An amphibious assault vehicle maneuvers during an amphibious assault exercise off the coast of Del Mar Beach at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. (US Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — Lessons learned. Tradeoffs. Taking advantage of previous investments. The need for further study.
If there’s one thing the US Army and Marine Corps share, it’s a host of well-worn phrases trotted out at congressional oversight hearings to explain why their latest attempts to build a new combat vehicle will be different from previous failures.
In the midst of fighting two wars, the two services poured billions of dollars into developing, then scrapping, expensive next-generation vehicles. But they both promise the investments haven’t been wasted and that, this time, they have truly learned from the mistakes of the past.
The Marines spent years developing an amphibious ship-to-shore connector program to ferry grunts to the beach, which they eventually dubbed the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), spending $3 billion on the effort before sinking the massive vehicle due to its ballooning requirements and estimate of budget-devouring sustainment costs in the future.
Likewise, the Army has spent well over $1 billion since 2010 on its Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program in handing out development contracts to General Dynamics and BAE Systems, along with a costly, months-long analysis of alternatives program, in an effort to develop the successor to the Bradley fighting vehicle.
The Army's Vehicle Efforts
The GCV was the latest flameout in a program that actually harkens back to 1999, when then-Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki kicked off the ill-starred Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. It envisioned a family of Manned Ground Vehicles to replace the Bradley, the M1 Abrams tank and the M113 tracked infantry carrier.
Fifteen years later, the Bradley and Abrams are in line for hundreds of millions’ worth of upgrades to remain operational for years — and decades — to come. And BAE and General Dynamics are fighting it out to win the contract for the Amphibious Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV), the M113 replacement.
FCS was, of course, canceled in 2009 after a $20 billion investment, and the Manned Ground Vehicles alone had been funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, with more than $300 million in cancellation fees alone.
Despite the GCV’s cancellation in February due to budget pressures and the inability of the Army to keep its weight at a reasonable level while meeting its size, weight and power requirements, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno insisted in a January speech that “I was very pleased with the progress of the Ground Combat Vehicle. I think we have the requirements right. We’re starting to see really good development by the contractors involved with this, so it’s important that we carry that forward, so we’re trying to figure out how to carry that forward.”
Contractors BAE and General Dynamics will each receive about $50 million, according to the fiscal 2015 budget request, to continue development. But they say the Army has yet to explain to them what that development program might look like.
“We have had an ongoing exchange on our thoughts on a follow-on program, but at this point, we haven’t sat down and had anything more than an informal discussion” with the Army, said Mark Signorelli, general manager of combat vehicles at BAE Systems.
That follow-on program, one source said, is being dubbed the Future Fighting Vehicle.
But any future program wouldn’t be production-ready before at least one more round of upgrades and modernization takes place on the Bradley, which is hundreds of millions of dollars on top of whatever the future vehicle program might cost.
So after 15 years and billions in development costs, the Bradley rolls on.
Marines Moving Out
As part of the $2.5 billion Marine Corps unfunded priorities list submitted to Congress last week, the Corps asked for $74 million for equipment modernization, along with $294 million in aviation readiness and $1.4 billion in aviation modernization money over and above the 2015 base budget request.
But one thing was missing from the list: funding for the program that will eventually — and finally — replace its 40-year-old Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) with a new Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV).
After the EFV’s cancellation, the Corps followed an unsteady path by announcing upgrades to the AAV and the Marine Personnel Carrier, which itself was mostly defunded in fiscal 2014.
But now there’s a new plan: upgrade about 400 of the 1,000 AAVs while buying several hundred ACVs starting around 2020. A solicitation for that program is expected this spring.
“We have indeed captured the lessons learned both with the AAV and the EFV to make sure that the mistakes that were made are not repeated,” the Corps’ assistant commandant, Gen. John Paxton, assured the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 2 in a familiar refrain.
Lt. Gen. Kenneth Glueck, commanding general of the Corps’ Combat Development Command, called the AAV “the Marine Corps’ number one priority” at the same hearing. He told the panel the modernized AAVs would be “a bridge” to the new ACV, while giving the Corps four battalions’ worth of lift from ship to shore for crisis response forces.
The problem is, however, the new vehicles are not necessarily being designed to kick down the door in the first wave of an amphibious assault. Due to the increasing range and lethality of standoff weapons developed by near-peer competitors and some non-state groups, the Corps’ new operating concept leaked last week concedes these weapons “necessitate standoff range greater than previously considered.”
While the generals only touched on these issues in their testimony, it’s a thorny problem that sent the EFV to the bottom.
In the Corps’ new Expeditionary Force 21 document, service leaders reinforce everything the Corps has been saying over the past several years: The service must become faster, more responsive, and again act as the nation’s expeditionary force in readiness.
But the standoff threat from shore means that under the Corps’ new plan, the beaches will likely have to be gained by other means as the new AAVs will be forced to take some risk in protection, in order to meet the other requirements.
“Once landing sites are controlled,” the paper states, “amphibious ships may close to facilitate speed of build-up ashore. The discharge point for Amphibious Assault Vehicles and other surface connectors may be closer to shore, but generally will remain beyond 12” nautical miles.
The Corps is currently moving out with new special-purpose Marine air-ground task force units that can respond quickly using MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. But Marine leaders are working to ensure they can respond through the surf as well. Just when, and in what vehicle, is still in question. ■