Marines: USMC Hits The Wall

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April 1, 2011: With cancellation of the U.S. Marine Corps new amphibious EFV (Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle) last January, the marines are hustling to come up with a replacement. The most immediate solution is refurbishment of some of the current 1,057 AAV7s. These vehicles entered service three decades ago and are falling apart. Moreover, some two thirds of the AAV7s saw service in Iraq, where they got as much use in two months as they normally did in two years of peacetime operations. Most AAV7s are already scheduled for refurbishing, so they can still be used until the end of the decade, or whenever a permanent replacement can be found.

The two replacement projects are quite different. The MPC (Marine Personnel Carrier) is a $4.5 million wheeled, amphibious armored vehicle. This would be similar to the Stryker, but a bit larger and modified for amphibious operations. The $12 million Amphibious Combat Vehicle is the EFV without all the expensive stuff that didn't work. In effect, the ACV will be a 21st century version of the AAV7, optimized to pass all its development tests and get into service as quickly as possible. The marines do not want to be reminded of the EFV.

The cancelled EFV ended up costing over ten times as much as the $2.5 million AAV7 (taking inflation into account). The marines apparently felt they could get by with half as many amphibious armored vehicles because future wars are likely to be more dependent on delivering troops by air, or moving them around in armored hummers. While there was some thought of dispensing entirely with vehicles like this, which were first used in 1943, once the existing AAV7s are retired (before the end of the decade), more traditionalist minds prevailed. That may change, especially since the cheaper MPC is more likely to survive the budget battles than the ACV.

The EFV has been threatened with cancellation for several years, mainly because the vehicle was too expensive and didn't work. Well, parts of it worked. A year ago, tests revealed that the EFV had similar survivability characteristics to MRAPs, when hit with roadside bombs or anti-vehicle mines. The EFV needed all the good news it could get, but marines were already using MRAPs in Afghanistan, and are quite happy with them. What they don't really need, and may never need, is a high speed (in the water) armored vehicle that can cross 50 kilometers of open water to assault a defended beach. There has been no need for that since 1950.

For the last three years, the EFV developers have been making changes in the electronics, waterproofing of electrical elements, the gun turret and the stabilizers (for when it is moving in the water), trying to get the vehicle approved for production. Seven new EFV prototypes were built, for another round of tests. Those tests were still underway when the EFV was cancelled, and the plan was to begin production next year. But large numbers of the new vehicle would not reach marines for another seven years. Under the original plan, the EFV was to enter service three years ago, and cost less than half its current price.

The new prototypes were the result of Congress refusing to provide money for mass production until reliability and protection (against roadside bombs) issues were taken care of. Three years ago, existing prototype EFVs had one failure, on average, for every 4.5 hours of operation. The marines insisted they had fixed the reliability and protection issues, and this persuaded Congress to provide money to build seven of the modified EFVs to confirm that. The bomb resistance tests were a success. But there are a lot more things the EFV has to do right. But in the end, it was the sheer expense of the vehicle. The marines can't afford the EFV, which would cost $16 billion (for 573 of them). That comes to $29 million each, including all the development cost, making each EFV costing more than four times what the most recent model M-1 tank does.

The EFV was previously called the AAAV (Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle). Weighing nearly 36 tons, the EFV is 3.4 meters (10.5 feet) tall, 3.9 meters (12 feet) wide and just under 10 meters (30 feet) long. It's armed with a 30mm automatic cannon (MK34 Bushmaster) and a 7.62 mm co-axial machine gun. The EFV also has better armor protection and electronics than the AAV7 it replaces. The EFV is about 25 percent heavier than the AAV7, and somewhat larger.

The EFV has been in development for over a decade, and has been delayed largely because of a complex water-jet propulsion system which, when it works, allows it to travel at 60 kilometers an hour while in the water. This capability was specified to reduce the danger (from enemy fire) when the EFVs were moving from their transports to shore, a distance of 30-50 kilometers. The additional gear required for the water jet system made the vehicle less robust and reliable, and fixing those problems has taken a lot of time. Otherwise, the EFV is basically a truly amphibious Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), similar to the army's smaller M-2 Bradley. The EFV has a crew of three, and carries 18 passengers.

In retrospect, the marines could have just built the ACV, using mature technologies and staying away from the high speed (and high tech) water jet system that provided a capability that was not really critical. But that's hindsight. Lesson, hopefully, learned. But with much tighter budgets looming, the marines may run out of money, not patience, this time around. The proposed ACV is also very expensive, and the MPC is not as capable (for amphibious operations) as the current AAV7. All they may end up with is some refurbished AAA7s, and maybe not many of those either. The budget situation is grim, leaving the usually unstoppable Marine Corps running into an immovable object.

 


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