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DETROIT — General Motors plans to establish a new defense industry unit as it seeks to grow its business with the U.S. military, Automotive News has learned.

The company said last week it is holding talks with the U.S. Army about adopting the company's new hydrogen fuel cell platform for military use, and has other defense projects in the works.

GM Defense LLC is expected to become part of the company's Global Product Development organization, marking a major return to defense work after selling a previous defense unit to General Dynamics Corp. for $1.1 billion in 2003. Anticipating needs

The operations, according to officials, will be focused on "helping GM better anticipate and react to the diverse needs of global aerospace and defense customers."

Freese: Simpler to do business

"This new business structure will enhance GM's productivity, agility and affordability in a very dynamic customer environment," said Charlie Freese, executive director of GM Global Fuel Cell Business, in an emailed statement to Automotive News. "Our goal is to make it simpler and more seamless to do business with General Motors."

Freese will oversee GM Defense as part of Global Product Development, which is led by Mark Reuss, GM vice president of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain. The company has not determined where the defense unit will be based, said GM spokeswoman Elizabeth Winter.

GM currently provides powertrain components such as engines and transmissions to the military, but of late it has expanded its potential military offerings. The automaker has at least three hydrogen fuel cell products under evaluation by U.S. military divisions, including the new commercial platform with autonomous capabilities.

GM said last week that it is in discussions with the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center about the Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure (SURUS) platform. The company said SURUS could be "a next step of the broader collaboration to evaluate fuel cell technology for future military applications."

Winter declined to disclose details of the discussions.

"The platform is still in development," she wrote in an email. "We do not confirm timings or details of future product."

In addition to the fuel cell-powered, four-wheel concept, the Army has been testing a fuel cell-powered Chevrolet Colorado known as the ZH2 on U.S. bases since April. The U.S. Navy last year also unveiled a GM fuel cell-powered unmanned undersea vehicle for testing.

GM officials say SURUS, based on a heavy-duty truck frame, was designed as a "foundation" for a new generation of commercial vehicles that leverages a single propulsion system integrated into a common chassis. They say it was not specifically designed for military use.

"This is our commercial fuel cell solution that we think will solve real-world, near-term problems," Freese told reporters last week during a preview of SURUS in Warren, Mich.

The platform will be at the meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army this week in Washington, D.C.

Outside of military use, GM is evaluating SURUS for applications such as freight; mobile and emergency backup power generation; light- and medium-duty trucks; and emergency rescue vehicles such as ambulances and others used in disaster-relief efforts.

GM says SURUS leverages the company's newest Hydrotec fuel cell system, which is capable of more than 400 miles of range, as well as autonomous capability and truck chassis components. It's driven by two electric motors. Benefits include quiet and odor-free operation, off-road mobility, field configuration, instantaneous high torque, exportable power generation, water generation and fast refueling.

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