January 1st, 2020 and one of the many NDAs I have been bound by has now expired. So I can tell you about one of the odder projects I have been involved in.
As I have said many times, above a certain size and complexity organisations embrace mediocrity as the only way to hold themselves together. This may make tactical sense but it is strategically disastrous. And no more so than in the military.
The military industrial complex is a byword for waste, mediocrity and a complete disconnect from reality. Recent US Navy disasters have highlighted the deadly price of this.
It is usually only in the face of public disaster that the military seeks change. The US Army had suffered at the hands of untrained militias and wanted to find ways of responding.
One of the fundamental tenets of military doctrine is mobility. The most mobile force controls the battlefield, no matter how strong your defences may be, mobility will always win.
So the US military wanted to find ways of making the infantry more mobile. Traditional means such as Armoured Personnel Carriers are bulky, expensive and require lots of logistical support and regular maintenance. Helicopters are highly mobile but also highly vulnerable and expensive.
So one day I found myself working with a US company who were employed by the US Army to identify ways of increasing infantry mobility.
The company was a shell company of a shell company of a subsidiary of a major supplier. It had been spun up for this contract and we were given free rein to explore ideas within a very generous budget.
We decided to focus on a replacement for the highly successful Jeep.
After much debate we came up with a very simple vehicle which was powered by steam generated by a fuel cell. Essentially as long as you had access to water and wood/coal/oil you could run indefinitely. To avoid training issues, the vehicle had no gears and just two pedals for GO and STOP. We explored using levers for steering like in a tank but eventually settled on a wheel with a handle mounted on it and a floor mounted lever for FORWARD/OFF/REVERSE.
The vehicle was not very fast but it could carry 6 fully laden infantrymen at 30kph for 24 hours before needing refuelling.
To support airdrops and other delivery means the vehicle was made out of tubular steel with a lightweight body. Certain parties became interested in the potential for fitting alternative bodies so that the vehicle could appear to be a normal automobile, a taxi or even a police car. Stealth is a very useful addition to mobility.
We needed to test the vehicle against extreme conditions, jokingly I had said that the vehicle was strong and simple enough for a bear to drive.
I should have remembered that the military does not do jokes and that they have previous when it comes to bears…
So we ended up with a black bear called Crumble who was a juvenile female.
Bears are very quick learners and Crumble was soon able to drive the vehicle around the test track without difficulty and became addicted to the sensation of driving. Every morning she would be let out of her compound and she would race over to the vehicle.
Things were going well so someone suggested seeing if Crumble could drive the vehicle with the standard automobile body. The point being that if it hid the fact that the driver was a bear then it would certainly hide the fact that the driver was a soldier.
As ever in successful testing the temptation to push the boundaries becomes irresistible and someone suggested that we see if Crumble could drive on the public roads.
The challenge then was to identify somewhere in the US where a bear could drive on a public road. Crumble liked driving but she had no lane discipline, could not exceed 30kph, and did not know what indicators were.
The choice was in fact obvious. Florida.
As a sop to lowering visibility, Crumble was fitted with a grey wig before being sent out onto Florida’s roads with a trail car of researchers and armed military in close convoy.
Crumble covered over 500 kilometres of public roads in Florida without anyone noticing. Her ursine driving style fitted in with the general chaos on Florida’s roads and the grey wig proved weirdly effective.
We had delivered a new infantry vehicle, demonstrated that it was tough enough to be used by a bear and even carried out stealth missions across Florida.
So this was of course the moment for the programme to be shut down. The company was wound up. The research filed somewhere. The team disbanded.
It was only months later that it became apparent that Crumble and the test vehicle were missing!
The first rule of corporate life is “Admit nothing”. So Crumble was left to her own devices.
As far as I know, Crumble or her descendants are still driving around Florida in our test vehicle. So if you live in Florida or plan to drive through the state then please keep an eye out for a grey haired old lady driving a car. It may be Crumble.