Marines: The USMC Improvises As Best It Can

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February 4, 2014: The U.S. Marine Corps has given up on high-speed (sea skimming) amphibious assault vehicles. Instead it is working on a new Amphibious Combat vehicle (ACV) that will replace the elderly amphibious vehicles they have. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) helped to design the new vehicle. This 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 (the EFV or Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle) to design and develop a high-speed amphibious vehicle and partly because that failure made it clear that some original thinking was required. DARPA quickly did its job, offering multimillion dollar rewards to manufacturers for workable designs that could provide an affordable high speed amphibious vehicle. DARPA apparently told the marines that the high speed capability (which was largely responsible for failed EFV) was still poison and that they best approach was to proceed with a design that did not have to so high speed approaches to shore.  Senior marine commanders have recently admitted as much. 

What was it with the DARPA approach that convinced the marines? For over a decade DARPA has used a 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 was that the marines wanted 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. DARPA provided the marines with conclusive evidence that the high speed was not currently practical.

Back in 2011 the marines cancelled their EFV and have been hustling to come up with a replacement ACV design ever since. Meanwhile, they must extend the life of their thousand AAV7 amphibious armored vehicles. These entered service in the 1970s 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) [PHOTO] 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 per vehicle 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. Before 2011 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 EFV without the high-speed capability. 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 and improvising as best they can.

 


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