Commitment to Swimming Vehicle Throws Off Marines’ Tight Modernization Schedule

By Dan Parsons

As with other large vehicle procurement programs, Congress is slowly draining off funding from the Amphibious Combat Vehicle as Marine Corps officials continue to push off a decision on how it will develop it.

Continuing delays in ACV development have had a domino effect on the service’s ambitious and once tightly choreographed modernization plan that includes three new procurement programs. The service remains committed to purchasing several thousand joint light tactical vehicles to replace Humvees. After ACV, plans were to purchase several hundred Marine Personnel Carriers, but that program has been put on hold to free up resources.

Capt. Nicole Fiedler, a spokeswoman for the amphibious combat vehicle team, said a study is in the works to “determine the feasibility, costs and risks of developing a survivable, affordable, high-water-speed ACV.”

“We are still conducting this study and are on track to support the commandant’s decision in the fall,” Fiedler wrote in an email.

The analysis has included surveys of enlisted Marines to determine the most important characteristics of an amphibious combat vehicle. The most contentious vehicle attribute has been how fast it should go through the water. A faster vehicle can move from ship to shore quickly, which lessens Marines’ exposure to enemy fire and reduces the likelihood they will become seasick. But a faster vehicle is a more costly vehicle.

Between July and August, the ACV team ranked preferences provided by Marines, and applied cost and weight data as part of their feasibility recommendations to senior Marine Corps and defense leaders ahead of an anticipated request for proposals sometime in the fall.

Program representatives held sessions with deployed forces at the Marine Air-Ground Task Force level to determine the importance of high speed through the water in amphibious operations.

Affordability and ensuring that desired characteristics are technologically realistic are key to the renewed amphibious vehicle search. The ACV’s predecessor ultimately passed neither test and was summarily canceled. Marine Corps officials are haunted by the ghost of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which ate $3 billion before being killed by its own creators in January 2011, said Dean Lockwood, senior weapons systems analyst at Forecast International. The failure of that program is making Marine Corps brass “skittish” about asking Congress to fund ACV, he said.

“The Marine Corps is definitely still recoiling from the cancelation of EFV,” Lockwood said. “The ripples from that are going to continue to be felt for years. They shot too high and too far and they missed, and they are still literally paying for it.”

EFV was scheduled to enter service in 2015. Ballooning cost and poor performance of the General Dynamics Land Systems design during operational testing doomed the acquisition effort. A careful study of the initial requirements document is meant to avoid a repeat of that.

An analysis of alternatives compared six capability sets ranging from an enhanced amphibious assault vehicle to the requirements originally sought under the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

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

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos had promised a request for proposals by the end of November 2012. 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.

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.

It will replace the amphibious assault vehicle, which has been in use since 1971. Even with considerable upgrades over the years, the vehicle has “significant operational deficiencies in mobility, firepower and survivability,” according to a report published in June by Andrew Feickert, a specialist in military ground vehicles at the Congressional Research Service.

Of the 1,000 amphibious tracked vehicles in the service’s fleet, just under 400 will be reset. It will be another in a laundry list of overhauls the AAV has been through to stretch its service life. Automotive upgrades should be in development and testing until 2014, with reset AAVs returning to active duty between 2015 and 2017.

Plans were 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. Officially put on hold in June, it could be 10 years before MPC development is resurrected, Feickert said.

Congress has expressed concerns about funding two vehicle programs to fulfill the role that a single vehicle currently performs.

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 replacement for existing ship-to-shore vehicles.

The amphibious combat vehicle program was allotted $95 million in research, development, test and evaluation funding in fiscal year 2013. The House and Senate have recommended fully funding both vehicles, but the Senate called for a $12 million cut because of ongoing developmental delays.

The situation is much the same for this fiscal year, which begins Oct.1.

Both armed services committees called for full funding of the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget request of $137 million in research, development, test and evaluation funding for ACV. This time the House Appropriations Committee is calling for a $14 million reduction of that sum.

The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014 recommended fully funding the administration’s request, but the Defense Department appropriations bill cut the suggested $14 million, leaving the program funded at just shy of $123 million.

So far, the Marine Corps is sticking with its fielding schedule, which would have ACV operational between FY 2020 and FY 2022.

“The Marines are always in an awkward position when it comes to funding because their dollars come through the Navy,” Lockwood said. “They have to walk a very fine line because they are always the underfunded brother. If the Navy decides it is going to put more money into aircraft carriers, the Marines are up the creek.”

That budgetary bind extends beyond top-dollar vehicle procurement efforts, Lockwood said. During the wars of the past decade, the Marine Corps partnered with the Army to share funding for items that were combat essential. Much of the Marine ammunition budget comes through the Army as an operational requirement, he said.

“Amos can say this [ACV] is his priority, but he doesn’t know if the dollars will be there,” Lockwood said. Already, the service’s prioritized vehicle modernization plan — JLTV, ACV and MPC, in that order — has been affected by budget uncertainty.

Marine Corps officials had planned to begin prototype design and development of the ACV in 2013 with two contractors, to include conducting test support and blast testing on demonstration vehicles within the current fiscal year.

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 eight 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 offroad 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.

For now, MPC is on indefinite hold. Once resurrected, it will take several years for the vehicle to be designed, built and fielded. Under those circumstances, “Congress might wish to further explore the operational implications of the MPC deferment,” the report said.

The deferment raises questions about how the Marine Corps will maintain an amphibious forcible entry capability if purchases of either or both vehicles are reduced, Feickert said. At least, the service must plan for not having the wheeled MPC for another decade. The vehicle mix and how funding is allocated also has implications for acquisition of the joint light tactical vehicle, of which the Marine Corps wants to buy 5,500. Sensing a budgetary bottleneck, the Army is “wargaming” scenarios in which the Marine Corps pulls out of that program.

The CRS report suggests that a significant decrease in new vehicle buys without a suitable substitute could force the service to alter how it conducts amphibious warfare.

Restarting the program using current requirements could prove futile or unnecessary after an intervening decade of technological development and geopolitical change.

The deferment was unfortunate for four companies that earlier this year were awarded contracts to conduct market research on non-developmental MPC candidate vehicles. BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics Land Systems and SAIC each won a $3.5 million contract to gather data on water performance, survivability, human factors and storage capacity, and compatibility with U.S. military equipment, Pacheco said. 

General Dynamics completed water performance swim and human factors testing at the Amphibious Vehicle Test Branch in June at Camp Pendleton, Calif., days before the MPC deferment was announced. Lockheed Martin’s vehicle completed the same tests in April, followed by BAE Systems, which teamed with Iveco Defence Vehicles, in May. SAIC’s Terrex completed its trials in July, a month after Marine Corps officials put the program on the back burner.

Marine Corps teams tested vehicle features including troop egress and component storage, reserve buoyancy, center of gravity, water maneuverability, hydrodynamic stability, ocean speed and surf transit capability.

Blast testing was conducted in May at the Nevada Automotive Test Center.

Marine officials have promised to maintain contact with interested vehicle manufacturers so that “if the decision is made to restart the MPC program, it can be done in an expeditious and cost-efficient manner,” Feickert wrote.

“Given technological advancements as well as emerging threat weapons systems and the constantly changing geo-strategic environment, it is difficult to imagine that current MPC developmental requirements would be valid or relevant five to 10 years from now,” the report said. “Given this possibility, it might be prudent to establish some guidelines on restarting the program, perhaps establishing criteria on when it would be necessary to initiate a new MPC program as opposed to simply restarting the existing program.”

Topics: Combat Vehicles, Expeditionary Warfare, Procurement, Defense Department

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.