To hear Tim Goodette tell it, the origins of the baddest backhoe on the planet can be traced back to a quaint New England bookstore.
“I’ll stick to this story if anybody challenges it,” laughs Goodette, the program executive officer for U.S. Army combat support and combat service support, while discussing the history of this high-speed military earthmover.
Nearly 20 years later, the 1,000th High-Mobility Engineer Excavator (HMEE) has rolled off the assembly line at JCB’s North American headquarters in Savannah, Georgia. Last week, the facility played host to Army and Georgia state officials to not only formally celebrate the milestone, but the men and women who build it as well.
Following the ceremony, which included an outdoor demonstration of the HMEE’s multi-faceted capability, I sat down with JCB and Army officials to discuss the history of the HMEE, the partnership, and what the future holds for both.
Among key details surrounding development of the machine, I learned that there are plans in place to bring new controls and remote operation capability to future HMEE units.
A battle-tested backhoe
Affectionately referred to by soldiers and JCB employees as the HMEE (pronounced HIMEE), the High-Mobility Engineer Excavator is a backhoe unlike any other.
The 17.5-ton machine has a top speed of 60 miles per hour, allowing it to quickly traverse battlefield terrain as part of military convoys, rather than having to be hauled from site to site. As you’d expect, the HMEE has serious off-road chops with a full suspension, four-wheel drive and four-wheel steer. It’s powered by a 6.7-liter Cummins QSB engine, can lift up to 2 tons and has a dig depth of 13 feet.
U.S. and allied troops use the machines to clear roads, remove obstacles and block enemy routes. An armored version is also available, outfitting the backhoe with armored plates and glass when operating in a hostile battlefield environment, or performing removal of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
How HMEE came to be
Goodette says he found the first flicker of inspiration for the HMEE while perusing the reference aisle of a bookstore while waiting on his wife to choose a few books to read while on vacation.
Around that time, Goodette and his team had begun work to replace the Small Emplacement Excavator (SEE), a truck-mounted excavator with a reputation for poor reliability and being underpowered.
“The feedback we were getting back from the site was, we like the 50 mile per hour speed, we love getting to the site quickly, but we’re not as effective as we could be if we got to the site in something that could really perform a construction mission,” Goodette says. “They were in service for well over 30 years before we could wash them out.”
For replacing the SEE, Goodette said the Army wanted a machine that would combine speed, protection and high capability. In addition, the Army needed an earthmoving machine capable of supporting the new Stryker Brigades, combat teams formed around the Stryker, an eight-wheeled armored combat tank.
While flipping through construction and equipment magazines at the bookstore, Goodette spotted the JCB Fastrac, a high-speed agricultural tractor. “It had 30-mph capability,” Goodette said, noting that his team had recently commissioned a 30-mph dozer. “So the vision was could we put (the JCB Fastrac) a commercial-like system, underneath a backhoe and get the kind of capability we were looking for?”
“The up-tempo or the duty cycle of what was envisioned in some of our units was to keep up with the military with the fighting force and not have to put it on a trailer and then go from site to site very quickly and take advantage of a very quick duty cycle,” Goodette explains.
The backhoe was a natural fit for mating the Fastrac drivetrain and suspension to, says Chris Giorgianni, vice president of government and defense at JCB North America. “If you only want to excavate, you want an excavator. If you only want to load you want a loader. If you’re only dealing with palatized loads you might want a forklift,” Girogianni says. “But if you can only have one piece of equipment, irrespective of what the mission is that can get that job done, a backhoe loader, in this case the HMEE, there’s not much that it can’t tackle. It may not be as efficient as some other products out there, but it gives you flexibility.”
In 2005, JCB won the initial $209 million contract to produce 636 HMEEs. It would be three years of development before the first HMEEs would roll off the assembly line.
How HMEE is used on the battlefield today
The current iteration of the HMEE combines the speed and suspension of the Fastrac tractor and JCB’s largest backhoe, the 4CX. More than 900 HMEEs have been delivered to the Army with another 80 in service with nine allied militaries around the world.
