BALTIMORE — The Marine Corps is struggling to keep its ground-vehicle modernization plans afloat. A combination of overly ambitious technical requirements and higher-than-expected costs threaten some of the Corps’ most prized vehicles, including its next-generation tactical trucks and armored personnel carriers.
Three multibillion-dollar vehicle programs — the joint light tactical vehicle, the marine personnel carrier and the expeditionary fighting vehicle — have encountered their share of problems, including schedule delays and significant price hikes, which have forced the service to rework its acquisition plans, officials said during a recent Marine Corps Systems Command briefing to industry organized by the National Defense Industrial Association.
The joint light tactical vehicle — or JLTV — will replace humvees with a far more sophisticated truck whose design must meet tough specifications for protection, payload and performance, said Brig. Gen. Andrew O’Donnell, director of capabilities development at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.
Marines want a truck with lighter armor, increased lethality and survivability, better gas mileage, improved speed and mobility — as well as reasonable prices, O’Donnell said.
An industry competition currently is under way for JLTV, and the Corps expects the program to proceed along, despite the anticipated technical hurdles.
But the financial pressures to fund JLTV — as well as the rising costs of war operations and equipment repairs — have forced the Marines to delay the procurement of their new armored personnel carrier.
The Marine personnel carrier (MPC) is a medium-weight troop transport that was intended to hold nine combat equipped infantry Marines. The MPC family includes three vehicle variants: the personnel carrier, a command and control platform and a recovery version.
The MPC was expected to undergo a major design review in April of this year, but the project was delayed by two years to fiscal year 2010, said Col. Michael Micucci, MPC and light armored vehicles product manager.
The service simply can’t afford it right now, Micucci said.
Trying to put a positive spin on news that disappointed many contractors, Micucci said the delay will create a “window of opportunity…to start teaming, make teaming arrangements to compete on the program. It also gives the program manager the opportunities to look at those emerging technologies that we need to mature.”
Among the needed technologies are more survivable seats to protect the occupants of the vehicle, advanced suspension systems, more fuel-efficient propulsion and lightweight armor, Micucci said.
David Branham, spokesman for the Marine Corps Systems Command, said that the service will be partnering with the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to work on lightweight armor technologies.
Despite the delay, Branham stressed, the Marine Corps has a firm requirement for the MPC and does not plan to cancel the program.
“The Marine Corps recognizes it can’t do everything it wants, but we still anticipate bringing it online,” Branham told National Defense.
But Micucci says the MPC specifications and requirements will be reevaluated. “I will tell you we really need to look at the program, need to look at affordability, and probably re-map it out.”
The uncertainties about MPC throw into question the overall plan for the future fleet. The troop carrier had been conceived as a stopgap for the troubled expeditionary fighting vehicle (EFV) program, which has been beleaguered by huge cost overruns and delays caused by design changes.
“The EFV was reduced from about 1,000 [vehicles] to 500, which gave birth to MPC,” said Col. William Taylor, program executive officer for land systems. The Corps had planned to buy 600 MPCs to make up for the EFV cutbacks.
EFV is a 17-passenger armored amphibious vehicle that runs on the ground and in the water. The 38-ton vehicle was designed to transport Marines from ships to the beach from distances as far away as 25 miles. Once ashore, it is used for ground mobility and direct fire support to the Marine rifle squad.
During the course of its 12-year development cycle, EFV costs have increased 168 percent, while the production deadline has slipped eight years, according to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. A significant hitch occurred in 2006, when the program underwent an operational assessment. The vehicle failed several tests, including a critical reliability evaluation that showed it could only operate for only 4.5 hours between breakdowns, according to a report commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., committee chairman.
The objective for time between breakdowns is 43.5 to 56 hours, said Col. John Bryant, program manager for the EFV. Failure to meet this requirement “caused a complete restructuring of the program,” he said. Prime contractor General Dynamics and all subcontractors are performing 4,000 “redesign actions,” Bryant said. The vehicle will undergo a critical design test in November, and a defense acquisition board review is scheduled for December.
