USMC Commandant Has F-35, Amphibious Vehicle in Cross Hairs
The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, is staking the future of the service on two programs that are being threatened by fiscal pressures: the F-35B vertical-takeoff version of the Joint Strike Fighter, and a new amphibious combat vehicle.
Both programs must be successful to ensure the Marine Corps is well equipped to confront future enemies, Amos said July 27 at the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement amphibious operations conference in Washington, D.C.
The F-35B, particularly, has been thefocus of Amos' attention of late because the program is "on probation" and must recover from a series of technical setbacks by next year to secure long-term funding. The program also is being targeted by fiscal hawks and some Navy aviation advocates who regard the VTOL aircraft as an unnecessary luxury that is competing for funds with the Navy's F-35C carrier-based aircraft.
Amos made a strong case that the F-35B, which would replace the aging Harrier VTOL jets, are not duplicating carrier-based naval aviation functions, but actually enhance the nation's ability to deploy forces around the world because VTOL jets can deploy from both carriers and amphibious ships.
"Today we have 11 big decks [amphibious ships] and 11 carriers. We have fixed wing airplanes on all 22,” he said. “In 2022, if [F-35B] program is canceled, the United States of America will only have 11 carriers … Our nation will have 50 percent less ability to do whatever our nation’s bidding is," he said. By 2022, Harriers will be out of service life.
Amos keeps tabs on the F-35B daily. “I track it like the Dow Jones,” Amos said. “I’ve got three large computer screens and the left one is consumed with JSF. I know when the guy on the assembly line down in Lockheed Martin takes his break,” he quipped. “I’m not the program manager, but I’ll tell you what. Nobody is more interested in the progress of STOVL and JSF,” he said. Amos, a naval aviator, is monitoring test flights and tracking test results. He also is watching the weight of the airplane. Taking the aircraft off probation entails passing a number of metrics, including shipboard trials. Two of the five F-35Bs currently at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. are being outfitted with test equipment for deck trials aboard the USS Wasp in September. The shipboard test is expected to run through November.
“My goal is to get it off probation,” Amos said.
As for the amphibious combat vehicle, Amos said he is keeping the pressure on to accelerate the program, which is the replacement for the Corps’ aging amphibious assault vehicle. Shortly after taking the reins of the service last fall, Amoscanceled the beleaguered expeditionary fighting vehicle as a result of cost and schedule overruns.
The new ACV program is undergoing a process called analysis of alternatives. Usually lasting up to a year, the exercise gives program officials an opportunity to assess potential technologies and to hone requirements before committing money.
“We don’t need a year for the AOA. Quite honestly, we’re looking at nine months. I’m pushing for six,” Amos told reporters after his presentation.
“What I’m trying to do is take the energy off MRAP [the mine-resistant ambush-protected truck program], capture that sense of urgency and apply it to an acquisition timeline for ACV that is accelerated,” he said. “In four years, I will drive the amphibious combat vehicle in the Potomac River myself.”
For industry, that means the Marine Corps won’t be doing business as it has in the past, he added. To any company currently developing ACV technology with a target goal of 2018 in mind, he warned, “You’re wasting your money.” Attaining a swimmable prototype in four years is within the realm of the possible.
The AOA is an opportunity to ask informed and relevant questions, he said. Moving marines ashore and inland from Navy vessels is the goal. But the vehicle must be survivable in combat, just as the 40-year-old AAVs that fought their way from Baghdad into western Iraq, he added.
“I described the computer screen where I’m the player-coach for the Joint Strike Fighter. I’m going to do the same thing for the amphibious combat vehicle. I’ll need a fourth screen in there. I will be watching the development,” he said.
Amos' comments came a day after several officials at the IDGA conference expressed concern and skepticism about the program following a presentation by Brian Detter, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for expeditionary warfare. One officer said he was not enthused about potentially receiving a vehicle that could go only 8 knots — about as fast as legacy vehicles during Iwo Jima. He asked whether commercial technologies should be pushed more aggressively.
“What we really have to do is look at what our Marine Corps needs to get its job done. I think everything ought to be on the table,” Detter responded. “If there’s something off the shelf that’s out there that gets us capability quicker, it should be an option. As part of the process, those are being examined,” he said.
But there are potential trades that may have to be made, he pointed out. If ACV must have MRAP-like survivability, then it may have to give up other performance goals. “If you’re going to do maneuvers and operations, it has to have survivability. So we’re looking at all these issues, and hopefully we’ll make the right decisions that get us good value for the Corps and for our country,” said Detter.
The EFV program, in the two years prior to its demise, was not technically flawed, Detter said. Though it had cost-overrun problems, including a Nunn-McCurdy breach, the program was on schedule, he contended. It was canceled mostly due to budgetary reasons, because the Marine Corps simply couldn’t afford it. “So how do you guard against that in the future? I don’t know if there’s a magic sauce to do it. We just need to make sure what we do is affordable. So trying to understand the cost per unit and what you get for that is what we’re doing right now,” Detter said.