From Dune Buggy to Combat Vehicle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former Israel special operations officer who parlayed his experience modifying light trucks for desert warfare into a burgeoning dune buggy business in Cerritos is quietly developing what may be a next-generation vehicle for the U.S. military.

The Flyer 21 can burst over curbs and slip into helicopters. Its standard armament is the .50-caliber machine gun.

The new "light strike vehicle" is being developed for the Marine Corps by Oded Nechushtan and a cadre of auto enthusiasts who built dune buggies for a living. Flyer Technologies, housed in a nondescript building behind a row of warehouses, hopes that its durable but nimble troop carrier will be as ubiquitous as the Jeep.

If Flyer were to win a Marine Corps production contract--and that's uncertain because the small private firm is competing against one of the world's largest automotive companies--the vehicles would be assembled in El Segundo. And it would return auto manufacturing to Southern California for the first time since General Motors closed its Van Nuys plant in 1992.

The Marine Corps, reflecting the latest military emphasis on mobile and flexible forces, is looking for a rugged vehicle that can fit into its new V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft and other transport helicopters for rapid deployment. The Humvee, the standard multipurpose vehicle for the U.S. military, is too wide and bulky to fit in helicopters and must be transported in small numbers by cargo planes requiring airstrips or by ships.

The idea of rapid deployment has taken on added urgency with the outbreak of the war in Afghanistan. And efforts to modify commercial versions of four-wheel vehicles have so far been disastrous.

As a result, the Marine Corps has acquired four prototypes developed by Flyer as well as four vehicles made by DaimlerChrysler, the auto maker formed by the merger of Daimler-Benz and Detroit's Chrysler, and has been putting them through various off-road test drives. The Marines hope to select the winner by the end of the year, although some of the test vehicles are apparently already in use in Afghanistan by U.S. special operations forces.

The initial contract for up to 2,700 vehicles, some of which would go to U.S. special operation units, could be worth about $250million, Flyer said.

The value of the contract is seen doubling with foreign sales and perhaps would grow significantly later in the decade as the Army looks to replace its 100,000 Humvees.

The Marines eventually will need nearly 19,000 new light multipurpose vehicles, although it's unsure how many of them will be a new design of vehicle or the latest Humvee variant, known as the A2.

So far, the Flyer 21 has done well in field tests at Camp Pendleton and won rave reviews from the Marine Corps, but it still faces a stiff battle against an entrenched competitor.

To fill an immediate need for a light assault vehicle, the Marines acquired 100 of DaimlerChrysler's Gelandeswagen, a four-wheel-drive vehicle akin to a Jeep that has been a mainstay of the German army for more than 20 years. Daimler is fielding a variant of the Gelandeswagen in the competition for the Marine Corps' new vehicle.

But Flyer executives said their entrant incorporates the latest advances in structural engineering that give it more heft while providing unusual handling abilities. During a recent drive in the company's parking lot, the four-wheel vehicle was able to go over curbs and other obstacles at more than 30 mph with little reaction and make hairpin turns that would normally cause other all-terrain vehicles to roll over.

"It's the best off-road vehicle in the military," said Nechushtan, Flyer's chief executive and president, whose officers include Llewellyn Werner, former chairman of school bus manufacturer Crown Coach International.

"We believe it is the only vehicle that also meets the military's requirement for rapid deployment," Nechushtan said.

The project has brought Nechushtan a full circle from his days as an Israeli army officer when he specialized in modifying trucks for the rugged Middle East terrain. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1988, he parlayed the experience into designing dune buggies before the Marines program.

Reflecting the developer's background, the Flyer 21 looks more like a dune buggy than a typical military vehicle, except for the machine gun mounted on it.

Unlike the Humvee or the Jeep, the Flyer 21 has its turbocharged inter-cooled diesel engine mounted in the rear, protecting it from damage particularly in trudging through jungle or ravines.

Using a rugged modified transmission, the driver can seamlessly shift gears without using a clutch, a feature similar to the Tiptronic system found on Porsche sports cars.

With a 115-horsepower engine, the vehicle can zip across rugged desert terrain at more than 65 mph. With an independent suspension system, it can operate on only three wheels if the fourth wheel is blown apart. It can climb 60-degree hills or traverse hills with 40-degree grades without tipping over.

But beyond its performance, the Marines have been more impressed with its cargo capabilities and how easily it can be transported. Although it weighs half as much as the Humvee, or about 3,000 pounds, it can carry just as much cargo. It is one of the few vehicles that can carry cargo equivalent to its weight.

The vehicle is only 62 inches wide, compared with 86 inches for the Humvee, and can fit inside the cargo hold of the V-22 with space left over for four Marines. Flyers can be stacked one atop another, making them easier to transport. Because it can be stacked, 12 Flyers can fit in a C-130 Hercules, compared with four Humvees.

Singapore purchased earlier, wider versions of the Flyer, and its special forces have been using it for four years. The exact number and type are classified, but a former Singaporean general said the vehicle has performed well.

"It is a very unique vehicle," said Patrick Choy, a 30-year veteran of the Singaporean army. "The Singapore army is putting the vehicle to very good operational use. It's ideal for rapid deployment, and it's in line with what the U.S. Army needs for the kind of operation it's conducting now" in Afghanistan.

If Flyer wins the Marine Corps contract, it would hark back to the days when the Jeep was developed by Willys-Overland Motor Co., a little-known boutique auto maker in Toledo, Ohio, that made exotic cars before it became a household name.

The initial contract for 70 vehicles, however, was first awarded to the larger American Bantam Car Co., but they performed terribly, prompting the Pentagon to re-award the pact to Willys-Overland.

In July 1941, the Army signed a contract to purchase the Willys Jeep for $738.47 each, according to Manuel A. Conley, who wrote "The Legendary Jeep."

Because Willys lacked the capability to produce the number of Jeeps required by the military, it had to licensed the manufacturing rights to Ford Motor Co.

Eventually, more than 700,000 Jeeps were built, spawning popular commercial variants such as the Wrangler and the Cherokee and a cadre of modern-day SUVs.

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