The Commandant and The Dragon

The decade of the 80s saw the Marine Corps modernizing and replacing many of the components of its tactical vehicle fleet in order to meet the increasing mission requirements of developing global contingencies. Serendipitously, a revolutionary new vehicle was now available that would provide the Corps with its first true cross-country capability for high-volume logistics support. Also of great importance, it was the first wheeled vehicle that could stay apace of the M-1 Abrams tank in mechanized operations, as was amply demonstrated later during Operation Desert Storm and the subsequent Iraqi War,Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). This vehicle, the LVS (Logistics Vehicle System, M-48 Series), would enhance combat logistics support to the degree that Marine aviation was enhanced by the advent of the jet-powered helicopter. It was, as famously predicted by then LtCol Gary McKissock, subsequently a Lieutenant General and the Deputy Chief of Staff for Installations and Logistics (DC/S I&L) at Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC), but in 1981 the Commanding Office of the 8th Motor Transport Battalion (MT Bn) under the 2nd Force Service Support Group (2nd FSSG) at Camp Lejeune, who said this vehicle is “going to change the way we do business.”

The Marine Corps brought three prototypes to Camp Lejeune in April 1981 for evaluation as part of the extensive R-A-M-D (Reliability-Availability-Maintainability-Durability) testing required of a new vehicle, especially in the case of the LVS, which despite its similarity to other “Dragon Wagons,” was unique with its specific Marine Corps alterations. The Corps had a proud history of tactical innovation, but there was still a streak of conservatism that questioned the viability of this innovative new vehicle in an amphibious role. Col Jack James, then head of the Tactical Motor Transport Branch under the DC/S I&L, HQMC, preached the attributes of the LVS to every general officer he could corner.

The LVS originated in 1965 as an ambitious project by the Lockheed Corporation to diversify outside the aerospace field, in this case to apply their technological expertise toward the goal of doubling military vehicle performance. Their initial attempt resulted in the “Twister,” a smaller vehicle than its eventual successors but one that pioneered an innovative articulated body and all-wheel drive (8 x 8). Based on this experience, and a tepid reception by the Defense Department, Lockheed built a larger, more truck-like, version, which after a short production run, gained some fame in capably servicing the Alaska pipeline despite the trafficability problems imposed by the tundra. Lockheed licensed production to the Oshkosh Truck Corporation in 1979 and the Defense Department took interest, all services subsequently acquiring several thousand of the Dragon Wagon and its variants. The appellation “Dragon Wagon” is said to have come from the vehicle’s resemblance to the WW II-era M-26 tank retriever, which shared that nickname. It was also the nickname shared by the principal heavy truck to be replaced by the LVS, the on-road, 10-ton rated M-123.

Lockheed’s goal of doubling the performance of the existing fleet of military vehicles, particularly that of the heavy-tactical wheeled vehicles, was met and exceeded in the subsequent fielding of the LVS. This was readily apparent in comparison to the M-123, which offered less than one-half the LVS off and on-road lift capability with significantly less mobility. The advent of the LVS happily coincided with an over 200% increase in Marine Corps appropriations resulting from the administration of President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to resurrect across-the-board a moribund Defense Department. Long overdue improvement in the Corps’ logistics posture was now possible, to include replacing many of the obsolescing trucks in its tactical vehicle fleet.

The LVS consisted of a Front Power Unit (FBU) that provided power to its four wheels and the four wheels of one of five possible, interchangeable Rear Body Units, which were connected to the FBU by an articulated drive shaft (8 x 8). Driven by a Detroit Diesel 445 hp turbocharged diesel engine, with an automatic 4-speed transmission, the LVS had a payload capacity rated at 12.5 tons off-road and 22.5 tons on-road, at a maximum on-road speed of 55 mph. An articulated joint system itself provided two significant benefits: a smaller turning radius than non-articulated vehicles and the ability to keep all wheels in contact with the ground in most off-road situations.

