The Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) is now one step closer to welcoming a new heavy-duty sports utility vehicle (SUV) to its fleet of armored SUVs and trucks unlike any other. This is thanks to the recent delivery of a specially developed Chevrolet Suburban prototype by GM Defense. It marks the completion of phase three of the vehicle’s development, which began back in 2021.
While it may look like a Chevy Suburban, and it shares some of its parts, it has been developed specifically from the ground-up for the armored vehicle mission, not modified from a basic SUV into an armored vehicle after the fact. This should allow it to perform far better than its hodgepodge of predecessors, eliminating many of the chronic issues that come with a fleet of modified by hand vehicles.
According to the State Department, GM Defense delivered the prototype to DSS representatives on June 30 in Springfield, Virginia. The vehicle was then sent for additional testing at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, in early July. The State Department hopes to award a multi-year indefinite delivery indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract by September following validation tests. GM Defense is aiming to start full production of the new armored SUVs in June 2024. As many as 200 vehicles a year could be supplied to the DSS and other federal agencies across the next eight to 10 years.
The armored SUV will primarily be used to transport officials and dignitaries, including in challenging and potentially dangerous locations abroad. They will also be used for sensitive movements in the U.S. Armored SUV types, including Suburbans, have been used by the DSS for decades to provide secure movement options, as you can read more about here. As of May 2016, DSS was responsible for a fleet of over 4,500 up-armored SUVs, vans, and other trucks across the world and in the U.S.
According to GM Defense, the vehicle will use "significant COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] parts, including the body, exterior, propulsion, interior and brakes within the specialty vehicle custom built to meet government requirements. The HD Suburban will feature GM Defense’s new eBOF and suspension to specifically support increased government vehicle performance and additional force protection requirements with a higher payload capacity and greater ground vehicle weight."
eBOF stands for 'electric body on frame.' It is a new commercial chassis architecture that can host various drivetrain concepts. GM says in its government vehicle literature that eBOF can "support heavy payloads and can accommodate battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell propulsion systems, an armoring solution that meets protection and survivability requirements, and greater payload capacity for additional equipment to meet mission needs."
It is not clear what powerplant is at the heart of this new armored vehicle. If it is fully internal combustion, The Drive's Caleb Jacobs told us the new vehicle will likely feature the 6.2-liter gas V8 engine [found in the product version of the Suburban] which produces 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. "It’s more powerful than the base 5.3-liter V8 thanks to its increased displacement," he said, "and since there’s no added complexity from forced induction like a turbo or supercharger, it should be similarly reliable."
On the other hand, some sort of hybrid or electric drive system could help when it comes to operating more quietly and sitting for long periods of time without needing to run the engine, among other factors. It seems that the idea is that the eBOF platform can adapt as needed and new drivetrains could be introduced as requested over time.
Getting the new, purpose-built Suburban to the prototype stage is significant for the DSS because it will eventually make acquiring the vehicle in a standardized configuration easier and faster — an area which the service has struggled with significantly in the past. Beforehand, DSS had to resort to third-party up-armoring on many of its SUVs. This involved the complete disassembly of new vehicles for welding in armored panels, installation of ballistic glass, and many other survivability and operationally necessary features. Once reassembled, those vehicles had trouble performing as originally specified and were far more difficult to maintain. The new heavy-duty SUVs on the other hand have their armoring and other features built into the original design and manufacturing process.
At the same time, GM's pre-existing Suburban heavy-duty chassis ceased production in August 2018. As this was largely the preferred chassis capable of supporting the additional armored weight necessary for high-level VVIP protection in transit, it has left the federal government without another suitably large SUV as a replacement. With the old design on the way out, it may have been easier on some level for the DSS to have GM Defense produce a purpose-built configuration for its future vehicles, too.
“The HD SUV represents a new cost-effective era in the design and building of these badly needed vehicles to help us carry out our mission to ensure the safe and secure conduct of foreign policy in some of our most challenging and dangerous posts,” Gentry Smith, the State Department's assistant secretary for Diplomatic Security, said. “I am impressed with the technology used in the planning process to produce these vehicles, and thanks to the partnership, DSS engineers worked hand-in-hand with the GM Defense design team to bring these vehicles to fruition."
Prior to the prototype’s delivery on June 30, DSS officials met with GM Defense representatives on June 29 for briefings and demonstrations of its performance at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia. There, DSS drivers had the opportunity to test another prototype via high-speed turning and braking.
“The prototype vehicle had good acceleration, handled better in the turns and the heavy-duty anti-lock braking system was far superior to our aftermarket vehicles. You could really feel the stability and performance in the redesigned chassis,” Smith indicated.
Following testing of the prototype by DSS personnel, over 50 officials representing 13 interagency partners were able to test drive the vehicle, the State Department notes.
The delivery of the prototype comes after the Department of State issued GM Defense a $36.4 million contract in September 2021 for the development and validation of the next generation of Large Support Utility Commercial Vehicles (LSUV). As part of said contract, GM Defense is set to produce ten prototypes for government evaluation and testing overall. Those vehicles will be subjected to various weapons fire tests — to confirm that they meet Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB) standards — as well as various durability tests. Durability is absolutely key as any sort of issues on the road could result in far more risk for the protective detail trying to get their principal safely to their destination.
“We are pleased with the development of the fully integrated, purpose-built HD SUV in our partnership with our U.S. Department of State customers,” said President of GM Defense Stephen duMont. “The Chevrolet Suburban has been an iconic name in commercial transportation since 1935 and our newly created HD SUV will expand on that legacy to deliver government-specific advanced mobility solutions to meet the needs of DSS and other federal agencies.”
The new SUV won't eliminate aftermarket armored SUVs in DSS service, however. In late 2021, the Department of State also issued a separate contract for the design of next-generation LSUVs to Battelle, in collaboration with the Ford Motor Company. Battelle is a well-known contractor for this type of work with different government agencies. That contract calls for the development of an aftermarket armoring solution for the Ford Expedition. Four prototype armored Ford Expedition vehicles are set to be delivered to officials, the precise timing of which remains unclear. There will still be a big need for other up-armored SUVs for various roles throughout the U.S. government and military, especially highly discreet models, as well. But a standardized option that was purpose-built for the role could displace some of these vehicles too. It may even make sense on the grounds of sustainability and reliability costs alone.
The U.S. Secret Service and Special Operations Command which already operate up-armored versions of the Suburban could have particular interest. As The War Zone has previously written about, Suburbans have become synonymous with Presidential Motorcades in recent years. This remains true not just in terms of moving the President, Vice President and other VVIPs around, but also in terms of transporting the President’s security detail as well as counter-assault teams, among other uses.
It will be interesting to see if this ambitious new specially-designed armored Suburban makes it through trials with the DSS' stamp of approval. If it does, it won't be long until we see it pop up in some very inhospitable locales as it begins its career shuttling around high-profile officials in a cocoon of rolling security.
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