In addition to loading and excavating capabilities, the HMEE can be outfitted with a range of attachments, and it can provide power to a wide variety of hand tools including chainsaws, concrete drills, jackhammers and more.
Goodette says HMEEs are placed in units positioned toward the front of the battlefield and provide support of armored and infantry units by digging a fighting position. As you move further back in the battlefield, Goodette says, away from immediate danger and where units are able to safely haul in such machines, you start seeing more traditional construction equipment such as graders, scrapers, loaders and dump trucks.
“The more austere the environment, the more likely you are to see an HMEE,” he says.
Lt. Col. Brian Watson, product manager for the Army’s combat engineer and material handling equipment, says that the HMEE is “universally respected” among soldier operators for its dependability and versatility.
“It’s a multitasking tool. It’s utilized in both kinetic (combat) environments where it provides a level of protection and capability that is very flexible, and also in homeland missions like hurricanes and disaster relief,” he says. “Most recently it was used in Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in response to Hurricane Maria.”
Pushing forward with new capabilities
But just as the partnership between JCB and the Army has spawned another new commissioned military machine in JCB’s portfolio, the 527-58M rough terrain forklift, the two parties say they are committed to continuing development on the successful HMEE, working to expand its capabilities even further.
To that end, JCB is currently developing a new version of the HMEE that will sport both electro-hydraulic controls and support for remote control operation.
“If you look in the commercial space the innovation is a little more ‘natural’ if you will. The unique situation with the Army, is seeing the mission and being able to apply that technical prowess from the commercial space with something like electro-hydraulic control and enhancing its versatility,” Giorgianni says. “And that really helps innovate the product and helps to do other missions within the Army’s portfolio.”
The current HMEEs in the field have mechanical controls which, as Giorgianni notes, require a lot more effort to operate. “With the E/H controls, soldiers won’t be opening up a control valve every time they move the lever,” he says. “It’s a lot more ergonomic environment, so if you’re doing a lot of excavation, or a lot of loading, it’s a lot more comfortable and makes the machine a lot more productive for the operator.”
Watson says that the Army is looking forward to a few added benefits that E/H controls will bring to the machine, including easier operation, reducing the need for training.
“From the Army side, our number one consideration is the readiness of the system,” Watson says. “So, going forward the Army is going to have a very keen eye toward making sure the (HMEE) system is available. E/H controls is state of the art today in the construction world, and it will facilitate making sure that the reliability of the system is increased and that the training overburden is reduced so it becomes an easier machine to use.”
Bryan McVeigh, project manager for force protection at the Army, says the new remote control capability will enhance the HMEE’s IED clearing capabilities and will allow soldiers to operate the machine from a safe distance in dangerous situations.
“The vehicle basically becomes an optionally manned system. In the role of route clearance interrogation, it can move up to where an IED is identified, then I can get the soldier out of the cab and have system control from another vehicle and (remotely operate the machine) up to where the IED has been identified to be able to excavate, clear out and remove the IED without having to have a soldier in harm’s way,” McVeigh explains.
He says the HMEE’s remote op capabilities represent a major milestone for the Army as that branch of the military’s first such program of record. “We’re building the foundations of, as we look at robotics and semi-autonomous capabilities down the road, this is our launching point to move that forward and other robotics systems across the Army in different portfolios,” McVeigh says.
Event capped off with a Dancing Digger performance
At the Thursday event celebrating the production of the 1,000th HMEE, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter spoke, issuing their congratulations and thanks to JCB on the milestone and for bringing manufacturing jobs to their home state.
“This accomplishment is certainly one that very few companies can brag about,” Deal said. “I thank you for that because we are a state that has a rich presence of military installations and military personnel… Our state has a very close relationship with the United States military.”
After an outdoor demonstration of the HMEE, two HMEEs performed with JCB’s Dancing Digger backhoes. You can see video from the performance below. Later in the day, Goodette, Watson and other military officials addressed the employees at the Savannah plant that build the HMEE, thanking them for their service to their military and the country.
Below are more photos from the event.