Although not premeditated, the annual visit of the 27th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Robert Barrow, to Camp Lejeune on 17 July of that year was to provide an unsurpassed opportunity to demonstrate the LVS’s capability and gain a staunch and very important sponsor. Gen Barrow, as a matter of course, visited the 2d FSSG, the logistics element of the then II Marine Amphibious Force, and was hosted by the Group’s Commanding General, BGen Roy Moss, at its French Creek facilities. Two of the Dragon Wagons, properly attired and cleaned for the Commandant’s inspection, were displayed behind the FC-100 maintenance building. After the requisite presentations, Gen Barrow, off script, asked if he could have a ride in one of these impressive new machines. Among those present were Captains Robert Cerney, the 8th MT Bn Maintenance Officer, and Richard I. Gregg, the 2d FSSG Testing Officer, who had been tasked with evaluating the new vehicle. Reputedly two of the Corps finest maintenance officers, they had spared no efforts in subjecting the LVS to a thorough battery of rigorous testing. It’s mobility on the challenging sands of Onslow Beach received their particular attention. Some glitches arose, as with any new and innovative vehicle, but all had been resolved after huddling with engineering teams from Oshkosh.

Capt Gregg readily acceded to the Commandant’s request, took the wheel himself and the “Dragon,” belching smoke from its 450 hp turbocharged diesel engine, disappeared into the woods behind FC-100 where a ride over a series of trails, rutted sandy roads and irregular terrain would give the Commandant an unforgettable and first-hand appreciation of this vehicle’s capability. Not sparing the Commandant any consideration for his high office, Gregg roared through the woods and its imposing obstacles at speed, through smaller diameter trees and muddy bogs, and over and through mounds of dirt and sand. Belatedly, with the Commandant ricocheting around the cab and at one time bouncing off the overhead, he realized that he had not taken the precaution of fastening the General’s seatbelt. He contritely apologized and suggested that they go back and get an enlisted driver before he killed them both. The Commandant demurred, and to Gregg’s surprise, asked if he could drive. Gen Barrow with great enthusiasm then changed places and tackled the course with no lessening of effort. All the while, Gregg extolled the virtues of the LVS with pointed emphasis on its exceptional mobility in sand. He was of the opinion that the next war would be in a dessert and the Marine Corps needed this vehicle. The Commandant, comfortable in this informal setting, concurred at length.

To the observers waiting apprehensively at FC-100, the ride seemed distressingly long. Their fears were not immediately alleviated when the Dragon Wagon finally reappeared from the woods splattered with mud and dirt, its mirrors torn off, and small trees and branches projecting from the undercarriage. But the Commandant dismounted smiling broadly and was apparently no worse for wear. He continued his visit to Camp Lejeune as scheduled and was ushered off to the 2d Marine Division and his new host, MajGen Alfred Gray, the Commanding General. Gen. Barrow and Capt Gregg kept their own counsel regarding his introduction to the LVS. And, as Capt. Gregg would subsequently relate at his “Hail and Farewell” upon retirement: “There are only two people in the world that know what went on during that ride.” That would remain true for 35 years.

Conjecture would suggest that the Commandant’s impression of the LVS, stemming from his stimulating experience, was highly favorable and his consequent desire for its immediate acquisition filtered down through the ranks at HQMC. Bureaucratic requirements, however, imposed numerous inhibitions as well as the necessary delay in the availability of FY 82 funds for major production. Nonetheless, the Commandant’s will was imposed and Congress was successfully petitioned for $1.92M to initiate low-order production in 1982, with full production finally approved by 1983. That year, Oshkosh was awarded a $245M, five-year contract for 1433 vehicles. The LVS entered service in 1985 with delivery completed in 1988. In 1995, 45 additional vehicles were delivered to replace accident and combat losses.

Based on the inordinate success of this vehicle, there was no hesitation in procuring its improved replacement, the LVSR. The upgraded LVS, the LVSR (Logistics Vehicle System Replacement, M-18 Series) , shared many of the same characteristics as its predecessor, the most conspicuous difference being LVSR’s ten, as opposed to eight, powered wheels (10 x 10). Its more powerful Caterpillar 600 hp turbocharged diesel engine and 7-speed automatic transmission boosted the LVSR off-road capacity to 16.5 tons and on-road speed to 65 mph.

Oshkosh was awarded a $740M, six-year contract for 1592 LVSR trucks in June 2006. The vehicle entered service in 2009 with 400 additional LVSR being ordered in 2010 under a subsequent $158M contract. Delivery was completed in 2012.

During the over two decades since full production began, the Corps’ tactical vehicle fleet had been immeasurably enhanced by the presence of almost 4000 LVS and LSVR, which had in turn provided a quantum improvement in the Corp’s operational capability. The remarkably successful performance of these vehicles in war and peace throughout this period is a testament to the prescient wisdom of their early supporters, and just maybe, their presence could in some small measure be attributed to a wild ride experienced by the Commandant of the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune in 1981.

Posted on: January 17th, 2017
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