Duct tape, bungee cords, straps, netting, plywood. Do these items sound like safe and secure ways to store 200 pounds of ammunition on a combat vehicle in the middle of a war zone?
For years, Soldiers have been relying on their own makeshift methods to secure ammo containers inside Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles, because they were not provided with any other solution. Virtually every cubic inch within an MRAP is occupied with mission-essential equipment, making ammunition stowage a challenge.
The situation posed several problems. Once Soldiers cut the straps or removed the bungee cords, it was difficult (and sometimes impossible) to re-secure the ammo again, especially in the rapid pace of a combat mission. Moreover, in the event of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion, loose ammunition containers and the make-shift storage materials Soldiers used could become deadly missiles inside an MRAP, even when the bomb failed to pierce the crew compartment.
But as a result of the innovation and expertise of the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC), Soldiers are now using an Army-approved ammo stowage system that is safe, reliable and effective.
The system is called MARS, which stands for Modular Ammunition Restraint System. ARDEC has already sent more than 700 into combat zones. But that is only the beginning. The Army estimates that several thousand MARS will be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan within the year.
Custom design provides safer stowage
Essentially, MARS is a custom-engineered bag, similar to a camera bag or backpack that holds standard metal ammunition containers. Inside the bag is a steel, L-shaped bracket that not only supports the weight of a full ammunition box (about 50 pounds), but it also provides a strong surface for mounting the bag to a custom interface rail, another component of the MARS system.
Additionally, the adjustable hook and loop closures (most-commonly known as Velcro) and specially-designed buckle allow Soldiers to tailor MARS for smaller ammunition containers
“The buckle used is called the ‘Cobra’ and is manufactured by Austi-Alpin,” said Mike Ivankoe, an inventor of the MARS design with ARDEC’s Packaging Division. “It’s widely used in both military and mountaineering applications as it is extremely strong, reliable and easy to operate,” Ivankoe said. “The design allows Soldiers to easily open, close and adjust it with gloves on or in the dark.”
Manufactured by Black Hawk Products, MARS is made of commercially available, easy-to-manufacture materials, another reason the invention was able to be prototyped and mass-produced quickly. MARS is a government-developed and government-owned design that has been submitted for a patent from the the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
From blueprint to battlefield
The story of MARS began in November of 2009 when ARDEC received a request from Soldiers in the field for better ammo stowage. Because loose ammo containers presented a risk of injury in the event of an IED blast or vehicle rollover, the Army sought an effective and timely solution.
The ARDEC team, including the Packaging and Future Concepts Division, Warfighter Central and the Quick Reaction Cell, responded immediately. Funding was provided through efforts by the Quick Reaction Cell and RDECOM’s Forward Advisory Team for Science and Technology (FAST) office.
“We had an RG-31 at Picatinny, so we immediately went to the vehicle and spent hours inside it talking about our ideas,” Ivankoe said. “We thought about shelves or collapsible racks. But then Lt. Col. Glenn Dean (currently PM for Bradley Fighting Vehicles) mentioned the concept of a bag, and the design just took off from there.”
The three inventors of MARS – Ivankoe, Dean and Peggy Wilson, ARDEC Senior Packaging Engineer – fashioned an initial blueprint design in one weekend.
Within three months, ARDEC sent a working prototype to Afghanistan for Soldier feedback. This timeline is nearly unheard of in the world of research, development and acquisition. But because ARDEC used innovative thinking with in-house and industry resources, the prototype came together quickly.
The Joint Program Office (JPO) for MRAP has also been a key partner to the success of MARS. After the first MARS prototype came back along with excellent Soldier feedback, JPO-MRAP helped secure a Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement, or JUONS – a necessary milestone to fund and field a new product.
“JPO-MRAP enabled ARDEC’s innovation to become a reality for the warfighter,” Ivankoe said. “Jennifer Johnson, Chief Engineer Vehicle Systems, JPO-MRAP, and Brian Ernst, Vehicle System Engineer, JPO-MRAP have been excellent partners in giving the project high priority to meet the urgent need.”
The team made several design revisions to MARS based on feedback from Soldiers and load exercises conducted on MRAP variants. The final design was tested for high G-force shock survivability using an in-house fixture that was designed and modeled by Rob Kim, a senior packaging engineer who works within Ivankoe’s group.
The next step was determining the best place to mount the interface rail inside the RG-31. The problem is the inside of the vehicles are already cramped for space.
There was no simple solution.
JPO-MRAP arranged for General Dynamics Land Systems, the original equipment manufacturer of the RG-31, to study optimal placement of MARS, including the repositioning of some equipment.
The manufacturer was also tasked to design the interface rail specific for the RG-31.
With these modifications, the team incorporated the MARS interface rail (which holds three MARS) into the current production of RG-31 vehicles.
“Kyle Bruner, JPO-MRAP and project manager for RG-31, has been a tremendous help in integrating MARS into the vehicle,” Ivankoe said. “He and his team were just as committed to the project as we were.”
ARDEC is supplying more than 700 MARS to be installed on 250 newly-arrived RG-31 vehicles in theater.
But the RG-31 isn’t the only potential use for MARS. The team is also developing an interface rail for the M-ATV and Caiman MRAPs, among other variants.
“We are working with the JPO-MRAP project managers and the original equipment manufacturers for these vehicles,” Ivankoe said. “We expect to have MARS integrated over the next few months.”
Further updates to MARS include the development of a jumbo-sized MARS that can hold much larger ammunition containers, including those used to store 40mm grenades. The team is constantly looking for ways to expand, retrofit and integrate the invention to maximize Soldier benefit.
“MARS is a perfect example of how teamwork, motivation and a drive to achieve results can bring a much needed technology to our Soldiers in record-breaking time,” Ivankoe said.