Marine Corps Taking Low-Risk Approach to Amphibious Combat Vehicle

By Jon Harper

Photo: BAE Systems

Instead of grasping for leap-ahead technologies that might derail efforts to acquire a new amphibious combat vehicle, the Marine Corps is pursuing a low-risk path that could deliver a big win for the acquisition community.

In June, the program reached Milestone C and the service awarded a $198 million contract to BAE Systems for 30 vehicles for low-rate initial production and live-fire testing. The company beat out a team led by SAIC for the final downselect.

BAE partnered with Italian firm Iveco for the competition.

“They had a proven platform” that was developed for the Italian military, said John Swift, BAE’s program director for amphibious combat vehicles. “We believed it was low risk, and then fortunately we were able to prove to the Marine Corps that it was indeed low risk.”

The drive train and suspension performed well in reliability testing, he noted.

Additionally, the vehicles delivered for the engineering and manufacturing development phase were built in “a production-like environment,” he said. That demonstrated the company’s ability to plan for and then execute the manufacture of the vehicle, and then deliver it on or ahead of schedule, he said.

The LRIP contract award was a big win for the company and reestablishes it as the leader in the amphibious vehicle sector, Swift said. It “makes us really the only manufacturer of ground combat amphibious vehicles in the U.S.,” he added. “As far as our strategic portfolio opening for us, this is very profound.”

BAE’s platform is an 8x8 wheeled vehicle that can swim up to 12 nautical miles at speeds of 6 knots. On a paved road, it can drive 65 mph with a range of up 325 miles. It can carry 13 Marines plus a crew of three, with a payload capacity of 7,280 pounds, according to the company.

“It’s a design that has been around a while, it’s just customized for the Marines,” said Jim Hasik, a defense analyst at the Atlantic Council.

The ACV is intended to replace aging amphibious assault vehicles. The Marine Corps wants a platform that can carry seaborne troops onto the beach and then operate ashore.

Increment 1.1 will consist of 204 personnel vehicles. Increment 1.2 is expected to consist of approximately 490 platforms to include personnel, command and control, recovery and gun variants.

“We have hit every milestone and every knowledge point that was levied upon the program ... and we hit them on schedule,” Col. Kirk Mullins, program manager for advanced amphibious assault in program executive office land systems, told National Defense in an interview.

Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation who served 20 years in the Marine Corps, said the ACV program is in a good place today.

“The recognition of needing to go with something that was low risk — meaning relatively commercially available — so that you could get a new vehicle into the fleet sooner … was a very good decision,” he said.

Hasik said the underlying automotive technologies for armored vehicles aren’t advancing rapidly, and it was prudent for the Marine Corps not to swing for the fences when it comes to capability.

“When you’re faced with that it makes a whole lot of sense to bunt — to use a baseball analogy — in your efforts to develop a new weapon system … which is what the Marines have done” with the ACV program, he said.

The pursuit of the new platform began after the expeditionary fighting vehicle project was canceled in 2011 due to concerns about cost overruns and reliability. Approximately $3 billion had already been spent on the ambitious program when it was terminated.

The Defense Department released a draft request for proposals for the ACV in 2014. In 2015, it awarded BAE and SAIC contracts to develop prototypes, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Angelo Scarlato, the Marine Corps’ ACV product manager, said program officials took note of problems in previous vehicle efforts as they pursued the new platform.

“One of the most important lessons learned … is having stable and achievable requirements,” he said.

Swift said the Marine Corps has done a commendable job in structuring the program and executing it to plan.

“If you look at the other programs [that failed in the past], the requirements weren’t necessarily stable or testable,” he said. “In this program the requirements have never changed or altered, and they tested to what they said they would test to. … That and the open communication with the vendors I think was critical.”

The first iterations of ACV will have a remote weapon station that can carry a .50 caliber machine gun or a Mk 19 automatic grenade launcher. The service is looking at potentially adding a 30 mm cannon to increase lethality, Mullins said.

The ACV has about 15 percent growth margin, he noted. “We have the ability to add a capability to the vehicle as the requirements develop and still maintain its full amphibious capability,” he said.

Swift said BAE will unveil a model of a new variant at the Modern Day Marine conference in September. “We’re kind of looking at what we can do in regards for lethality,” he said. Swift declined to elaborate.

Survivability against explosive devices was a key Marine Corps requirement for the ACV.

