Amphibious Combat Vehicle Stalled Amidst Budget, Requirements Uncertainty

By Dan Parsons

A premier Marine Corps’ acquisition program, and one of its most historically troubled, is on indefinite hold as officials continue to parse what exactly is needed in a new amphibious combat vehicle.

A formal solicitation to industry was scheduled for release in fall 2012, but has been pushed forward into the current calendar year. The program is essentially a resurrection of the defunct Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Marine officials are anxious not to repeat the mistakes of the past, which is Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos’ rationale for moving cautiously.

“From my perspective, we’ve got one opportunity to do this right,” Amos said in an interview last year. “We need an amphibious tractor, period. So I want to make sure that when we get to Congress,” the ACV program will be fully funded.

“We are going back through yet one more time to make sure we have the requirements absolutely locked in concrete,” Amos said.

At that time Amos said the service was “right where we need to be” with its effort to replace its aging fleet of Amphibious Assault Vehicles. He promised a request for proposals would be released by the end of November. A defense acquisition board was scheduled to consider the RFP then, but the meeting never occurred and has not been rescheduled, said Manny Pacheco, a spokesman for the service’s Advanced Amphibious Assault program office.

“There is no date certain to my knowledge until we get further guidance,” Pacheco told National Defense. “We are kind of in a wait-and-see scenario.”

The AAV has been in use since 1971 and is considered by Marines to be increasingly difficult to operate and maintain. Even with considerable upgrades over the years, the vehicle has “significant operational deficiencies in mobility, firepower and survivability,” according to a report published in December by Andrew Feickert, a specialist in military ground forces with the Congressional Research Service.

Its “two-mile ship-to-shore range is viewed by many as a significant issue not only for the vehicle itself by also for naval amphibious forces,” the report said.

The AAV is not up to the challenge of modern weapons given the proliferation of guided cruise missiles and other “anti-access, area-denial” weapons. The vehicle’s limited ship-to-shore range and relatively slow speed afloat places not only Marines, but the assault ships from which they launch, at risk.

Feickert noted that U.S. military officials fear rogue nations and non-state movements such as Hezbollah possess sophisticated guided missiles, which could destroy naval ships and force them to stay farther offshore than the AAV’s current range.

Regardless of what replaces the AAV, some of those vehicles will remain in service for the foreseeable future.

Of the 1,000 amphibious tracked vehicles in the service’s fleet, just under 400 will be reset, Pacheco 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. Automotive upgrades should be in development and testing until 2014, with reset AAVs returning to active duty between 2015 and 2017, Pacheco said.

Service officials plan to eventually replace the entire AAV fleet with a mix of 573 ACVs and 579 wheeled Marine Personnel Carriers, which will also be amphibious, but primarily serve to carry troops once ashore.

Congress has concerns about funding two vehicle programs to fulfill the role that a single vehicle — the AAV — currently performs, the CRS report said.

“Especially at issue is the balance between amphibious assault capabilities and requirements for inland operations,” Feickert said. “Congress might decide to further its dialogue with Marine Corps leadership during the early stages of these two programs to ensure there is a proper mix … so a credible and robust ‘over-the-beach’ amphibious assault capability is not sacrificed at the expense of inland mobility.”

Marine officials have also admitted that with current technology, troops can do more with less. While massive assaults like Iwo Jima are likely a thing of the past, smaller forces with fewer offensive vehicles can have a similar effect to an all-out World War II-style landing, the CRS report said.

“The Marines propose that company landing teams might now be a more appropriately sized force for most amphibious operations,” Feickert said. Such teams would be “small enough to be inserted in a single wave but large enough to provide a capable force immediately.”

The Marine Corps’ first attempt to replace the aging AAV fleet was the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program. The EFV was scheduled to enter service in 2015, but after its development gobbled up about $3 billion, the Marine Corps shut it down.  Ballooning cost and poor performance of the General Dynamics Land Systems design during operational testing doomed the acquisition effort. That is the very thing that careful study of the initial requirements document is meant to avoid, Amos has said.

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

The AOA is being folded into the requirements document that will eventually be published as a formal request for proposals.

The CRS report confirms that Marine Corps officials requested the delay so they could further parse the details of the requirements document, especially whether ACV should have a higher water speed than 8 knots.

