Frugality, Careful Timing Drive Marines’ Modernization Plan

By Dan Parsons

For a decade, the Marine Corps has poured money into bomb-resistant trucks and other vehicles specifically designed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan while neglecting its amphibious fleet.

That means the service’s plan to focus on traditional stomping grounds in the Pacific will require an ambitious and expensive vehicle upgrade program. Though service leaders are sanguine about the fiscal realities of a shrinking force and dwindling budgets, they are committed to achieving the modernization of thousands of vehicles that in many cases are twice as old as the Marines who drive them.

When he took the job in 2010, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos decided to scrap a planned all-out assault on a “huge mountain” of procurement needs in favor of an incremental attempt at the summit. The service cannot afford to ignore modernization for frugality’s sake, he said.

“One of the pillars of readiness is modernization,” Amos said recently during a roundtable discussion about the Marine Corps’ future after Afghanistan. “You can’t just continue to hold yourself back trying to be the most frugal force. What you have to be able to do is some modernization … the question is the balance and what’s good enough.”

Programs are in the works to replace nearly every vehicle in the Marine Corps’ tactical ground mobility and ship-to-shore fleets. It will be a considerable effort for a shrinking service that has nearly half of its equipment tied up in an 11-year ground war and is concurrently developing one of the most expensive fighter jets ever built, the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

Tackling all the desired vehicle upgrades at once was an impossibility, given Defense Department budget cuts, Amos said.

As the service fixes its sight on the Pacific Ocean, a region that loses 70,000 people a year to natural disasters and is the location of potent political and military tension, a reliable vehicle fleet is increasingly important, said Amos.

There eventually will be 22,000 Marines stationed west of Hawaii, many of them aboard Navy amphibious assault ships throughout the region. Those Marines will use amphibious and ground vehicles to accomplish a variety of missions from humanitarian relief to amphibious assault, if called upon to do so.

Amos believes the Marine Corps’ vehicle needs can be covered with the $2.9 billion it annually spends on procurement — just 12 percent of its total budget — if the programs are sequenced correctly and spread out.

New acquisition of ground vehicles will occur in three phases: Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to replace Humvees, followed by the Amphibious Combat Vehicle and the Marine Personnel Carrier.

The JLTV program reached a major milestone in late August when engineering, manufacturing and development contracts were awarded to three companies. (See story on p. 34) The Marine Corps is committed to buying at least 5,500 of those vehicles to replace a portion of its 24,000 Humvees.

With that and other programs like the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, the Marine Corps will have to settle for “what’s good enough, certainly for the next decade,” Amos said.

There is not enough money in the service’s procurement budget to replace all of its Humvees, so 10,000 to 12,000 will be sent to depots for an overhaul and returned to service.

He offered the Medium Tactical Vehicle, more commonly called 7-ton trucks, as another example of making due with the vehicles at hand. The service had plans to replace the cargo- and troop-transport trucks sometime after the 2014 pullout from Afghanistan. Those plans have been scaled back to save money. Instead, most of the vehicles will be “sent through the depots” for repairs and upgrades, Amos said.

The same goes for a portion of the existing fleet of Amphibious Assault Vehicles, said Manny Pacheco, spokesman for the Marine Corps’ Advanced Amphibious Assault program office. Of the 1,000 amphibious tracked vehicles in the service’s fleet, just under 400 will be reset, he said. It will be another in a laundry list of overhauls and upgrades the 40-year-old vehicles have been through since they came into service in 1972.

“We have to find a way to bridge that capability, to make some of these vehicles last, at least until the ACV starts to come online,” Pacheco told National Defense.

The tracked ship-to-shore fighting vehicles will have to pull their weight at least until 2030, when the ACV is scheduled to enter the fleet. Automotive upgrades should be in development and testing until 2014, with reset AAVs returning to active duty between 2015 and 2017, Pacheco said.

Resetting the AAVs will involve upgrading their armor, installation of blast-mitigating seats and adding beefed-up suspension systems.

AAVs that do not undergo reset and overhaul will eventually be replaced by Amphibious Combat Vehicles, the now-defunct  Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program under a different name. When that program was voluntarily shuttered in January 2011, Marine Corps engineers went immediately to work “redefining and refining” the service’s requirements, Pacheco said.

An analysis of alternatives has been completed comparing six capability sets ranging from an enhanced AAV to the requirements originally sought under Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, Pacheco said.

The study was completed in June and is being analyzed with a fine-toothed comb to ensure the proposal is accepted by Congress and that industry can deliver the right vehicle affordably, Amos said.

