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 Demand Grows for Light-Armored Vehicles  

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By Sandra I. Erwin 

The Marine Corps is creating five new light-armored reconnaissance companies and is buying 120 vehicles to equip these units.

The 120 light-armored vehicles, or LAVs, could be delivered as early as 2007, said Col. John Bryant, Marine Corps program manager for the LAV.

The reconnaissance companies, by design, specialize in intelligence collection and security missions, but commanders in Iraq continue to find new ways to employ them, Bryant told military contractors at a conference of the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement in Silver Spring, Md.

"The LAV platform is so versatile that we end up performing a variety of missions," he said. Light armored reconnaissance battalions generally serve as the "eyes and ears for the division commander," Bryant noted. Light armored reconnaissance companies function as the "mobile eyes and ears" for the infantry regiment commander.

"We don't have enough LAR companies," Bryant said. The new five companies will be added to each active-duty battalion, and two will be allocated to the reserve battalion.

The new vehicles are being purchased with war-emergency funds that were appropriated by Congress last year. A bare-bones LAV hull costs about $1 million. A weapons turret ranges from $1.5 million to $2.5 million each.

A purchase agreement for the 120 LAVs was expected in early 2006, said a spokesman for the manufacturer, General Dynamics Land Systems. The vehicles will be delivered about 18 months after the contract is signed.

The Marines operate nearly 900 LAVs of several variants, and at least half the vehicles have been refurbished so they can last until at least 2015. Beyond that, the Marines have not yet decided on a replacement vehicle.

Under a so-called "service life-extension program" that began five years ago, LAVs have received upgraded electronics, control panels, corrosion control features, new tires and wheels and "thermal signature reduction" modifications to make them less visible to enemy sensors.

One of the newer variants of the vehicle, the LAV-25, will be upgraded with a sophisticated thermal sight, beginning in 2007.

The command-post version of the LAV will be equipped with digital command-and-control systems, a satellite communications terminal that works on the move, and a high-frequency radio antenna that also operates while the vehicle is in motion. The Marines own 50 command-post vehicles.

To help thwart roadside-bomb attacks in Iraq, LAVs are being outfitted with automatic fire-suppression systems, Bryant said. Most vehicles still have manual devices.

In its 2008 budget, the Corps will fund other "survivability" upgrades for the LAV, such as hardened components that can withstand landmine blasts and "active protection" systems that shoot down incoming rockets or antitank missiles.

None of these upgrades has yet been defined and no technologies are likely to be selected for at least two years, Bryant said. "We are watching what the U.S. Army is doing, we are working with some foreign governments to ensure there's more than one system to compete."

The Army is evaluating active-protection systems for its light-armored vehicles, the Strykers, although frontline troops continue to favor traditional armor as a more reliable form of protection.

Active protection "sounds like a great system . but I'll stick with the slat armor," said Army Lt. Col. William "Buck" James, deputy commander of the Arrowhead Stryker brigade combat team, who spent a year in Iraq.

The slat armor is a cage-like structure mounted on the Stryker vehicle. It adds bulk and limits maneuverability, but soldiers have attested to its ability to stop rocket-propelled grenades from penetrating the vehicle.

Unlike the Marine light-armored reconnaissance companies, the Stryker units engage in more aggressive offensive operations, even though they are an infantry force.

"The Stryker brigade was designed for small-scale contingencies, but with the level of combat power it has, it's generated discussions about killing tanks," James said. Armed with shoulder-fired Javelin antitank missiles, for example, Stryker soldiers can "seek out and destroy armor."

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