Weighed Down by Heavy Hardware, Marine Brigades Go on a Diet

By Sandra I. Erwin
Shortly after being sworn in as commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos drew up an extensive to-do list as part of the “planning guidance” that lays out his vision for the future.

About halfway down the list is a directive to “lighten the MAGTF,” or marine air-ground task force — the organization that is at the heart of any Marine Corps combat deployment.

Amos is not the first commandant who has expressed a desire to lighten the force. The idea that marine units are becoming so weighed down by equipment they are beginning to resemble the Army has been an irritant to Marine Corps’ senior leaders for several years. If a contingent of combat-ready marines can’t be quickly loaded on ships and deployed to a war zone, then the Marine Corps ceases to be “expeditionary” and becomes a conventional land army, the reasoning goes.

Amos wants to see a detailed plan by March 11 for how the Marine Corps will reduce the size and weight of brigades and expeditionary units so that “they will fit within likely lift constraints,” he wrote in the commandant’s guidance. The timeline for executing the plan is between 2011 and 2013.

Amos’ marching orders essentially boil down to this: A Marine Expeditionary Brigade (with as many as 15,000 marines and sailors) with all its weapons, ground vehicles, aircraft and support equipment must be able to fit in 15 amphibious warships. According to unofficial accounts, a MEB today would be too heavy to meet that threshold. One estimate is that moving a brigade requires at least 17 ships.

For marine war-fighting units, becoming lighter will mean having to make tough choices about what equipment is really necessary, says Brig. Gen. Christopher S. Owens, deputy commanding general of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, at Camp Lejeune, N.C.  

“Over the last 10 years, we have introduced a lot of new equipment into the Marine Corps, some of it heavy,” Owens says during a conference call with reporters. Some weaponry, such as artillery, has actually become lighter in recent years. But armored trucks and aircraft such as the V-22 Osprey — which come with a large load of support equipment — have piled on significant amounts of weight on the force, Owens says.

The commandant’s orders to lighten the MAGTF are being taken seriously, he says. Planners at Camp Lejeune are drawing up scenarios for how much equipment a unit would need for a given mission. What typically will drive those decisions is how much cargo shipping capacity is available. “Frankly, we may be forced to make some hard decisions on what we’ll need to take,” says Owens. But marines will adjust to whatever limitations are set, he says. “The great thing about marine forces is that we do have the option of tailoring and organizing to the mission at hand.”

The commandant’s March deadline is a “very reasonable goal,” he says. “We need to be able to pack the most amount of combat power aboard a ship that we can.” Not being able to fit all the gear on ships is not a new challenge for the Marine Corps, says Owens.

At Quantico, Va., analysts are sketching possible paths to a lighter force, most of which involve either inventory reductions or replacing hefty vehicles with leaner alternatives.
“We are going to put ourselves on a diet, like the ‘Biggest Loser,’” says Christopher Yunker, who oversees the Marine Corps Combat Development Command’s Counter Mobility division at Quantico.

Yunker’s shop is doing the detailed rundown of what it will take to drop the poundage. Most of the solutions involve reducing the weight of ground vehicles and challenging current assumptions about how much equipment marines really need when they deploy.

“We have to try to figure out how to live within a weight budget,” Yunker says in an interview.

“We’ve been working on this for about a year,” he says. The bulking up of the force didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a nearly decade-long weight gain across the board, as marines became engaged in ground wars after 9/11. Instead of performing their traditional “crisis response” role — arrive at a hotspot, settle the chaos and leave — marines became a permanent presence in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which required them to bring far more equipment and armor than they would have preferred. In today’s IED-plagued wars, even bulldozers and forklifts have to be armored.

Communications equipment and information-technology gear also have ballooned. Infantry battalions now carry far more radios and computers than ever before.

A quick way to begin the downsizing process will be to reduce the inventory of ground vehicles from 42,000 to 32,000 across the force.

Dropping 10,000 vehicles means that only two-thirds of a deployed unit will ride and one-third will either walk or fly.

Reducing the weight of many of those 32,000 vehicles, however, may not be feasible in the near term. It will depend on whether the Marine Corps can begin to replace the heavily armored MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) with a lighter truck, Yunker says. The MRAPs are used for troop transportation, like Humvees, but are double the weight. “We think we can get most of the MATVs [MRAP all-terrain vehicle] and MRAPs out of the inventory and find a suitably protected lighter platform,” he says.

As anyone who’s been on a diet knows, every pound counts. A similar philosophy is being applied to the MAGTF, says Yunker. Equipping trucks with auxiliary power sources, for instance, can save a generator and shave off 300 pounds. More efficient engines could help reduce fuel demand and allow marines to travel with less bulk.

Lightening the load of ground vehicles will be an uphill battle, officials have acknowledged. The truck that is being designed to replace the armored Humvee and the MRAP, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, is still too heavy. “We are adjusting the requirements,” Yunker says. JLTV trucks, at 23,000 pounds, need to lose about 4,000 pounds. The original objective was a 16,000-pound JLTV, but that turned out to be unrealistic. “We took off two passengers and other capabilities,” Yunker says. A feature that allows the vehicle to run on flat tires, for instance, may have to go in order to save 160 pounds.

A major weight contributor in ground vehicles is armor, which is essential in current IED-infested war zones. Protection is not going to be compromised, regardless of weight considerations, Yunker says. “We have to work within limits,” he says. “We’re still pressing the envelope in getting all the protection that we can.”

One possibility is that armor can be replaced by other protective systems. The Marine Corps is evaluating a chimney-like device that could be installed in light trucks. If hit by a roadside bomb, the system would direct the blast up, through a center column in the vehicle, Yunker says. “Conventional wisdom is that the V-shaped hull [like the MRAP] is the only way to protect troops” but there are other alternatives, he says. “There’s at least four types of geometries for underbody blasts that we’re looking at today. So we continue to press the technology. We’re pretty pragmatic. We’re not going to bet the farm on some unobtainium out there, but we can drive the weight down.”

If new vehicle initiatives don’t work out, there are plans to modify Humvees so they can be better protected and possibly replace MRAPs, says Lt. Gen. George Flynn, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. Besides the chimney technology, Marine Corps testers are evaluating a “capsule” that could be installed on a Humvee, Flynn tells reporters at a Defense Writers Group meeting. “With the capsule, think of NASCAR, think of the car that crashes into the wall … You have no more mobility, but the driver survives,” he says. “On the chimney, think of the blast seeking an outlet, accelerating through the chimney.”

The promise of “light armor” is still years away, says Flynn.

The studies on how to go about lightening the MAGTF are occurring in parallel to a “force structure review” that could recommend both cutbacks in personnel and equipment, although officials have stressed that the current two-brigade standard for combat readiness is going to remain in place.

Robert Work, undersecretary of the Navy, tells reporters that the review is expected to be completed in January and will shape the 2013 budget. Every item in the Marine Corps’ portfolio is under scrutiny, Work says. “Light tactical vehicles, medium tactical vehicles, fighting vehicles, aviation capability … everything is on the table.”

The review essentially has to answer one question, says Flynn: What does a combat-ready expeditionary force look like?

Marine officials will argue that the service is best suited to be a “middleweight fighter” who may be heavier than Special Forces, but much lighter than the Army. “That kind of defines your role within the joint force context,” Flynn says. “I believe the middleweight fighter has to have a knock-out punch, but I don’t think the middleweight fighter goes 15 rounds with a heavyweight,” he says. “It does not exclude you from contributing at the higher end, but it’s not your focus.”                    

Topics: Land Forces

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