Keep on truckin’

There’s an old saying in military circles: Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics. And it’s true, because in large scale military operations, on of the biggest challenges is just getting your people to the fight. Think about it, every person, vehicle, bullet, scrap of food, repair part and can of shaving cream our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are using had to make a voyage from the good ol’ US of A. Getting them there, in order, and to the right unit, in a timely manner is a Herculean task.

Our modern Army has spent a lot of time since WWI working on logistics. A large percentage of the Army’s tiny budget between the World Wars was spent on research into vehicles. And one of the greatest weapons of WWII was the duece-and -a-half. The Germans were famous for Blitzkreig and armored warfare, but oddly, most of their army was road-bound, unable to travel cross country. Worse, large parts of their army, especially their artillery, was horse-drawn. They may not have had cavalry formations charging about, but the roads behind the Wehrmacht were clogged with horse-drawn wagons. German infantry units could be moved by train, but once they reached a railhead, they were stuck at a walking pace. This was an incredible handicap on their mobility.

In contrast, virtually all the US Army was truck-mobile. The backbone of the fleet was the CCKW 2-1/2ton truck. CCKW stood for  a GMC truck, model year 1941, all wheel drive, with two driving rear axles. Over half a million CCKWs were built during WWII, not counting the variants built by Reo/Studebaker and International Harvester. Given that there were only 8 million soldiers in the US Army, that’s a fairly heavily motorized force.

CCKW 2-1/2 ton truck

After WWII, the CCKW fleet was gradually replaced with the M35 series of 2-1/2ton trucks. The M35 series weren’t especially advanced or improved. The WWII fleet of trucks was just worn out. Mostly the M35s had a little more power and the big advantage was they eventually used a multifuel engine. The multifuel engine was a diesel (at a time when most of the Army still ran on gasoline) that could burn diesel, kerosene, heating oil, gasoline or just about any other hydrocarbon fuel.

M35 Duece and a half
M35 Duece and a half

The M35 series proved to be a remarkably long lived design. From its intial design in 1949, many are still serving today. Every tactical unit I was in had M35s, little changed from the original design. In the mid 1990s, many were rebuilt with new engines and automatic transmissions, and continue to serve in the Reserves and National Guard.

As good as the duece was, the Army needed something more. The next size up in the truck series is the 5-ton. The Army had used various trucks in the 5-ton range for years, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the M939 series replaced most M35s in the logistics role.

M939 5-ton truck
M939 5-ton truck

Most M35s were relegated to tactical units (for instance, each mechanized infantry company had two) while support units operated 5-tons. With power steering and automatic transmissions, 5-tons were pretty easy to drive. Far easier than struggling with a manual steering, manual transmission M35 (I’ve driven both, and greatly prefer the 5-ton). But 5-tons also had their problems. They were a little top heavy, having such high ground clearance, and had a terrible safety record. Many soldiers were killed or injured in peacetime accidents.

Starting about the turn of the century, with the fleet of  dueces and 5-tons starting to wear out (hey, they  get 20-25 years out of a truck, how long have you owned your car?), the Army solicited bids for an entirely new family of trucks. The goal was to have a common design to replace the M35 and M939 series throughout the service. As with both previous series, they would be made in a wide variety of models to fill specialized roles, but would share as much commonality as possible to reduce spare parts inventory and reduce training time and costs for operators and maintainers. The end result was the Family of Meduim Tactical Vehicles, or FMTV.


Generally, most company sized units will have a couple 2.5-ton FMTVs to fulfill their own transport and supply needs, while battalion and higher level units will use 5-tons to push supplies forward to tactical units. FMTVs are designed to be very easy to maintain, even having self diagnostic electronics to tell mechanics what needs fixing. Eventually, the trucks electronic brain will be able to predict what parts will fail, enabling mechanics to replace parts before they even fail.

Even with the huge logistical tail the Army has, much of its transportation support is provided by conventional, contract supplied long haul trucking. For instance, most supplies traveling from Kuwait into Iraq are hauled by civilian trucks. Not until they reach FOBs in Iraq are the loads broken down into smaller parcels to be distributed by FMTVs. Still, the Army’s huge fleet of trucks gives it a mobility that few armies have ever achieved and the ability to support operations over a wide swath of land and for extended periods of time. This ability is key to winning battles, be they high intensity such as Desert Storm, or protracted insurgencies such as the current war in Iraq.

10 thoughts on “Keep on truckin’”

  1. Eisenhower is on record as saying that the 3 most important pieces of equipment instrumental in the Allied victory were 1) the C-47, 2) the Higgins Landing boat (manu in N.O. after design for swamp ops for oil companies) and 3) the deuce and a half–all logistics equipment.

  2. I suppose at some point I’ll have to cover the other two items on that list. I’ve always heard the list as being 5 items, including the M-1 rifle and damn if I can remember the last…

  3. My Dad was with The 26th Division (Yankee Division) and was a driver of one of those magnificent bastards. My Dad was actually part of the Red Ball Express, moving supplies from the beachheads to the front. The Red Ball Express saved Eisenhower’s ass.

  4. Well, when I went to Korea for exercises in 87, we couldn’t leave the camp without showing our pass card and a three-pack of condoms.

  5. damn if I can remember the last…

    The Jeep! Sheesh. Ya let some dirty leg walk enough and he forgets the vehicles altogether! 😛

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