The Marine Corps's current Amphibious Assault Vehicle, the 1970s-vintage AAV-7.

The Marine Corps’s current Amphibious Assault Vehicle, the 1970s-vintage AAV-7.

Imagine you’re a military supply officer, weary but proud as you watch the train you’ve laboriously loaded with gear roll out of the depot towards the front. And then you realize: You packed the wrong tank. Now you need to get that vehicle off and the right vehicle on — while the train’s already leaving the station.

Stressed yet?

That’s how the Marines must feel right now as they scramble to shift funding in a fiscal 2015 budget request that’s due out March 4. Specifically, they need to reallocate, repurpose, or at least rename funds currently budgeted for their ambitious Amphibious Combat Vehicle, which they’ve had to postpone, and transfer them to a more modest Marine Personnel Carrier designed to meet the service’s immediate needs.

The agony is that the Amphibious Combat Vehicle was, until last month, the Marine Corps’ top-priority program, the holy grail of a 25-year quest to replace slow and vulnerable 1970s-vintage AAV-7 amphibious transports. The irony is that just last year, the Marines effectively killed the Marine Personnel Carrier, explicitly to free up funding for the ACV. Just weeks ago, however, Marine Corps Commandant James Amos decided he had to reverse course, postponing ACV indefinitely while reviving MPC as a quick and partial fix– after the Marines had already submitted their 2015 budget.

Whatever’s in the name, the new vehicle will not be the rose the Marines had long hoped would bloom. It will be something much more limited — but one that is much more achievable. And, as the commandant himself has said, the military is now in an era of “good enough.”

Gen. Amos has spent his entire term making painful choices about the Marine Corps’ top priority: a new, faster, and better-armored amphibious troop transport to carry riflemen from ship to shore and then drive on inland. That’s a mission currently performed by vulnerable 1970s-vintage Amphibious Assault Vehicles called AAV-7s (formerly LVTP-7s), which direly need replacing. But with that replacement, the ACV, on hold, the Marines need to fund something else fast: The Marine Personnel Carrier.

“This decision was made almost the day after the Marines submitted their budget,” one knowledgeable defense official told me, on condition of anonymity because of the “angst inside the Marine Corps” over the matter. “There’s all kinds of things you have to do to restart, [but] the money problem is our biggest issue right now.”

“Both the bureaucracy in the Department and on the Hill appear to be supportive,” he went on. At this late stage, it’s far from easy to “go through all the bureaucracy, the political wickets, to see if we’re capable of shifting this money from ACV into what was MPC.”

That said, “I think you won’t ever see it called MPC,” the source went on. “Instead, “you may hear it called ‘ACV phase 1′” — even though it won’t actually be a fully amphibious Amphibious Combat Vehicle capable of transporting Marines from ship to shore.

The Marines’ first attempt at the replacement was a kind of water-skiing tank called the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. But EFV grew so complex and costly that then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cancelled it in 2011, just months after Amos became commandant. Back then, Amos vowed he’d be driving a new, more modest, and more affordable Amphibious Combat Vehicle (if only in prototype) by the time he finished his term as top Marine — which is later this year.

But Gen. Amos recently reviewed the service’s in-depth studies one last time and decided that budgets were too tight and the technology too immature to develop an ACV that had the desired performance both on water and on land. Instead, he announced a two-phase approach: The service will buy some kind of interim vehicle to supplement the aging AAVs in the near term while it continues development on a future vehicle that combines high water speed with onshore fighting power at an affordable cost.

Now it turns out that phase one will be a revived — and probably renamed — Marine Personnel Carrier.

The Marine Personnel Carrier is not and was never meant to be a substitute for the Amphibious Combat Vehicle. The Marines had in fact originally planned to buy both as complementary vehicles for different missions. In the first wave, a limited number of expensive, fully amphibious vehicles — originally EFVs, then ACVs — would carry a spearhead force from ship to shore and on inland. Later, as reinforcements, a larger number of cheaper Marine Personnel Carriers would arrive to transport troops who didn’t have ACVs. The MPC would need some amphibious capability, but only enough to cross rivers and other water obstacles common in coastal zones, not enough to cross the miles of sea from an amphibious ship to the beach. Instead, the Marine Personnel Carrier would have to be itself carried ashore on some kind of landing craft.

As budgets tightened, however, the Marines decided the fully amphibious ACV had to be their urgent priority and zeroed out the funding for the more limited MPC. After all, they reasoned, there are plenty of armored, wheeled troop transports on sale for reasonable prices from companies around the world: When we finally can spare the cash, we can easily buy one off the shelf.