“If I’m coming across a beach … anti-vehicle mines are absolutely a significant potential problem,” Hasik said. “It gets to be a bigger problem when you are looking for long distance road mobility because I can mine the roads. … So protection against landmines is pretty damned important.”

Mullins said the ACV will have comparable, and in some cases greater levels of protection than what is provided by the mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles that were widely used in Iraq to defend against insurgents’ improvised explosive devices.

The Marine Corps is also looking to add active protection systems to thwart enemy projectiles.

“We’re working and aligned hand in hand with the U.S. Army to see if we can realize some of that” on the ACV, Angelo said. “We are committed to that capability.”

Observers of the program have noted that the amphibious combat vehicle is unable to swim long distances, which creates operational challenges against adversaries with anti-access weapons.

“If you’re needing to operate farther away from shore to enhance force protection for your amphibious fleet, you’ve got to have some means of getting your landing force from those ships across a lot of water,” Wood said. “ACV is not going to do that.”

The vehicles will have to be transported via a ship-to-shore connector such as a hovercraft or landing craft utility ship, he said.

Critics of the program have questioned the survivability of the platform when it approaches a heavily defended beach.

“This thing is not designed for Iwo Jima, no question about that,” Hasik said. “It is a vehicle that does allow you to get ashore against comparatively light opposition but it would be a vehicle in which you would not want to embark if you were assaulting a shore against comparatively heavy opposition.”

Nevertheless, choosing that type of platform was the right choice for the Marine Corps because developing something with both heavy armor and an advanced amphibious capability “probably was going to be impossible” to achieve, Hasik said.

Wood noted that the military could use its other weaponry to degrade the enemy’s forces and open up opportunities for the ACV to come ashore safely.

“The critics aren’t accounting for the tactics that would be involved in preparation of the battlefield,” he said. “On land that’s really where [the ACV] hits its stride and … it’s going to be a pretty good asset,” he added.

Mullins touted the vehicle’s ability to operate in a variety of terrains that Marines might encounter, including littorals, forests and urban environments.

“Whether it’s major conventional operations or it’s the low-intensity humanitarian [mission]… it’s going to give the Marine Corps a lot of decision space in how it employs the ACV,” he said.

The service will receive the first deliveries of the LRIP platforms in the spring and summer of 2019. That will be followed by reliability testing, initial operational test and evaluation, and “full-up” system live-fire test and evaluation, Angelo said. The service hopes to achieve initial operating capability in 2020.

Program officials expect to have a critical design review for increment 1.2 in fiscal year 2019.

“We’re not envisioning any structural changes to the ACV 1.2,” Angelo said. “There’s not going to be changes to a lot of the subsystems or components, the electrical systems, the suspension — things like that are going to remain common. It’s just those unique attributes of the mission role variants is really where we need to focus our energy on.”

Mullins noted that the 1.1 and 1.2 personnel variants will have 95 percent commonality.

Planned upgrades include adding an environmental control unit, an inertial navigation system and improved situational awareness for operations in the water. Mullins said he is “100 percent sure” that the modifications will be made successfully.

The Marine Corps expects ACV 1.1 to enter full-rate production in mid-fiscal year 2020. The plan is to have no break in production between increments 1.1 and 1.2, Angelo said.

Full operational capability for increment 1.1 is slated for late-2022. Both increments are expected to be fully fielded by 2027.

Program officials are trying to control costs as they buy large numbers of platforms. The current affordability cap is a $6.5 million average unit cost. “We are coming in much lower than that,” Angelo said.

Hasik said the program has realistic goals. “This is a very doable project,” he said. “It’s not a very expensive vehicle and they are buying them over time.”

Wood said a successful ACV program could have major implications for the Defense Department’s acquisition community.

Lawmakers are tired of hearing about program failures, he said, adding that the services need to “post a win” with a successful acquisition program. If BAE is able to deliver the vehicle on time and on cost, and it gives the Marine Corps a better capability than the 40-year-old AAV, it could heavily influence how the services pursue new equipment, he added.

“Do you shoot for the stars and try to get something that is at the outer reaches there of what’s technologically feasible?” Wood said. “Or do you … go with something that’s a little bit less advanced but more technologically achievable, and make these incremental advances in force capability instead of trying to bet on revolutionary leaps?” 

Topics: Marine Corps News, Land Forces, Acquisition, Acquisition Programs

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