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Truck Comes On Like Gangbusters

Technology * Army prototype bristles with crowd-control and evasion gear. It's a vehicle that would do 007 proud.

March 14, 2001|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You might never sit behind its wheel, but if the current energy crisis someday leads to unruly protests, you or someone you know might be on the receiving end of the punch packed into the U.S. Army's idea of a 21st century crowd-control vehicle.

Be assured, you don't want to be there.

The genesis of the truck is the changing role of the military.

With the Cold War over, American military deployment abroad is expected to be dominated by peacekeeping in hot spots. Thus the Army needed a nimble, armored super truck equipped with devices to help break up unruly mobs. And it demanded that the vehicle be able to defend itself with the latest in smart weaponry and be quick enough to shake off pursuers.

There is even a nonmilitary justification for the truck, which blasts tear gas from its roof, has electrified door handles that knock intruders senseless, spreads oil slicks and tire-shredding tacks, lobs concussion grenades, has a night vision camera and a laser gun that can blow up an enemy vehicle's gas tank. All this in a relatively fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid power plant that can run in stealth mode.

It's built on a Ford F-350 pickup truck platform and uses much civilian technology, which the truck's developers say could be of interest to security-conscious business executives--of whom, they say, some 20,000 were kidnapped last year around the world.

Indeed, the Army's heavily armored SmarTruck concept vehicle, which it has dubbed the "James Bond truck" and which was unveiled at the Society of Automotive Engineers' annual convention in Detroit recently, has protection and communications gear worthy of the fictional British secret agent's 21st century needs.

"Our heavy forces are too heavy; our light forces must be more lethal, survivable and technically mobile," said Maj. Gen. John Caldwell, commander of the Army's Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, based in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Mich.

TACOM presented a video that could have been a scene lifted from an action novel by author Tom Clancy, noted for his depictions of military weapons systems.

In the video, a U.S. embassy somewhere in the Middle East is stormed by protesters hurling fire bombs. Embassy staffers hurriedly pull CD-ROM files of sensitive material from a safe and put them in the SmarTruck to be spirited from the compound.

The four-seat rolling fortress races from the compound through a rear gate but is stopped by a chanting crowd. After activating the countermeasures system via a fingerprint recognition unit, a weapons operator uses one of three flat-panel touch screens to shoot tear gas through four tiny nozzles in the roof, and to electrify the door handles, initiating a current that knocks a would-be intruder sprawling on the ground.

All of the technologies in the truck, except for its laser gun, are now operational and designed to be nonlethal, said Dennis Wend, director of TACOM's National Automotive Center. The laser is under development, he said.

"What you want to do is give your soldiers different options without having to hurt anybody," Wend said.

As the SmarTruck makes its getaway in the video, a pair of motorcyclists take pursuit, the riders firing at it with machine guns.

Slow-motion video shows how the bullets are stopped by Kevlar padding and inch-thick bulletproof glass. Although not a target in this clip, the truck's run-flat tires will let it keep going if they've been shot out.

Like Agent 007's Aston Martin DB5 in the movie "Goldfinger," the SmarTruck next releases an oil slick that sends one motorcycle skidding off the road. Then it emits a smoke screen that slows the other.

Entering a tunnel, the truck switches its electric-gas power train to the silent all-electric mode. The driver switches on the Raytheon-developed night-vision system and spots a vehicle blocking the tunnel well ahead. When the bad guys release poison gas, a computer voice alerts the SmarTruck's crew that a chemical hazard has been detected.

The truck then speeds backward to escape the tunnel when a rear-facing camera picks up another motorcycle in pursuit. The crew switches on the truck's powerful, blinding lights, causing the bike to crash. Out of the tunnel, the on-board global positioning navigation system downloads an alternate route.

The SmarTruck next is pursued by a Mercedes-Benz and races past buildings plastered with posters of Islamic militant Osama bin Laden--a touch of reality provided by Pet Fly Productions of Studio City, which filmed the video on Universal Studios' back lot and in the tunnels of Griffith Park.

When a pursuer in the Mercedes aims a bazooka at the SmarTruck, the truck's weapons operator spreads tacks across the road, shredding the pursuer's tires and sending the car spinning.

When a Jeep armed with a cannon blocks the SmarTruck's way, the crew deploys concussion grenades to incapacitate the foe.

And when a tank suddenly blocks the other end of the road and takes aim, the SmarTruck, proving the wisdom of its name, runs away.

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