But the budget kept getting smaller at the same time as the ACV’s technical challenges kept looking bigger. Meanwhile, MPC trials held last summer showed that wheeled armored personnel carriers “have come a long way” in the amount of protection and mobility they can provide, the defense official said. So while the MPC vehicles can’t solve the whole problem, they can solve a big piece of it — and you can buy them now.

In the long term, of course, the Marines still want a way to move swiftly over long distances from ship to shore. That’s what Amos’s Phase 2 is all about. But when and what will it be?

That’s wide open, the defense official told me. In fact, he said, “I’m not so sure that second phase means a high-speed amphibious vehicle” — the goal the Marines have been pursuing since at least 1988.

“A lot of Marine senior leaders [think] we may just have been chasing the wrong vehicle,” he said. That faction is “by no means the majority,” he made clear. But the cancellation of the EFV in 2011 and the indefinite delay of the ACV this year have convinced at least part of the Marine Corps that they’ve gone down a technological and budgetary dead end.

Instead of a single vehicle that both moves at high speed across the surface of the water and fights on land, there’s a new openness to a two-piece solution: say, for example, a troop-carrier optimized to operate on the land, with limited amphibious capability to wade through rivers and surf, and a high-speed watercraft to bring that land vehicle to the beach, or at least close enough to dog-paddle there.

In the meantime, the Marines really want to get going on the new Marine Personnel Carrier. “The ’15 budget is critical to allow [it] to get started,” the official told me. “Even if we started in ’15,” he added, the time to hold a proper competition and evaluation and then start buying in quantity would mean “the Marine Corps doesn’t see operational quantities of those vehicles until fiscal year ’20 or ’21.”

What about the future high-water-speed solution, Amos’s Phase 2? “Honestly, I couldn’t even begin to figure out the timeline for that,” the official said.

Comments

  • Don Bacon

    Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture, and it’s called Sea Basing. It was laid out in 2005 here(pdf). On page 45 this study addresses high-speed surface connectors (HSC), a critical Sea Basing enabler, and what they might carry.

    High Speed Connector – Enabler #2
    Threshold capabilities:
    • > 30 kts, 2000 nm loaded [!!!]
    One of the tactical intra-theater roles for the HSC would be that of a transporter of loaded LCAC vehicles between the Sea Base and the shore area (i.e. a fast “flatbed truck”).

    General Amos has expounded on that a couple times, here.

    Amos insisted the Corps needs a vehicle that can “haul a lot of stuff” and “can move at high speed. He would like the vehicle to travel at 35 to 40 knots.
    “What we need is to change the paradigm,” he said. “We think of connectors as something you carry in the bowels of an amphibious ship. We’re going to need that, I’m not saying we don’t need that.” He suggested future connectors could be folded and stacked on the deck of a ship.

    and here.

    Q: What about sea-based operations, ship-to-shore movement? Is that still relevant to the Marine Corps?

    A: It’s more relevant today than it ever has been. If something bad happens around the world, you may not have access to airports. The only way you may be able to come in is by the sea. And we are less and less welcome to come ashore on even our allies’ lands and build bases or occupy land on their sovereign soil. Because of the Internet, they can see pictures of U.S. forces on their land. Some like it, some don’t. You can operate from sea with a very small footprint, stepping lightly on your friends. You can come in, train with your allies, and it becomes almost transparent to the population.

    Operating from a sea base is the way to go. What we need are more ships.

    There’s your Phase 2. (The JHSV isn’t designed for servicing sea basing.)

  • CharleyA

    Let’s just say that USMC spending has been focused on expensive solutions for the aviation side of the house, at the expense of other needs.

  • Gary Church

    WHEELS? What a pathetic disgusting joke.

    • Gary Church

      God that makes me upset. The Marines deserve better.

  • bridgebuilder78

    How about this, let’s license some existing designs from the Chinese. Not only will we save a bundle but also get the capabilities the Marines really want but couldn’t afford.

    So here are the Chinese designs we can license to replace the EFV, the ACV, and the MPC.

    1) The ZBD-2000 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZBD2000). This is a good substitute for the failed EFV. Planing hull, check; water jets, check; fully stabilized firing platform, check.

    2) The ZBD-97 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZBD-97). A great substitute for the ACV, with much greater firepower, a better FCS, and a swim speed 50% faster than the AAV.