Little information is forthcoming from Marine Corps sources, who simply said officials continue to scrutinize the requirements document with a fine-toothed comb.

“All I can say is the Marine Corps is taking a close second look at the requirements,” Pacheco said.

Pacheco confirmed that water speed and engine size, among other cost drivers, are being carefully considered before the RFP is submitted to an acquisition board.

“The pursuit of this high-speed capability adds complexity, limits industrial competition and raises reliability and cost concerns — factors that contributed to the cancellation of EFV,” Feickert wrote.

Ongoing budget uncertainty — big-ticket items were seen as possible victims of sequestration before Congress punted the problem further into 2013 — could derail the Marine Corps’ carefully choreographed modernization program that also includes the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. Each of the vehicle acquisition schedules are sequenced such that one will ramp up as another winds down, allowing the service to tackle its needs piecemeal rather than all at once.

Still, the ACV and MPC programs were granted hefty line items in the fiscal 2013 budget, a sign that Congress at least agrees with identifying a suitable AAV replacement.

The ACV program was allotted $95 million in research, development, test and evaluation funding in the current fiscal year. The House and Senate have recommended fully funding both ACV and MPV, but the Senate called for a $12 million cut to ACV on the grounds that acquisition of that platform was “behind in execution,” Feickert said.

The Marine Corps is sticking with its fielding schedule, which would have ACV operational between FY 2020 and FY 2022. MPC will be fielded in FY 2022.

Marine Corps officials plan to begin prototype design and development in 2013 with two contractors, to include constructing hull-survivability demonstrators and conducting test support within the current fiscal year, Feickert said in the report. In this phase as well, the service hopes that experience and data collected during EFV development could speed that process along and keep costs low.

The Amphibious Combat Vehicle is in the system-development and design phase, which is technically ahead of where a “new-start” program should be before the release of a formal RFP. The ACV program should move more swiftly once industry is brought into the loop using “technological capabilities that were acquired as part of EFV development,” Feickert wrote.

Given the wealth of experience gained during EFV, it has been “suggested that the Marines might skip the technology development phase of ACV acquisition process,” the report said.

There is no guarantee that EFV will pass cost savings on to its successor.

“Marine Corps leadership is hoping that a $3 billion … investment in the canceled EFV will translate into an overall programmatic savings for the ACV, but to date, little has been said publicly about the potential program impact,” Feickert said.

The Marine Corps has yet to release either a total projected program cost or a target per-unit cost for either ACV or MPC. Without cost estimates or desired per-vehicle price targets, Feickert said “it is difficult to examine the affordability of these two programs.”

The initial request for information specified ACV should come in several variants, including squad maneuver/fighting vehicle; command and control; and a recovery and maintenance version.

It must be able to “self-deploy” — that is, drive on its own out the back of an amphibious assault ship — at least 12 miles from shore with 17 Marines aboard. The service wants a vehicle that can travel 8 knots or faster through seas with waves up to three feet.

The ACV must be able to match speed with the M1 Abrams tank both on- and off-road and protect against both direct and indirect fire, mines and improvised explosive devices. Marines want an offensive capability of at least one machine gun capable of destroying “peer vehicles” and engaging enemy troops.

Dire need coupled with a bleak financial outlook has caused service leaders to be sanguine about what they can get, versus what they want in a new swimming combat tractor.

Marine Corps leaders are beginning to join the chorus sung by their counterparts from sister services that “an 80-percent solution will do.” Expecting an era of scarce resources, leaders from all branches are trying to meet their modernization needs while suppressing their appetites for vehicles and weapons that fulfill their desires.

“We want to make sure we’re not trying to build something with capabilities that we either don’t need or can’t afford,” Amos said.

Marine Corps leaders are quick to assert the service’s usefulness to the post-Afghanistan military, especially within the framework of a strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region. In a study released in April 2012, Marine Corps strategists declared “the United States is a maritime nation with critical maritime interests, noting that 90 percent of global commerce that travels by sea is most vulnerable where sea meets land in the littorals.”

To remain a global rapid-response force with an offensive amphibious assault capability, Marine leaders insist modernization is essential, especially because Marines and their vehicles have spent a decade fighting landlocked wars, Amos said.

Photo Credit: Navy

Topics: Combat Vehicles, Land Forces

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