Future Marine Corps Missions Depend on New Ship-To-Shore Connectors

By Dan Parsons
Until it can develop a long-range, speedy ship-to-shore connector, the Marine Corps is putting crisis response ahead of combat operations as its most important mission, a top Marine capabilities officer said July 15.
The service’s emphasis in the current fiscally constrained environment is “crisis response at the expense of combat operations,” Brig. Gen. William Mullen, chief of the capabilities development directorate at Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
“If we absolutely had to do it, we would,” Mullen said. “But it would be a stretch. … The capabilities we need to do crisis response are not as robust as what we need to do major combat operations.”
Marine Corps leaders have said the days of high-casualty frontal assaults from the sea like the iconic beach landings in the Pacific during World War II are over. No more will the service seek to pour men and materiel onto defended shores, but it must maintain the ability to launch such operations if called upon, Mullen said.
“The United States will never do something like that again,” Mullen said of those bloody battles. “We don’t want to do that again. That’s not how we want to conduct operations. We want to be where somebody is not.”
But Mullen said the Marine Corps must maintain the ability to conduct forcible-entry operations if called on to do so as a last resort. Marines have the capability to go ashore from amphibious assault ships now, but the amphibious assault vehicles, or AAVs that transport them are becoming obsolete, he said.
AAVs are not very capable, he said. Some entered service in 1972. Some are undergoing a limited force-protection upgrade and systems improvement program. But retrofit work on existing vehicles cannot commence until fiscal year 2019, he said.
“We have issues with them launching outside of three miles and, they’re just old,” he said. “We’re facing parts obsolescence, but they’re what we have and they get the job done one way or another for what we’re doing right now.”
To conduct ship-to-shore operations, whether in a disaster relief scenario or in wartime, the Marines must have a vehicle that can travel quickly in the water, he said.
The Marine Corps requirement for what is now called the amphibious combat vehicle is technically feasible but costly, he said. A previous iteration, called the expeditionary fighting vehicle, was canceled because industry could not balance the need with high speed through the water with sufficient armor and armaments.
“We have spent 26 years and $3 billion [on developing such a vehicle] and it’s not because we’re stupid. It’s because that’s how important it is to us to have that capability. It remains a requirement to have that capability,” Mullen said.
The low weight requirement for a vehicle that planes like a speedboat required sacrifices in weapons and troop protection that Marine Corps officials found unacceptable.
“It’s pretty doggone expensive and that’s not a good thing these days or for years to come,” he said. “It’s also very, very complex and due to weight restrictions, it can’t be above a certain weight or else you’re not getting a high-water-speed vehicle.”
The Marine Corps has therefore altered its plans for ACV acquisition to include an initial “limited buy” called ACV 1.1. The idea is to field an operational, commercially available vehicle in as little time as possible while performing the necessary testing to ensure its suitability, he said. The service has also ditched its desire for a tracked vehicle in favor of wheels, at least in the first iterations.
“We’re going to get them out to the operating force, let the Marines use them, while still the majority of our fleet are the AAVs,” he said.
The service already has planned to buy a wheeled Marine personnel carrier, or MPC, with limited swimming capabilities in the out years beyond acquisition of the joint light tactical vehicle and ACV. It is now planning to purchase one of the commercial MPC vehicles currently under testing as the first iteration of the ACV.
“Which means, in my mind, we have to keep control of the requirements … in order to get that first group of vehicles out there,” he said. “Our emphasis is that has got to be a good-enough-to-operate vehicle, not 100 percent of our requirement. We’re looking for good enough. 1.2 will be a much better vehicle.”
By the time the Marine Corps reaches the third phase of ACV procurement, it might be able to purchase a high-water-speed vehicle, but technology must mature to the point where that can be achieved at an acceptable cost without sacrificing armor and weapons, he said.
“When you start trading things away like armor, lethality, that’s a problem,” he said.
The service intends to find out what desired capabilities are achieved with the commercial vehicle, then make engineering and design changes for a second lot buy, called ACV 1.2, when it plans to buy to “about half our requirement,” he said.
“If [1.1] is not able to do much, then the engineering change proposals for the second group of vehicles we’re going to buy need to improve our ability to do some of those things,” he said.
The ACV will have a high-ground clearance and a V-shaped hull like a mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle. With multiple wheels, it also would be able to keep going if a roadside bomb blows one off, Mullen said.
“It’s designed to operate more like an MRAP than a tracked vehicle is,” he said.
Preliminary engineering specifications on candidate vehicles indicate it could swim as well as the AAV currently in service, Mullen said. That attribute still need to be tested and confirmed, which will be part of the ACV 1.1 evaluation.
The service’s future requirements for connectors are not limited to the ACV. The proliferation of anti-ship cruise missiles means that Marines will have to ride ashore from much farther at sea, perhaps beyond the range even of an ACV, Mullen said. The service needs other vehicles and vessels that can quickly deliver amphibious troop carriers to within range of shore, drop them in the water and retreat, he said.
The Navy is sending its fleet of landing craft air cushions, or LCACs, through a service life extension and has longer-term plans to replace them outright. The larger service is also getting underway with a plan to replace its landing craft-utility boats, or LCUs, some of which are 54 years old, Mullen said.
A ship-to-shore connector, or SSC, will replace existing hovercraft, which ride on a cushion of air over land and sea. The Textron-built SSC will essentially be the same vessel with incremental capability improvements, Mullen said. The first eight are already under construction but do not have the ability to launch vehicles into the water, an essential capability in ant-access, area-denial environments, he said. Beginning with the 10th craft, plans are to introduce that capability and then retrofit the previous nine vessels, Mullen said.
“The connectors we have, the LCACs, the LCUs, the joint high-speed vessel … none of those things will go into an unprotected beach, even if … it’s someone with an RPG or a machinegun,” he said. “Which tells us that we have to have the ability to bring that thing in to just outside small-arms range and then get off it and swim ashore via our own means.”
Engineers at the Office of Naval Research are developing a ramp for the joint high-speed vessel so ACVs can drive right off into the water instead of onto a pier. Each JHSV, three of which are already in service, can hold about 20 amphibious vehicles.
Other options for delivering men and materiel ashore include the ultra-heavy amphibious connector, or UHAC, which runs on two tracks outfitted with massive buoyant treads that can paddle through water and drive on land. A half-scale model recently underwent operation testing as part of the Rim of the Pacific international military exercises based in Hawaii.
The Marine Corps is reaching as far back as the 1980s to potentially revive a platform called the HAVIC, a self-propelled aluminum sled, Mullen said. After vehicles drive onto it, it acts like a temporary boat hull for the ride to shore. The driver then jettisons the sled on the beach and rolls inland, leaving the HAVIC to be picked up by another unit for reuse.
“The prototype was scrapped in the 1990s. What’s the potential there? We don’t know. But we’re going to explore it,” he said.

Topics: Combat Vehicles, Expeditionary Warfare

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