    3) The ZBD-09 (http://tinyurl.com/ls3k9rw). An awesome substitute for the MPC. V-shaped hull, check; fully amphibious, check; composite applique armor, check; fully stabilized firing platform, check.

    Look at it this way: it’s Chinese money we are spending anyway, might as well show them that we appreciate their financial support.

    • Slim1833

      None of those vehicles can manipulate a surf zone like the
      current AAV. I have been working with
      the AAV community for 15 years and I assure you that it is unique in its
      capability. Crossing a river or lake is
      much different than going through a surf zone with six foot plunging surf. Even the Marine Corps LAV cannot perform that
      task much less some want-to-be BMP that the Chinese are building. I have had the pleasure of operating the BMP
      and have crawled all over other communist platforms. I know there is no way in hell I would take
      them into combat they are very poorly built and are designed to be built in
      numbers, not quality.

  • Dukes

    We could have already fielded the F-35…had not the Marine Corps insisted on cramming in a lift fan. Why? To create a capability that’s never been needed (except to justify a fleet of amphibs).
    For the cost of the EFV, UH-1Y, and V-22 if the Marine Corps could have purchased thousands of UH-60s…a capable and cost-effective alternative.

    Are we ever again going to conduct an opposed amphibious assault? Is anyone still buying the story that the Marine Corps is a penny pinching, cost effective service? The answer to both: I hope not.

    • Gary Church

      Well, the problem is the thousands of Marines who are going to be riding in that wheeled piece of junk. Will they conduct an opposed landing? If they do then I want them under heavy armor. The problem is a 60 ton heavily armored troop transport is not going to float, let alone go 40 mph like a speedboat. Physics is at work here. We managed it quite well over half a century ago.

      • Gary Church

        The problem is they want an amphibious vehicle and they want it cheap. There is no cheap. There is no substitute for heavy armor and a heavily armored fully tracked troop transport cannot be made into a speedboat. What carries them onto the beach might go fast and be armored; but that will cost more money. They already built hovercraft to do this but they are not armored of course and cannot be up-armored.

    • Gary Church

      The most cost effective helicopter in service first flew in 1961. Making it as old as I am! The Chinook never had a great rep but after the D model it finally became more reliable and now it is the helicopter that carries the number of troops needed and fewer troops higher up and has air refueling ability in some models. Like the C-130 it has survived well and with alterations for a marine environment IMO it would work for the Corps. It carries about twice as many troops for half the price of an Osprey. Of course there is wailing and gnashing of teeth when I suggest this. And unless the V-22’s start dropping like flies (I DO NOT want that to happen) and there is such a cry throughout the land that they are…retired- it is impossible to hope for.

    • Mark T Davis

      Ah, sounds like an Army supporter who wants the measuring stick removed.

  • ziggy1988

    Great idea. But I believe it is questionable whether amphibious assaults are feasible at all today.

    • Gary Church

      No question about it z, if the coast is defended with missiles then we will not go near it. But the Marines still use those vehicles on land. And wheels are completely inferior to anything with tracks.

  • Mark T Davis

    The root of our problem lies in the fact that our Commandant is an aviator.

  • james haney

    they used to have ships called landing ship tanks ( LST ) designed to carry vehicles to shore and using a bow ramp unload. All are retired and seen in the movie Pearl Harbor rusting at anchor. The Amtrac is very slow on water and can travel through 9 foot of surf. As shown in the gulf wars were 24 marines died inside one that was struck by a cheap RPG fired into the troop compartment it is not safe haven on the battlefield. Having traveled on the LVT 5 in Vietnam where mines would cause them to have the floor mounted fuel cells explode forcing the Marines to ride on top. To the LVT 7 which addressed the front ramp issue but built of aluminum alloy which would burn like the M-113 and shatter in a collision with the ship.

  • Chuck Hobbs

    How many billions spent on new, underused aircraft (F-22, F-117, etc) vice the pittance spent on ground vehicles?
    Hopefully we will never need to use a fully amphibious combat vehicle in full out amphibious assault (again), but come the day we do and don’t have them…..

  • bonavajo

    As a retired vietnam viet officer & a post vietnam era officer I have lived through this kind of “stuff” before in large part do to our democratic congress of the 70’s and the peanut picker from plains ga. It took us Ronald Reagan and all of the 80’s to recover from their cuts in defense. Mr. O and the democrats have done it again. We need to be building up our military by cutting the necessary funds from other departments of the government.