General Dynamics officials said they are considering developing alternatives to some of the current vehicles components, Bryant said. Both the company and the Marine Corps are looking for ways to lower the weight. Making the vehicle more reliable has made it heavier, he explained. “If you have something that saves 50 pounds, that’s worth significant dollars to us.”
In response to questions from conference attendees about the future of EFV, Bryant insisted that the Marine Corps will do whatever is necessary to keep the program alive.
“We have a restructured program to redesign the vehicle. The Marine Corps will spend 4.5 years and $1 billion to get this right,” said Bryant.
Current plans indicate that the Marines will buy 573 EFVs. But analysts cautioned that the number likely will be smaller. The EFV either will become too expensive and get canceled, or the service will convince Congress it truly needs the vehicle, in which case it will still only get two battalions worth, or about 375, said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Critics of the program wonder why the Marine Corps is still pursuing it at all. They question the need for such a complex amphibious vehicle that was conceived for conventional war scenarios, rather than the irregular combat missions in which Marines will be engaged in the foreseeable future. Government Accountability Office auditors have called the project a “paper dream,” saying “management does not have a handle on reality.”
Wood said the EFV does not meet the needs of the current battlefield. “The Marine Corps does need ship-to-shore capability. The question is, is EFV the right vehicle?” Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught the military that a flat shape hull — such as the one on the EFV — is useless against roadside bombs, he said.
If both MPC and EFV continue to hit bumps in the road, the Marine Corps will have to rethink its acquisition strategy in favor of more mature programs, Wood said. The service might consider reinvesting in the humvee or increasing purchases of the JLTV, he suggested.
The Army and Marine Corps are already buying more advanced humvees, which are called expanded capacity vehicles. But to meet its future needs, the Marine Corps is focused squarely on the JLTV, officials said.
Plans called for three competitors to be chosen this summer for JLTV’s 27-month development phase. Positioned to compete for the program are six industry teams, including Textron/Boeing/SAIC, Lockheed Martin and BAE, Navistar and BAE, AM General, Northrop Grumman and Oshkosh, and a DRS/Force Protection Inc. alliance.
The Marine Corps received $142 million for technology development in the fiscal year 2009 budget, but plans to request more funds in 2010. The Army and Marine Corps could buy as many as 50,000 vehicles, which are scheduled to begin low rate initial production in 2013.
Industry representatives have estimated the program will be worth $50 billion over a three-decade period.
JLTV has hit several snags already. Initial operational capability for the program was pushed back from 2010 to 2012, but the biggest hurdle was the need to incorporate new features based on lessons learned from the mine-resistance ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP), Wood said. The Marines have acquired several hundred MRAPs for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vehicles are heavily armored trucks that provide occupants better protection from roadside bomb attacks than regular humvees.
Maj. Duane Thiessen, assistant deputy commandant for programs and resources at Marine Corps headquarters, agreed with Wood’s assessment. “Improvised explosive devices have changed a lot about how we think about vehicles,” he said.
Along with increased survivability, the service also requires better mobility, transportability, reliability, fuel-efficiency and commonality across the family of vehicles. JLTV comprises 10 variants in three payload categories. Each will have its own separate companion trailer.
“In the case of JLTV, our requirements are very complicated,” said Marine Lt. Col. Ruben Garza, product manager for joint light tactical vehicles.
The most demanding criteria are for the vehicle to be both survivable and lightweight. This presents a paradox for industry to address, Wood said.
The lethality of the weapons being used against U.S. military vehicles requires better armor, but heavier armor adds size and weight, Wood said. MRAP has been shown to save lives in theater, but its heavy mass greatly limits mobility.
“Commanders have to be thoughtful about how they use those systems. If your concept is to be strategically deployable, you can’t add so much weight,” Wood said.
Contractors and military researchers have experimented with lightweight materials to help solve this problem, but so far, success with these technologies has been limited.
“JLTV could be asking too much relative to the maturity of the technology,” Wood said.
If the military does move to exotic, lightweight materials, there will be concern that the vehicle doesn’t have enough mass to withstand a bomb blast, Wood said. “The tension is really at play as the Marine Corps tries to figure out force protection versus mission effectiveness.”
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