Marines Testing Prototypes Of New Amphibious Vehicle

By Harold Kennedy

The U.S. Marine Corps has finished construction of three prototypes of its new Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAAV) and currently is putting them through a series of rigorous tests, officials told a recent industry conference.

The AAAV is one of three vehicles–along with the Marines’ V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and the Navy’s air-cushioned landing craft (LCAC)–that the Corps is counting on to enhance its ability to sweep in from the sea, assault an enemy shoreline and overwhelm entrenched hostile forces.

The three vehicles will mean a big change from the Marines’ traditional means of amphibious assault. They have been conducting such attacks since shortly after their founding in 1775, when they splashed ashore in the Bahamas, seizing the town of Nassau.

Generations of Marines climbed down cargo nets, from the decks of ships into wave-tossed landing crafts. The landing crafts then made their way as close to shore as possible before disgorging their passengers, often in deep water under fierce enemy fire, as in the movie, "Saving Private Ryan." During the Vietnam conflict, helicopters began to be used to ferry troops into combat. The new vehicles will change tactics even further:

The V-22, which has been troubled by a string of crashes, is undergoing tests by the Marine Corps. The LCAC, in use since the mid-1980s, is nearing the end of its 20-year life cycle, and the Navy is working to update it.

The AAAV is newest of the three, noted Marine Col. Clayton F. Nans, head of the firepower division of the AAAV program. The Marines can’t wait to get it deployed, he told the 2000 Combat Vehicles Conference, sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association at Fort Knox, Ky. "It’s like, ‘Come on, Baby,’" he said.

The AAAV is being built to replace the Corps’ 20-year-old Assault Amphibian Vehicle (AAV7A1), which is slower, lighter armed and less protected than the new model, Marine officials said. The AAAV is the most recent in a series of amphibious tractors–or amtracs–that began in the 1930s, as the Marines prepared for their island-hopping campaigns against the Japanese in World War II.

The AAAV is being developed jointly by the Marines and General Dynamics Land Systems, based in Sterling Heights, Mich. General Dynamics in 1996 won a $200 million competition to design, build and test three prototype AAAVs by fiscal year 2001. Delivery of more than 1,000 production models is scheduled to begin in 2005, and continue through 2012. With the potential for additional overseas sales, said General Dynamics officials, the value of the AAAV program could exceed $5 billion.

The AAAV is "our highest-priority ground modernization program," Marine Commandant Gen. James L. Jones told a congressional budget hearing earlier this year.

The vehicle, Jones said, "will provide extraordinary mobility, high water and land speed, increased firepower and improved protection to assaulting Marines, thereby enhancing our already forcible entry capability and extending the flexibility of our forces."

The Marines are focused on getting the AAAV ready for action by 2005.

"The first AAAV crewman is now 12 years old, riding a Blue Bird school bus this morning to middle school," said Nans. "We hope to have this vehicle ready for him when he graduates from high school [in 2005]."

The third prototype was been completed this fall at the AAAV Technology Center, a 62,000-square-foot facility in Woodbridge, Va. It is located near the big Marine base at Quantico, where the concept of modern, amphibious warfare began in 1932. The center is operated jointly by General Dynamics, its subcontractors and the Marines.

"The AAAV program office is the first major weapons system to be totally co-located with the prime contractors and major subcontractors," explained the program manager, Marine Col. Blake Robertson. At the center, 28 integrated product teams from the Marines, the Navy, the Defense Department, and contractors did the design work and oversaw the construction of the prototypes by a staff of about 250 employees.

Having all of the elements together on one site "has dramatically reduced the amount of time ... to resolve design decisions," eliminated unnecessary efforts and speeded up problem resolution, Robertson said.

"It’s been one of those things that make you wonder," he said, "Gee, how did we ever do it before?"

The program’s innovations have brought it several awards from the Defense Department. Among them are the David Packard Excellence in Acquisition Award; the Defense Superior Management Award, the Defense Department’s highest recognition for superior management of acquisition program; the Defense Department Value Engineering awards for improved quality and reduced cost, and two environmental awards.

The third and final prototype was completed this fall, and testing is well under way, Nans said.

During high-speed water tests earlier this year at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, in Maryland, the AAAV demonstrated speeds as high as 34 knots–more than three times the speed of the AAV7A1.

