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Phantom Badger, reporting for duty

About the author

Editor of BBC Autos, Matthew is a former editor at Automobile Magazine and the creator of the digital-only Roadtrip Magazine. His automotive and travel writing has appeared in such magazines as Wired, Popular Science, The Robb Report and Caribbean Travel + Life. He lives in Los Angeles with his wonderful wife and four-year-old daughter.

 

The Willys MB – better known as the original jeep – was a game-changer during World War II. Small, agile, versatile and durable, jeeps were easy to deploy, easy to operate and easy to maintain, making them perhaps the Allies’ most important battlefield equipment. More than 70 years later, US aircraft maker and defence supplier Boeing has revisited the original jeep’s winning formula in a stocky little bruiser of a car called the Phantom Badger.

Like the MB, the Phantom Badger is compact – just 60 inches wide – and, with four-wheel steering, it is highly manoeuverable. The setup gives the vehicle a turning circle of just 24ft – fully 10ft tighter than a Mini Cooper’s. Such agility is particularly valuable in urban environments, where the ability to make tight turns and slip through narrow alleys can change the outcome of a battle.

And like the original jeep, which employed a version of the Go Devil L-head engine from Willys’ civilian Americar line, the Phantom Badger makes use of the 3-litre turbo-diesel V6 from the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The engine – which can run on JP-8 jet fuel as well as diesel – produces 240 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, sufficient to enable the four-wheel-drive Badger to reach a breezy 80mph on paved surfaces.

In designing the Phantom Badger, amid the usual military concerns for battlefield capability and occupant protection, Boeing remained conscious of such factors as mechanical simplicity, global parts availability and field serviceability. So the vehicle is light on expensive futuristic technology, and heavy on proven, commercially available hardware. It embodies, says Boeing spokesman Garrett Kasper, “the best of what’s out there today – tires, lug nuts, seatbelts, you name it.”

And the PB is more than merely tough; it is transportable. On 8 April, after a series of torture tests that included form-fit checks, pressure trials and structural evaluations, the US Navy officially certified the Phantom Badger for transport in the belly of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft – a big step toward actual deployment with the US Marine Corps and US Air Force Special Operations, both of which already operate the Osprey.

Boeing Phantom Badger

(Boeing Defense, Space & Security)

With the vertical takeoff and landing capability of a helicopter and the speed and range of a traditional turboprop aircraft, the Osprey can deliver cargo to tight spaces and hostile environments and get out quickly. (The current record for off-loading a Badger is just 17 seconds.) The Osprey first flew in 1989 and has known its share of troubles over the years – including a swollen budget and some highly publicised crashes. But it has since proven its mettle in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on humanitarian missions, including the delivery of relief supplies after Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in November 2013. But the arrival of the Phantom Badger gives the 30-year-old aircraft a whole new lease on life.

“There was always an intention to have a dynamic payload [i.e., a vehicle] for the Osprey,” says Kasper, “but the aircraft presented certain challenges, including weight and space restrictions, and a 40-degree break-over angle.” The Osprey’s cuboid cargo hold defined the Badger’s shape and size, and the Badger’s height-adjustable suspension and 35in tires manage the Osprey’s ramp break-over. Hero, meet sidekick.

And the Osprey is merely the smallest aircraft that can accommodate a Phantom Badger. The C-130 cargo aircraft and CH-47 Chinook helicopter hold two apiece, and the mighty C-17 transport can swallow 10 of them. (Any one of these options is a major upgrade from the big, slow Waco CG-4 gliders that delivered jeeps and other heavy loads to the front line during World War II.)

Boeing Phantom Badger

(Boeing Defense, Space & Security)

The Badger’s real trick is its extraordinary versatility. The vehicle is designed to accommodate a variety of mission-specific rear modules. Boeing has designed 10 so far, including packages for reconnaissance, combat search and rescue, casualty transport and explosive ordnance disposal, along with mounts for such weapons as a .50-caliber machine gun and a 40mm automatic grenade launcher. Modules attach to the Badger body with six bolts at six connection points, and are interchangeable in the field in 30min or less.

Not a company known for its four-wheeled conveyances, Boeing created the Phantom Badger with the aide of North Carolina-based MSI Defense Solutions. The process, from first computer design to running prototype, took only six months. MSI applied its expertise in off-road racing, Nascar and Formula 1 to develop the Badger's suspension and four-wheel-steering systems, and is presently handling the design and fabrication of the interchangeable mission modules.

The Phantom Badger is tough, but it is no armoured personnel carrier. It was designed primarily for expeditionary missions, where speed and maneuverability matter – just like the original Jeep. And like its heroic grandfather, the Phantom Badger will be a game-changer on the modern battlefield, able to go places and do things the outsize Hummer never could. 

Boeing Phantom Badger

(Boeing Defense, Space & Security)

Although contracts with the US Department of Defense and other governments are in the works, Boeing has plans for the Phantom Badger that extend beyond the battlefield. The vehicle lends itself to fire-fighting, law enforcement, search and rescue and other applications. And how about a civilian version?  “Absolutely, yes,” says John Chicoli, Boeing’s Phantom Badger program manager. “It is a commercial vehicle, and Boeing will gladly have a discussion with anyone is interested in purchasing Phantom Badgers for their collection or personal use.” For now, however, Badger pricing remains classified.

Grandpa jeep would be proud.

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