For nearly four decades, the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV)—nicknamed Humvee—was the steadfast workhorse of the American armed forces, always playing an essential role in the ever-changing battlefield, whether transporting soldiers and missiles, mounting machine guns and satellite communication dishes or whatever else was needed on the frontlines. It significantly rose to prominence during the late 80s to the early 90s when American forces were deployed to Panama for Operation Just Cause and traversed the sands of the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War. It became popular among service members and caught the eyes of civilians, entering the market known as the Hummer and eventually becoming a symbol of America’s super-sized lifestyle with news of A-list celebrities and personalities cruising on their attention-grabbing ride.
This rugged behemoth succeeded the legendary M151 jeep of the Second World War. Initially, the vehicle was meant to serve as a simple reconnaissance for ground troops. However, it expanded and evolved throughout the years as it proved to be so much more. From warding off enemies with powerful machine guns to daringly chasing tanks with bazookas, the jeep played an essential role in both the offensive and defensive efforts. Aside from ferrying soldiers as quickly as possible, the 14-ton truck also saved hundreds and thousands of wounded men and carried those who had fallen back home, including those who fought in the wars of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, to name a few. This also spawned a civilian-for-use version, the ubiquitous 4×4, typically used in sporty, off-road driving, which up until this day remains very popular.
By the mid-1960s, the Army saw an increasing need to replace its beloved Jeeps as “modern weapons systems grew larger, heavier, and more sophisticated,” requiring more crew and auxiliary equipment to support them accordingly. With other factors considered, it was concluded that the armed forces would have to let go of the iconic vehicle in exchange for a machine that was “more multi-role versatility, increased battlefield mobility, and improved combat survivability,” as Popular Mechanics explains.
Experimental development and testing followed not long after. By 1979, the Army had drafted the final specifications for what will eventually become the mouthful HMMWV—a four-wheel drive with a longer length yet several inches lower than the jeep, “making it less vulnerable to enemy ground fire,” as well as a triple times payload capacity than its legendary predecessor, providing more support capability not only to the Army but also to the Marine Corps and the Air Force. A certified jack-of-all-trades, the Humvee can be converted into at least three configurations, including but not limited to weapon transport, utility vehicle, and field ambulance. Moreover, the versatile vehicle replaced two other iconic military trucks, the 2-ton M274 Mule and the large six-wheel-drive, 1-ton M561 Gama Goat, both of which had outlived their expected service life. Technically speaking, the Humvee is a 3-in-1 tactical machine, and in a way reduces maintenance costs by having universal, standardized parts. Not to mention that the need for training new personnel was also eliminated, thus easier operational availability.
Another worth noting edge the Humvee had that the jeep doesn’t is its automatic transmission (3-speed or 4-speed variant), which according to the Army, suits the current and the generation of soldiers to come. “Most of today’s teenagers have learned to drive cars with automatic transmissions,” Popular Mechanics reported, in addition to easier handling and fewer repairs that are typically frequent in manual gearshifts and clutches.
The original M998 A0 series outfitted a 6.2-liter V8 diesel engine and 6.3-liter gasoline that can reach a maximum speed of at least 70 mph and around 55 mph when fully loaded. It spawned dozens of variations throughout the years with different modifications, including an M996 mini-ambulance, an M1036 TOW missile carrier with basic armor, M1038/M1038A1 cargo/troop carrier, an M1097A2 shelter carrier, and a Mk 19 grenade-launcher vehicle, among others.
Shortly after sifting through dozens of prototype submissions, the Pentagon awarded the production contract to AM General Corporation, a subsidiary of American Motors Corporation, and for the next five years, manufactured more than 50,000 units, of which nearly 40,000 were inducted into the Army and the rest split between other branches. By the time of the First Gulf War, the company had delivered over 72,000 HMMWVs to US and international customers like Canada, Spain, the Philippines, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia. At present, there are an estimated 280,000 plus units delivered around the world.
As bright as it shone in the First Gulf War, the Humvee received not so quite positive praises when it participated in the Second, nearly two decades since it rolled off the assembly line. Discontent over the workhorse had been rampant, and questions on whether the Humvee remained reliable in keeping troops safe against then-new threats such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mines, and car bombs. Similar to the jeep, the jack-of-all-trade machine, as impressive as it is, is not designed for combat and lacks any significant armor. It could no longer adapt to the new threats that emerged on the battlefield. While efforts were made to enhance and buff the four-wheel giant, insurgents and enemies continued to penetrate through the weak points of the vehicle. In the first four months of 2006, nearly 70 troops traveling via Humvee died in bomb attacks alone. It also just added weight, straining the Humvee’s suspension. According to historians, this issue became the catalyst for the beginning of the end for the HMMWV. Like the fate of the jeeps, the Humvee needed to go.
The USMC decided to withdraw the 3-in-1 tactical vehicle amid the Iraq War and replaced it with purpose-built mine-resistance ambush-protected vehicles (MRAP) in 2007. Meanwhile, an emerging new generation of tactical vehicles was being tested under the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program, and by 2015, Oshkosh Defense received the building contract. The company’s design added features missing in the HMMWVs and the agility and mobility lack in MRAP. Nearly four years later, the full-rate production was in full swing and is expected to ease into active duty slowly, working side-by-side with the Humvee until 2050, mainly as a field ambulance.
Furthermore, a second life for the aging tactical vehicle is also emerging as an unmanned ground vehicle, with tests beginning in 2018. If successful, the Humvees could expand their expected service life as robots that accomplish missions without putting any crew in danger and perhaps immortalize their presence in the military.