Making a 76,000-pound, fully loaded armored personnel carrier seaworthy is akin to "making a brick skim across water," Nans said. The AAAV achieves this by deploying flaps on all sides to increase its buoyancy and employing a diesel engine that provides 2,700 horsepower to power two 23-inch water jets for seaborne operations.

"I want to be the first to water-ski behind that thing," Nans joked.

At the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground–also in Maryland–the AAAV is being tested for its ability on land, including mobility, speed, acceleration and performance on slopes. The AAAV’s engine, providing 800 horsepower on land, has achieved speeds as high as 44 mph on hard-surfaced roads. That’s as fast or faster than the M1A1 tank, Robertson said.

In Friedrichshafen, Germany, the AAAV’s engine–a 12-cylinder diesel built by DaimlerChrysler MTU–successfully completed a 1,000-hour durability test this summer. It was a major milestone for the AAAV project, according to John W. Wosina, vice president for amphibious systems at Land Systems.

"Successful development of such a high-power, high-efficiency engine was considered one of the highest technical and cost risks at the onset of the AAAV program," Wosina said. "The completion of this 1,000-hour test takes that risk off the table. Our final design efforts will now focus on reducing the engine life-cycle costs."

The AAAV will be armed with the Mark 46 weapons system, which the Navy has selected for its new LPD-17 class amphibious ship. The Mark 46 features:

The Bushmaster is reliable, said Marine Maj. Peter Cushing, AAAV firepower project officer. During testing, he said, more than 37,000 rounds were fired through a single gun with no closed-bolt stoppages or chargeable failures.

The Bushmaster also was an economical choice, Cushing said. "Price had a lot to do with it," he told the conferees. "For not a lot more money than the cost of a 25 mm, we found that we could get a 30 mm."

Ammunition, he noted, is readily available. "It fires the same kind of ammunition that the Air Force buys in massive quantities."

A Bigger Bang
To get a bigger bang, he explained, it is easy to convert the Bushmaster to fire the Super 40 mm round. He showed video of the Super 40 penetrating small, seagoing vessels, earth and timber bunkers, brick walls, and even light armored vehicles.

"When a terminal blow is required, the Mark 46 delivers," he said.

The AAAV offers twice as much armor protection as the AAV7A1, Nans explained. The AAAV’s hull is made of aluminum and is armored with ceramic tiles and a Kevlar liner, he said. The combination, he said, effectively shields the vehicle against mines and multiple projection impacts.

The AAAV’s sophisticated weapons and communications systems use militarized electronic boards, which–unlike commercial versions–don’t use fans to remove heat from the surface of the card, explained Lt. Col. Harry Oldland, program manager of the AAAV’s command variant. "Spray cooling is the most efficient form of heat transfer," he said, calling his explanation "Cooling 101."

The AAAV uses a miniature atomizer to create a fine mist that coats the electronics with a thin coat of insulating liquid, Oldland said. This film vaporizes, carrying away the heat. The vapor then condenses back into liquid form and is pumped back to the atomizer for re-use.

"You have to create an environment that conforms to the technology," Oldland said. "Don’t try to adapt the technology to the environment."

Overall, Nans told National Defense, developing the AAAV has been tough. "There’s never been anything like it," he said. "It performs like a speedboat in the water and a combat vehicle on land.

"That’s something that its predecessors never did," Nans said. "You can imagine the technological challenge." When the Marines began designing the AAAV, "we started from a clean sheet of paper," Nans said. They tried to anticipate–and solve–every problem the vehicle might encounter.

In fact, Nans conceded, they might have tried too hard. The AAAV, he admitted, "probably is more complex than it needs to be."

As a result, he said, "reliability is very tough, a challenge," said Nans. There are no specific problem areas, he said, "just a lot of little things." The Marines hope to resolve many of the reliability problems by simplifying the vehicle design during the testing phase, Nans said. "We’re going to shoot for what we can get."

It is important that they get the design right, Robertson said. The reason:

"In my service, we don’t have a lot of money. This system is going to be around a long time. At least, in the Marine Corps, it is. I hate to think how long it’s going to be around–a lot longer than 15 to 20 years."

Robertson’s advice to contractors is to do more long-range planning. "We’re looking six to seven years out," he said. "Industry isn’t looking that far."

Topics: Contracting, Combat Vehicles, Amphibious, Test and Evaluation

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