Tough enough to take on land mines

Nov. 3, 2005
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), land mines, and roadside bombs were causing 70% of all U.S. combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 30-ft claw on the Buffalo lets Army crewmen search roadsides for signs of bombs and mines.

The armored Cougar uses a V-shaped hull for protection against mine blasts. Soldiers inside can fire out using the gun ports visible in the photo.

Then the Buffalo joined the fray. The heavily armored wheeled vehicle and its minedestroying 30-ft robotic arm quickly earned the loyalty of U.S. troops and the begrudging respect of the enemy. A sure sign of that respect is the graffiti that began popping up on walls in Baghdad shortly after the Buffalo was deployed. It read "Kill the Claw," according to a report in Defense News.

The Buffalo was designed by Force Protection Inc., Ladson, S.C., and is based on wheeled armor vehicles used by South Africa in the 1970s. Those vehicles had V-shaped hulls or undercarriages rather than the flat bottoms common on other military trucks and transports. The 22-ton Buffalo's V-hull, armor, and sheer weight combine to withstand mine explosions. The V-hull directs the force of the explosion away from the crew compartment. A Humvee, however, has a flat bottom and weighs only 6 tons. When a Humvee rolls over a mine and detonates it, the explosion is trapped underneath and rapidly expanding, superheated air can toss the vehicle dozens of feet into the air. Even if the armored crew compartment stays intact, the instantaneous acceleration can snap necks and compress spines, killing the crew.

The Buffalo's specially shaped undercarriage not only deflects the explosion, but absorbs some of the impact, which can damage suspension components. "The Buffalo was designed to ensure that replaceable parts such as axles and tires are sacrificed rather than the lives of passengers," says Force Protection CEO Gordon McGilton.

And even if an explosion is strong enough to flip the Buffalo on its back or start it rolling, the vehicle was built to take it. The driver, codriver and 12 passengers are protected by four-point racing-style seat belts.

On "hunter killer" missions, when the crew purposely drives the vehicle into harm's way looking for bombs, they are protected by armor and glass that can shrug off 7.62-mm rounds. The armor incorporates several layers of lightweight composites, ceramics, and the same steel used on M1 Abrams tanks.

Once the crew arrives at a suspected bomb site, the robotic arm with its rakelike attachment finds and explodes any mines or homemade explosives. A camera with a night-vision option lets soldiers safely inside the vehicle see what the retractable claw is doing. And if the crew suspects a nearby bomb may be remotely triggered, the vehicle carries a radio jammer to either prevent detonation or cause it.

The Buffalo is powered by a 450-hp Al-400 diesel from Mack that gives the vehicle a top speed of 65 mph. The engine is also strong enough to get the Buffalo home on run-flat tires after taking a hit. An 85-gallon gas tank lets the vehicle travel 382 miles. And although the Buffalo carries no weapons, gunports in the armored glass let the crew fire without exposing themselves to incoming rounds.

Humvee crews, on the other hand, have 50-caliber machine guns, but a crewman must be topside to fire it. The Humvee also has poor outside visibility, so soldiers often don't know where enemy fire is coming from. The Buffalo's armored glass gives soldiers an expansive view of the terrain around sthem. And if more firepower is needed, the vehicle has an optional remoteweapon mount for the top.

Force Protection also makes a downsized version of the Buffalo, the Cougar. It comes in four and sixwheeled versions and has been used by the Marines in Iraq since last fall. The six-wheeler weighs 18.5 tons and is built to withstand medium-sized explosions such as those from mines and roadside bombs. Design specs say it will survive a 30-lb blast of TNT to either the front or rear axles, as well as a 15-lb blast to the center portion of the vehicle. It has the same armor and protective glass the Buffalo carries, and inside there is room for 10 soldiers. It is used mostly for transport, but can also serve as a mine hunter, a command and control center, or an ambulance.

Force Protection says nobody has been seriously injured while riding in one of their vehicles in Iraq. And IED hits have caused only minimal damage to exterior components.

The company plans to compete in next year's competition to replace the Humvee. Neither the Buffalo nor Cougar has all the performance the Army is looking for in the nextgeneration vehicle. Specifically, they lack off-road capabilities. Force Protection's prototype, nicknamed the Lion, is said to weigh no more than 7 tons but still offer the same level of protection as the Cougar.

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