber machine gun and side mounting points for squad automatic weapons. And last month it announced a $36.54 million contract with the U.S. Department of State to create 10 purpose-built heavy-duty diplomatic vehicles expanded from GM’s Suburban platform.

“We take risks,” said duMont. “We fund innovative investments ourselves. But they’re smart risks. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the combat vehicle space. GM builds some of the best heavy trucks out there, so now we’re also exploring opportunities to build things bigger than light tactical vehicles. Right now we’re focused on our core, integrated vehicles, power and propulsion and mobility and autonomy, on smartly growing in areas where our defense customers’ needs drive us to focus. But that is just the beginning and we’re not slowing down now that we’ve got momentum.”

Read More