[updated 4:00 pm with AM General comment] The Army and Marines took a big step towards replacing their vulnerable Humvees and lumbering MRAPs yesterday evening when they awarded contracts to defense giant Lockheed Martin, truck maker Oshkosh, and Humvee manufacturer AM General to develop alternatives for a new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV).

The military wants the JLTV to combine the offroad mobility of an unarmored Humvee with the protection against mines and roadside bombs of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) trucks. It’s hard to demonstrate protection to reporters without trying to blow them up, but on Wednesday — just hours before the award announcement — Oshkosh Corp. demonstrated the mobility of its JLTV candidate, which the company calls the L-ATV, by giving reporters a ride.

The hills beyond the runway at the Stafford Regional Airport, south of Washington, weren’t as tough a test as some the Oshkosh L-ATV has undergone — one prototype completed the 1,061-mile “Baja 1000″ race across the Mexican desert — but it was enough to demonstrate how much smoother the ride was than in earlier-generation military vehicles.

There were six different teams contending to build the JLTV, of which the military awarded Oshkosh, defense giant Lockheed Martin, and Humvee maker AM General $56-$65 million contracts to proceed to the next phase, engineering and manufacturing development (EMD). In this crowded field, Oshkosh sees its patented “TAK-4i” independent suspension as one of their major selling points: The better the suspension, the faster the vehicle can cross any particular piece of rough terrain without shaking its occupants into insensibility.

Oshkosh executives boast their L-ATV’s lighter weight and improved suspension make it about 70 percent faster cross-country than the M-ATVs — also built by Oshkosh — that are the current force’s most mobile armored trucks in Afghanistan. Chief engineer Rob Messina told reporters that, running the two vehicles over the same cross-country stretch, “an M-ATV on a given course can go around twenty miles an hour; the [L-ATV] can go around thirty miles an hour.”

Being lighter than the M-ATVs and MRAPs also makes the JLTV more fuel-efficient, which simplifies supply, and easier to transport abroad, a major consideration for post-Afghanistan contingencies in warzones where the US may not have easy access to seaports and airbases.

The L-ATV is visibly smaller than its M-ATV big brother when parked side by side (see the photo gallery above) and weighs roughly half as much, depending on the particular armor package chosen –but it is just as well protected, Oshkosh executives insist. How is that possible? It’s simply the benefit of experience, Oshkosh says. M-ATV was a major improvement in mobility over the much heavier MRAPs that preceded it, but it was also designed in a rush, leaving plenty of room for refinement.

“We rapidly designed the M-ATV to react to a specific threat in theater, under an urgent requirement,” said John Bryant, Oshkosh’s general manager for all joint and Marine Corps programs, in a conversation with reporters. “Within a matter of just a few months we designed and tested a vehicle and within another few months we were building a thousand per month. That vehicle has now been in theater for a few years, [and] we’ve been learning from it.”

Pre-9/11 military trucks like the Humvee weren’t designed with protection in mind at all, so they required add-on up-armor kits that were relatively inefficient in the protection they provided per pound. MRAPs were made with built-in armor, high suspensions, and specially shaped crew compartments to deflect the blast, but keeping weight down was a distinctly secondary consideration in their design. For JLTV, Oshkosh and its competitors got to start with a blank slate and rethink every component in terms of cost, weight, and protection.

“Everything in the vehicle, every single component from the ground up, is actually designed with an eye towards its contribution to survivability,” Bryant told Breaking Defense. “Everything from the armor itself to how the floor behaves, the mats, the blast seats, the structure of the vehicle.”

Oshkosh is in a unique position among the contenders on JLTV, at once insider and outsider. Insider, because Oshkosh makes the M-ATV, the vehicle in the current force that comes closer to any other to the balance of protection and mobility the military wants from the JLTV. Outsider, because Oshkosh was not one of the three contenders that received a “technology development” (TD) contract from the government in 2008: Those went to teams led by Lockheed Martin, BAE, and General Dynamics — of which only Lockheed received a contract for the EMD phase on Wednesday.

Lockheed executives vaunted those successive wins in a call with reporters this morning: “The vehicle we take into EMD is the same vehicle we’ve had from day one,” said vice-president for ground vehicles Scott Greene. “That’s the beauty of going from the TD phase to the EMD phase, we’ve had continuity.” The TD contract let Lockheed prove in government testing that their vehicle met requirements for cost, protection, and mobility, he said, and allowed them to refine the design both by reducing weight and eliminating expensive materials such as titanium. With victories in both TD and EMD, Lockheed argues it’s now poised to take the hat trick: Said Greene, “we think we’re in an extremely good position to earn the production piece of this contract.”

By contrast, the other two EMD award winners, Oshkosh and AM General, had developed their JLTV contenders on their own, outside the official technology development program.

AM General was in the peculiar position of participating in two bids: the solo effort that won the EMD award, developed with over $100 million of the company’s own money, and a team effort with General Dynamics that had won a $45 million government TD contract in 2008 but lost out on an EMD award yesterday. Both bids drew on the company’s two decades of experience building, upgrading, and uparmoring the Humvee, but the employees working on them are still not being allowed to share information, said AM General vice-president Christopher Vanslager: “We’re actually still firewalled right now.”

Oshkosh had not gotten a technology development award from the government at all. “I think it helps us,” Oshkosh JLTV director Dave Diersen told reporters when asked if not having a TD contract hurt their chances. “What it allowed us to do was not be bound by the government contracts they were doing in the TD phase.”

The result, added Bryant, was “a more rapid, commercial-like development process.”

Oshkosh says its L-ATVs have driven about 30,000 miles to date. “Our L-ATV is a mature platform,” Bryant told Breaking Defense. “It’s a system that’s ready to go into low-rate production right now.” Lockheed, meanwhile, boasts over 160,000 miles, combining both their own testing and the government’s. AM General claims a staggering 300,000. (Apples to apples comparisons between programs are tricky, though, because some count the miles accrued by a longer series of prototypes than others).

All three firms expressed confidence that they could beat the government’s cost target of about $250,000 per vehicle. Proving that will be a big part of the EMD phase.

So what’s next? The three winners have twelve months to provide the government twenty vehicles apiece for an extensive test program. (More vehicles will follow in the 13th and 14th month). Since the companies have to put 1,000 miles of their own testing on those vehicles before delivering to the government, however, “in order to deliver vehicles in 12 months, we have to have them built in roughly nine months,” said Lockheed JLTV director Kathryn Hasse. “We’ve got to order our long-lead items today.” Then, in August 2013, the Army and Marines will start putting the contenders through their paces, with a production contact likely — if the budget doesn’t implode first — by early 2015.