Marines: American Marines Seeking New Ideas

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May 28, 2013: In April 2013, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awarded a million dollar prize to a three man design team (Team Ground Systems) for proposing the most promising concept for the new Marine Corps Amphibious Combat vehicle (ACV). The winner beat out a thousand other proposals. DARPA is offering another million dollar prize for the best drive train (propulsion system) design and then a two million dollar prize for a complete vehicle design. This approach may sound either very innovative or very desperate, and in reality it is both. In part because the marines recently blew three billion dollars in an unsuccessful attempt to design and develop a high-speed ACV and partly because that failure made it clear that some original thinking was required.  

For over a decade now DARPA has used this competitive (or “crowdsourcing”) approach, especially in several competitions to develop UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles). DARPA has been using this crowdsourcing approach successfully, so the marines saw it as a possible solution to their ACV problem. The basic problem is that the marines insist that the new ACV be able move towards shore at twice the speed of the older AAV7. The inability of the previous EFV design to accomplish that cost the marines three billion dollars and over a decade of development effort.

Two years ago the marines cancelled their EFV (Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle) and have been hustling to come up with a replacement ACV design. Meanwhile, they must extend the life of their current 1,057 AAV7 amphibious armored vehicles. These 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 marines now have two replacement vehicle projects going. 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. This project is proceeding because it is low-risk (in the technology department) and the marines need some kind of armored vehicle to replace AAV7s that are dying of old age. The $12 million ACV is the EFV without most of 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, 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 had been threatened with cancellation for several years, mainly because the vehicle was too expensive and didn't work. Well, parts of it worked. Three years 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.

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

The EFV had been in development for over a decade, and delays were mostly because of a complex water-jet propulsion system which, when it worked, allowed 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 took too much time. Otherwise, the EFV was basically a truly amphibious Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), similar to the army's smaller M-2 Bradley. The EFV had a crew of three and carried 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 AAV7s 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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