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Marines Tread Carefully in Search for New Amphibious Vehicle

Sep. 20, 2013 - 10:11AM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
The US Marine Corps' amphibious assault vehicles have a top speed in the water of about 9 miles per hour. After one aborted attempt to develop a speedier amtrac, the Corps is trying again with the Amphibious Combat Vehicle.
The US Marine Corps' amphibious assault vehicles have a top speed in the water of about 9 miles per hour. After one aborted attempt to develop a speedier amtrac, the Corps is trying again with the Amphibious Combat Vehicle. (US Navy)
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WASHINGTON — This past spring, the US Marine Corps quietly asked some well-known names in the defense industry to start working on six-month trade studies that would help define requirements for its Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), the follow-on to its $3 billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) failure.

The trade studies were recently extended by another six months, Defense News has learned, as the Corps struggles to replace its 40-year-old Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) with a cost-effective, speedier alternative.

The Corps is being exceedingly careful about the ACV for several reasons, not the least of which is the infamous flame-out of its EFV, which was canceled in 2011 after chewing through $3 billion in development costs.

There is also the fact that budgets in coming years won’t be what they were during the first decade of this young century.

“I’m only going to get one bite at this apple — I don’t want to mess this up,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told reporters in June in a direct nod to the limited patience that Congress and Pentagon budget makers now have for programs that eat up too much time and money.

Under current, pre-sequester plans, the Marines say they want the ACV to enter service between fiscal 2020 and 2022, with the Corps acquiring 573 of the amtracs. Since trade studies are ongoing, no cost estimates are available either from the Corps or industry, sources contacted for this story said.

The Marine Corps did not respond to requests for comment.

The caution that the Corps’ leadership is practicing with this program can be seen not only in the extended trade studies but also in the fact that the request for proposal widely expected to be released last fall doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon, given that the latest trade study still has months to go.

But it could also be that the Marines are having difficulty in deciding exactly what they want, and what they can afford.

“It’s possible they need a second trade study because someone didn’t like the answers in the first trade study,” said James Hasik, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council.

In January, Amos predicted that the Corps would be able to issue a request for proposal “over the next couple of months because we’re anxious to get money in the budget that we’re working on right now, the [2015] budget.”

Nine months later, the Corps is still conducting trade studies.

Given the Marines’ always-constrained resources and the looming sequester cuts, there is some obvious tension being built up between finding the money and resources to develop an ACV while also buying 5,500 joint light tactical vehicles (JLTVs) starting around 2019.

Amos stoked the fires during a breakfast meeting with reporters in June, when he said of the JLTV that “with my full sequester bill of 10 percent, it’s questionable whether I can afford JLTV.” Instead, “I’ll take my up-armored Humvees, run them back to the factory, run them through the depots; take my 7-ton trucks before I mortgage my Amphibious Combat Vehicle.”

Hasik said that at least part of the reason the Corps appears willing to sacrifice the JLTV to preserve the ACV is likely cultural: “The JLTV itself isn’t essential to the image of the Marine Corps, but the ACV is,” given that the Corps prides itself on its ship-to-shore capabilities.

“There are already alternatives to the JLTV that are plausible,” Hasik added. “Between the Army and the Marine Corps, they have a heck of a lot of M-ATVs” — the mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicles that are only a few years old and have proved effective against roadside bombs. As Amos said, modernizing already up-armored Humvees is also a possibility.

As the Marines are trying to develop a new, more sustainable and modern amphibious vehicle to get grunts from ship to shore, the service also began developing another fast, maneuverable platform that would transport Marines once they come ashore.

Enter the Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC).

The MPC wasn’t intended to be amphibious like the AAV, EFV or ACV, but it would still be able to swim across rivers and inland waterways when required, according to planning documents. But the dream was short-lived. Due to budget pressures, in June the Corps put the MPC program on hiatus for as long as a decade while it focuses on funding other priorities.

But the Corps invested time and money in the program. In August 2012, the service spent about $14 million awarding development contracts to BAE Systems, General Dynamics Land Systems, Lockheed Martin and SAIC to build MPC prototypes.

The proposals were interesting, if only because all of the wheeled vehicles that industry proposed are already in use by US allies.

Lockheed Martin submitted the Havoc 8x8, based on Patria Land Systems’ 8x8 armored modular vehicle, which is used by six European countries and was deployed in Afghanistan with Polish forces. BAE Systems has teamed with Iveco on a version of Iveco’s 24-ton Superav 8x8, which is being used by the Italian Army.

SAIC partnered with Singapore Technologies Kinetics to offer the Terrex 8x8 armored personnel carrier, which has already been fielded by the Singapore Armed Forces. General Dynamics never publicized its submission.

The fact that allies are using these vehicles successfully — including in combat — is an example of how difficult the Marines have made it for contractors to meet their criteria.

“There are a lot of amphibious corps in the world,” Hasik said, “and nobody who’s buying a new vehicle is trying to buy something like” what the Marine Corps insists it needs. ■

Email: pmcleary@defensenews.com.

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