FORT STEWART, Ga. -- While being trained on the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Sowards had a simple but effective way to test the vehicle's innovative suspension.

He grabbed a cup, filled it with water and placed it in one of the cup holders found inside the Army's newest tactical vehicle.

He then drove it along an uneven tank trail. When the test drive ended, the outcome surprised him.

"I hit the bumps going about 35 to 40 mph back through there," he said, "and I didn't even spill one drop."

The JLTV, which is intended to replace many of the Army's Humvees, is equipped with the TAK-4 intelligent independent suspension system that allows it to maneuver quickly over rough terrain.

For 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, that kind of mobility can help these new vehicles operate with its fleet of M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

"The ability for a Humvee to keep up with a tank, you might think it's easy," said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Leimer, the brigade's senior enlisted leader. "But the terrain a tank can cover and the terrain a Bradley can cover is not the terrain a Humvee can cover."

SOLDIER TESTED

In January, the armored brigade began to train operators and maintainers on the first shipment of JLTVs a few months after its nine-month rotation on the Korean Peninsula.

The unit is set to receive about 350 JLTVs, which Soldiers will then use in the California desert as part of a National Training Center rotation early next year before an upcoming deployment.

The initial contract awarded in 2015 calls for the production of nearly 17,000 JLTVs at a cost of about $250,000 each, excluding add-on armor and other kits.

Currently JLTVs have two- and four-seater variants and four mission package configurations: general purpose, heavy guns carrier, close combat weapons carrier and a utility vehicle.

Future plans are to procure over 49,000 JLTVs for the Army and about 9,000 for the Marine Corps by the mid-2030s, as part of a joint acquisition effort.

That production schedule was shortened from the early 2040s after both services were able to obtain a vehicle with more capability at a lower cost through competitive prototyping -- a nearly $6 billion reduction in planned costs.

"We took several years off and saved cost at the same time, which is pretty impressive for a program," said Col. Shane Fullmer, project manager for the JLTV.

UNIQUE FEATURES

The JLTV offers many creature comforts not typically seen in other tactical vehicles.

Besides its smooth ride and cup holders, those comforts include extra legroom, electronic mirrors, map reading lights and climate control for the rear seats. Indentations in the seats also allow for added comfort for those wearing personal water carriers on their backs.

Similar to a touchscreen computer found in a newer car, a driver's smart display unit on the center console monitors the vehicle's fluids, filters, tire air pressure and even has a rearview camera.

Routine preventive maintenance checks and services, or PMCS, will still be as important as ever, the sergeant major noted.

"Whatever that brain in the center of the vehicle tells you it can check," Leimer said, "we still need to ensure Soldiers are getting out of the vehicle and lifting the hood and making sure they're not cutting corners."

The smart display, though, could make it easier for a mechanic when specific fault codes pop up on the screen as part of its self-diagnosis capability.

Sgt. Louis Accardi, a wheeled vehicle mechanic with the brigade's 10th Engineer Battalion, said while the display will not replace the PMCS technical manual, it could help pinpoint a possible issue.

"It's going to make my job and my Soldiers' jobs a lot faster," he said, "so we can focus on those trucks that need a little bit more care than hopefully the JLTV would need."

Another unique feature is the electronic adjustable height suspension, which can lower the vehicle to 8 inches from its exhaust to the ground for transport purposes. The vehicle can also be raised up to 30 inches when driven over difficult terrain, such as a waterway crossing.

Accardi, who recently finished a two-week master maintainer's course for the JLTV, recalled how difficult it can be to transport vehicles on vessels.

"The dock, waves moving, low overhang can all affect how things are loaded or unloaded," he said. "The fact it can adjust its height is amazing. That will help make a big difference."

Due to its lighter weight than most tactical vehicles, the JLTV can even be sling loaded by a CH-47 Chinook, unlike a similar vehicle, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle, or M-ATV.

The suspension system can also lower or raise the JLTV on one end, giving Soldiers another option in combat.

Sowards, a cavalry scout with 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, said his unit could possibly benefit from that feature.

During a reconnaissance mission, for instance, the vehicle could be hidden behind a berm and then elevated on one or both sides to allow the gunner to see over.

"We'd be able to spy on the enemy a lot better from this vehicle," he said, adding it is much quieter than his unit's Bradley vehicles. "We'd be able to identify the enemy and they won't even be able to see or hear us coming."

IRON TRIANGLE

The JLTV represents a drastic improvement in the so-called "iron triangle" balance of protection, payload and performance.

Not only does the JLTV have a maximum speed of 75 mph, it has greater protection and payload capacity than the Humvee.

It is also one-third lighter with a similar payload to that of the M-ATV, as well as the first vehicle to be purpose-built for battlefield networks.

"Despite our best efforts to enhance current vehicles," Fullmer said, "no current option delivers the balance of payload, performance and protection that Soldiers and Marines need, along with a leap forward in improved maintainability, reliability and fuel efficiency."

Plans still call for incorporating the JLTV alongside the Humvee, which has been around since the early 1980s. In two or three years, the JLTV is slated to be fielded to two infantry brigade combat teams to see how both vehicles can operate together.

The pilot programs aim to "get a better understanding of what mission roles each is going to fill, because they certainly both have a role," Fullmer said.

Today's JLTV could also change over the years, similar to how the Humvee and other vehicle programs evolved.

As a result of Soldiers' feedback, Army leaders have asked the vendor to look into options to improve visibility from inside the vehicle, mitigate noise and optional seating in the utility variant.

"They're taking a look at those issues," Fullmer said, "and we expect a decision on them in the next couple of months and to move forward with production."

For many Soldiers who have driven it, the current JLTV is already impressive.

"It's the best Army vehicle I've ever been in by far," said Sowards, the cavalry scout. "If I'm in a Humvee, it's shaking, rattling and bumping me all over the place.

"But in the JLTV, I don't feel anything. Because of that independent suspension, it just takes the hit and keeps going."