After years of ups and downs and threats of cancellation, the Army and Marines are about to award contracts to develop a new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to replace the venerable and vulnerable Humvee. In an exclusive interview with Breaking Defense, retired Vice Chief of Army Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli — the man who did more than anyone to save the JLTV from cancellation — argued that the new armored truck is critical not just to protect US troops but to carry the fight to the enemy in future wars.

“When I was vice [chief of staff], we were about ready to lose JLTV because of the cost; the Marine corps and the Army were heading in two different directions; and it was really [Marine Corps Assistant Commandant] Joe Dunford and I who said wait a second, we really need this vehicle, we can’t afford this service parochialism,” Chiarelli recalled.

What made JLTV such a priority for the two services, which together plan to buy 55,000 at a price Chiarelli and Dunford bargained down to a still-hefty $250,000 apiece?

“You need some kind of replacement for the Humvee because you cannot put the IED genie back in the bottle,” Gen. Chiarelli told Breaking Defense three days before the JLTV contract award is expected. Roadside bombs and other “improvised explosive devices” that attack from underneath — where even uparmored Humvees remain painfully vulnerable — are too easy and effective a weapon to imagine that future enemies will not employ them in whatever conflicts come after US troops eventually leave Afghanistan. “It’s going to be part of just about any kind of fight that we’re in,” he said.

So, Chiarelli went on, “we needed a vehicle that provided a greater amount of protection – understanding that you can’t protect against everything. It’s not only that you want to save lives and arms and legs. You want to keep up the offensive spirit of the force: The force has to believe it can traverse the battlefield and survive.”

If the problem were simply about protection — defense — and not mobility — offense — then the military arguably already has a solution: The services have invested billions in Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles to replace Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan. But officers like Chiarelli have always seen the MRAP as a stopgap because most variants are relatively road-bound, lacking the cross-country mobility that was the hallmark of the original Humvee.

“They’re not the replacement for the Humvee. That doesn’t mean that may not have a role in the future,” Chiarelli said. The Army, for example, will likely retain many MRAPs for “route clearance” units that hunt roadside bombs, where off-road performance is not an issue. But as a general-purpose transport for a wide range of missions around the world, the military wants to get back the versatility and mobility of the Humvee and its predecessor, the famous Jeep — without the losing MRAP-level protection that’s now essential against roadside bombs.

“I don’t think the battlefield is becoming any less lethal, it’s becoming more lethal,” Chiarelli said. By issuing first uparmored Humvees and then MRAPs to infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, “we’ve taken light forces and we’ve made them heavy forces. They couldn’t fight as light forces. They would lose their offensive spirit as light forces because they needed protection to traverse the battlefield” without being blown apart.

“The nature of war has changed,” Chiarelli summed up. “I get into all kinds of arguments when I say that, [but] I honestly believe it’s changed.”

“When I took the 1st Cavalry Division over to Iraq in 2004-2005,” he explained, “I had eight uparmored Humvees and they were all with my MP [military police] company, used for ‘rear area protection.'” It was the division’s heavily armored M1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley troop carriers that were supposed to bear the brunt of the fighting, Chiarelli said. But the troops discovered, painfully, that there was no longer a clear “front line” or a relatively safe rear area, only a vast amorphous danger zone in which support troops proved terribly vulnerable in their Humvees. That danger is what drove the uparmored-Humvee program, then the MRAPs, and now JLTV.

Chiarelli does not think that this was a problem unique to Iraq, Afghanistan, or even counterinsurgency in general, but a fundamental feature of 21st century war: In the future, “I just don’t see linear fights occurring,” he said. “There’s too much that’s happened in the area of information technology, [such as] the ability to pass information through simple systems such as cellphones.” If low-tech foes like al-Qaeda and the Taliban can use such off-the-shelf technology to threaten US forces in their rear areas today, higher-tech “hybrid” adversaries such as Hezbollah can certainly do so in the future.

The US military has made its own impressive adaptations to the information revolution, Chiarelli emphasized. “The real key here is collaboration,” he said. “In these very non-linear wars, many of the key decisions that are made on the battlefield are not made by generals in command centers, they’re made by individuals soldiers down on the ground.” New network technologies — the Army’s top modernization priority — “allow us to quickly collaborate over the battlefield”: Systems that the Army only had a dozen per division back in 2004 are now issued to individual platoons.

All these capabilities, of course, cost money, from the new networks to better-armored vehicles. So do the people to operate them and the training for those people to get good at it. Army leaders are now struggling to balance steep cuts across acquisitions programs, operations and maintenance accounts, and personnel. “What successive chiefs from Casey to Dempsey to Odierno [have said] was we’re going to turn those dials down at the same time,” said Chiarelli. Unlike in past drawdowns, he emphasized, “we’re not going to rob the people accounts and the modernization accounts.”

At least, that’s the plan. Chiarelli is hardly sanguine about the Army’s ability to keep that balance as the budget declines, especially if sequestration hits. “When we get out of Afghanistan, it’ll be the way it’s always been,” he feared: “We’ll tend to forget those real lessons-learned that we had and go to something that’s easier, cheaper, lighter. Deployability will become bigger than survivability.” In such an environment, programs like the JLTV will be a much harder sell — but Chiarelli, and his former colleagues still in the Army and Marine Corps, are going to keep trying to make the case.