“This is not a Cadillac Escalade we’re trying to build here,” Amos said. “This is a fighting vehicle that will come from ship to shore and go inland with likely a squad of Marines. We want to make sure we’re not trying to build something with capabilities that we either don’t need or can’t afford. From my perspective, we’ve got one opportunity to do this right.”

No date has been set, but the Marine Corps will release a request for proposals to industry some time in the fall.

Once ACV acquisition wanes, the service will begin buying Marine Personnel Carriers, a wheeled medium-weight armored vehicle for transporting troops once ashore. That vehicle is scheduled to be ready for production and deployment about the time ACV is winding down.

Furthest out on the Marine Corps’ wish list, the program is nonetheless already in development.

Contracts for market research data on in-water performance, survivability and capacity were recently awarded to four companies — BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin Corp., General Dynamics Land Systems and SAIC. The $3.5 million contracts are for delivery within eight months of 16-wheeled armored mobility vehicles that the Marine Corps can test in the water and on land.

“We end up ashore with 12 battalions of Marines on a battlefield,” Amos said. “You’re going to have to be able to move these Marines around the battlefield and that’s where MPC comes in.”

The original requirement was for 1,100 Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles. That number was reduced to just under 600 because of affordability issues. But the Marine Corps’ mobility needs remained the same, said officials. The MPC is designed to cover the maneuverability gap left by the downsizing of the eventual ACV fleet.

“The intent is to get something off the shelf, a wheeled system that exists that meets the requirements we place upon it,” Pacheco said, adding that buying a commercial-off-the-shelf vehicle would inherently lower development costs.

Engineers are in the process of validating existing technologies and vehicle designs that will be tested January through October at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and at the Nevada Automotive Test Center, Pacheco said.

The MPC, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and Amphibious Assault Vehicle make up the Marine Corps’ tactical ground mobility fleet along with the 7-ton truck. They fit into a strategy that requires the Marine Corps to be able to deliver 12 battalions ashore anywhere in the world, then be able to maneuver and resupply them, Amos said.

Those troops arrive ashore by air as well, but most land from the sea to accomplish combat, humanitarian and crisis-response missions. The vehicles that don’t float are transported to shore from over the horizon in Landing Craft Air Cushions, or LCACs. Those vehicles, carried in the well decks of amphibious assault ships, have been in service for more than 20 years. The Navy’s fleet of 73 hovercraft is undergoing a service life extension through 2016. They, too, are scheduled for replacement.

The Navy recently awarded a $212 million fixed-priced contract for the design and construction of the next-generation air-cushioned craft, dubbed the  Ship-to-Shore Connector, to New Orleans-based Textron Inc. The first of the high-speed, amphibious vehicles will be a test and training craft. The contract also includes options for up to eight additional vehicles, which would bring the total contract award to $570 million, according to a Navy statement.

The SSC will have a 30-year service life and be capable of carrying a 74-ton payload at speeds of more than 35 knots from the belly of a Navy amphibious assault ship to shore, then inland.

Like the LCAC, its evolutionary replacement will provide the Navy and Marine Corps “with the capability to project and sustain military operations from the sea, independent of tides, water depth, underwater obstacles, or beach gradient,” according to a statement from Textron.
Deliveries are scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2017. The vehicles will become operational around 2020.

Affordability is key to the Marine Corps’ modernization strategy. Top officers have insisted that industry must offer vehicles that are affordable not only up front, but over their entire service lives.

Amos said the service’s ambitious plan to upgrade at least 20 percent of its fleet within the next 10 years could be done, if timed correctly and carefully managed.

Along with spacing out vehicle procurement to promote affordable modernization, Amos vowed to embrace multi-year contracts wherever possible. He must receive permission from Congress to do so.

“The multi-year saves an awful lot of money,” he said. “It also breeds certainty into corporate America, so all the mom-and-pop organizations that supply the o-rings and gaskets and all that stuff, they can stay in business and forecast business.”

Frugality is defining the Defense Department’s “rules of engagement moving forward,” he added. The Marine Corps could be held more strictly to those rules as it develops the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. The jet is one of the most expensive weapons ever developed and will compete for funding with all the Marines’ vehicle modernization programs.

Until the F-35 comes into service, the Marine Corps is carefully managing the service life of its current aircraft fleet made up of F-18 Super Hornets, Harrier jump jets and EA-6B Prowlers.

“Just like balancing a budget,” the various fleets are being managed “very, very carefully,” Amos said.

Photo Credit: Marine Corps

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Procurement, Shipbuilding

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