The State Department’s New Armored Vehicle Is on Another Level

(Courtesy of General Motors)

There are many reasons to take pride in being a Marine, but getting the latest gear and gadgets is generally not one of them. On the rare occasion that Marines get to ride from Point A to Point B instead of walking, it means piling into a Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement, Cougar, or Humvee that’s seen years (or even decades) of hard use. But a select few – the Marines assigned to Marine Security Guard – get access to a fleet of luxury SUVs built specifically for the U.S. Department of State.

Traveling around foreign cities in a State Department vehicle is one of the perks of embassy duty, and it’s a big step up from getting rattled to pieces in a clapped-out, seven-ton truck. U.S. embassies have traditionally been home to tricked-out Toyotas, but General Motors won the contract in 2023. What’s coming next is a big departure from modified Land Cruisers, and we have all the details.

Out with the Old State Department Vehicles

The Marines with the Marine Security Guard Detachment at U.S. Embassy Quito, Ecuador, park their muddy cars after spending the day off-roading at the Rancho Espin.
The Marines with the Marine Security Guard Detachment at U.S. Embassy Quito, Ecuador, park their muddy cars after spending the day off-roading at the Rancho Espin on July 8, 2022. (2nd Lt. Anne Pentaleri/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

The people who work at U.S. embassies perform a wide range of jobs, and the vehicles they require are just as varied. According to the State Department’s archival website, three categories of vehicles are used by embassy staff: armored vehicles, passenger vehicles and functional vehicles.

The armored SUVs that transport ambassadors are the most famous of the three, but there may only be one at some posts. These are reserved for ambassadors, mission chiefs and the post’s Marine Security Guard.

Passenger vehicles are far more common. Before purchasing fleet vehicles, the State Department considers factors such as local threats, driving conditions and availability of public transportation.

Functional vehicles fill site-specific needs. These include water trucks, emergency vehicles and even scissor lifts.

State Department records show that, in 2015, only 60 of 11,662 vehicles qualified as ambassador limousines. Another 4,691 were SUVs, 2,101 were vans and 2,032 were pickup trucks.

The most specialized vehicles have always been assigned to the ambassador position (State Department vehicles belong to positions, not people). For decades, the Toyota Land Cruiser has been a popular choice because of its sterling reliability record, capable off-road performance, and luxurious interior. The State Department signed fleet contracts with Toyota as recently as 2021 when it purchased 229 armored Land Cruisers for overseas use.

As good as these Toyotas are, there is one glaring problem: They were never intended to survive a gunfight. To solve this, the State Department worked with contractors such as Battelle to transform passenger vehicles into combat-ready trucks. They added armor and bulletproof glass to protect the people inside, which added huge amounts of weight. The suspension, engine and brakes of each vehicle had to be upgraded to handle the load, which was neither cheap nor easily done.

Uncle Sam’s Land Cruisers performed admirably, but the cost of buying already expensive SUVs and immediately rebuilding them wasn’t sustainable. There is a better way, and you only have to look to Detroit to find it.

Meet the Next Generation of Armored SUVs

General Motors' Heavy-Duty SUV
General Motors' Heavy-Duty SUV. (Photo courtesy of GM)

The State Department and GM Defense agreed to a contract for the specialized Heavy-Duty SUV (HD-SUV) in 2023. The initial task order is valued at $25 million, but the project’s ceiling is $300 million.

“This is a very important program for GM Defense as it showcases our ability to leverage the proven commercial platforms and world-class engineering and manufacturing processes of GM to provide a first-of-its-kind vehicle for the Department of State,” Steve duMont, the president of GM Defense, said in a statement.

Instead of modifying existing vehicles, the defense branch of GM builds the HD-SUV as an armored truck from the ground up in collaboration with Jankel, a UK-based company that specializes in armored military and security vehicles.

The HD-SUV is based on the Chevrolet Suburban. In addition to armor and bulletproof glass, its spec sheet lists mechanical upgrades pulled from the brand’s 2500 and 3500 trucks. These include a 6.2-liter V8 engine, heavy-duty suspension, heavy-duty power steering, a more powerful alternator and a heavy-duty air filter.

Interestingly, many of Chevrolet’s safety features are not available on the HD-SUV. Automatic emergency braking, front pedestrian braking, rear automatic braking, lane-change alert, lane-keeping assistance, rear cross-traffic alert and rear pedestrian alert are all disabled on the vehicle. That makes sense, given that drivers may need to force their way through barriers or hostile crowds.

During product development and testing, the HD-SUV made a name for itself by outperforming up-armored passenger vehicles currently in use.

“The prototype vehicle had good acceleration, handled better in the turns, and the heavy-duty anti-lock braking system was far superior to our aftermarket vehicles,” Gentry Smith, the State Department’s assistant secretary for diplomatic security, said following a demonstration. “You could really feel the stability and performance in the redesigned chassis.” 

“The HD-SUV represents a new cost-effective era in the design and building of these badly needed vehicles to help us carry out our mission to ensure the safe and secure conduct of foreign policy in some of our most challenging and dangerous posts,” he added.

(Photo courtesy of the State Department)

Sound familiar? The HD-SUV is just now entering production, but this isn’t GM’s first foray into the world of armored vehicles. This is the same company that built the current presidential limousine. Cadillac 1, affectionately known as the Beast, is less of a limousine and more of a rolling vault. According to Business Insider, it has a heavy-duty truck chassis, a full suite of armor and bulletproof glass, night vision, tear gas cannons and an internal oxygen supply for the hermetically sealed cabin.

If GM Defense is up to the task of protecting the president and a Secret Service detail, surely the same engineers can build an armored vehicle for embassy staff.

Mission Briefing

A U.S. Marine Security Guard (MSG) watch stander provides security while standing post on the roof of the U.S. Embassy, Bamako, Mali.
A U.S. Marine Security Guard (MSG) watch stander provides security while standing post on the roof of the U.S. Embassy, Bamako, Mali, Aug. 29, 2016. (Staff Sgt. Sarah R. Hickory/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

The U.S. Department of State is one of the federal government’s most influential and farthest-reaching departments, with its personnel conducting diplomacy, human rights initiatives and immigration services around the world. According to the immigration lawyers at VisaPlace, the U.S. operates 173 embassies and 88 consulates abroad. Posts range from the incredibly posh embassies in France and Casablanca to high-risk locations, such as the consulate in Libya whose 2012 attack inspired the movie “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.”

That kind of mission variation requires the best road-going vehicles available. The GM Defense HD-SUV is imposing but classy. The glossy black exterior is appropriate for a diplomat, but the hidden armor and truck components are ready for combat. It’s just as suitable for cruising down the Autobahn as it is for shrugging off small-arms fire in a war zone.

Can I Buy One of These?

All gear eventually reaches the end of its serviceable life, and sometimes that means we can score a deal on retired equipment.

Occasionally, the State Department hands off old vehicles as gifts to host nations. That’s how the Namibia Nature Foundation ended up with a pair of Land Cruisers straight out of the American embassy’s garage.

Other vehicles end up on the auction block. You might get a screaming deal on a State Department 200-series Land Cruiser -- but only if you’re willing to travel to Tajikistan to get it.

The GM Defense contract is brand new, so it will be years before anyone gets a crack at purchasing one of the new armored Suburbans at auction. You’ll be equipped with information when the time comes, though, and there’s still time to join the Marine Corps, earn Marine Security Guard orders and test-drive one for yourself.

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