Planning on Upgrades: Marines of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit assault Red Beach with AAV7A1 Amphibious Assault Vehicles. The Corps wants survivability improvements for the vehicles, which first entered service in the 1970s. (ANDREW SILK/AFP)
WASHINGTON — The US Marine Corps is putting a hard cap on the amount of money it wants to invest in upgrading parts of its aging fleet of AAV7A1 amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs), which the Corps wanted to retire but now plans on driving until the mid-2030s.
And if one of the two contractors can’t meet the Corps’ survivability upgrade requirements for less than $1.65 million per vehicle, they won’t win the work to upgrade four battalions worth of the amphibs, or 392 tracked vehicles.
While plans to ultimately replace the increasingly long-in-the-tooth AAV — which entered service in 1972 — are still a work in progress, the Corps has concluded that its most critical need is to improve protection of the Marines inside the vehicle while they’re in the water, and when the vehicle rumbles ashore.
In May, BAE Systems and SAIC were each awarded development contracts to begin work on survivability improvements, and Marine Corps officials say that an award to one vendor will be made in February.
After the 2011 cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program, which would have replaced all of the Corps’ amphibious vehicles, the service has been looking for ways to get a new vehicle program back on track while also coming up with a plan to extend the life of the AAV. That vehicle hasn’t received a major tech upgrade in years because of the planned fielding of the EFV.
The AAV is now expected to last until the mid-2030s.
The first capability gap to be addressed is protection, said Angelo Scarlato, the Corps’ project director for the survivability upgrade.
Once those survivability and protection needs are met, the Corps will move on to communications and sensors, and other upgrades as time and budgets allow.
“Force protection is No. 1,” Scarlato said. “That’s the most important. No. 2 is seaworthiness, water mobility and water safety. No. 3 is land mobility and land safety, in that order of importance.”
The focus on this first round of work that kicks off in February will be on underbelly and direct fire protection to protect Marines in the vehicles against improvised explosives, and the Corps will begin moving quickly next winter.
In January, it will conduct two technical reviews — a preliminary design review and a critical design review — followed by a manufacturing site visit to each competitor.
“We only have a few months here to conduct these reviews,” Scarlato said. “We are going to select one vendor in February to go into the prototype build phase.”
Manny Pacheco, spokesman for the service’s Program Executive Officer Land Systems office, added that the Corps is open to ideas from the two competitors as to what solutions they feel might be the most cost-effective, while still meeting their requirements.
“We may be looking at [blast attenuating] seats, we may be looking at a variety of things that increase the survivability of the vehicle, and most importantly the Marines inside the vehicle,” he said.
Scarlato added that he’s interested in leveraging some of the work that’s already been done within the Defense Department on other ground vehicles, like the Stryker and the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, when it comes to underbelly protection. He expects BAE and SAIC to use mature solutions informed by those programs in their proposals.
Once the protection upgrades are completed, the Corps will still have to figure out how to bring the communications and electronics systems on board up to modern standards.
Much will depend on the progress that the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) 1.1 program makes over the next several years, though the ACV has been temporarily put on the shelf by service leadership as it continues to struggle to replace the EFV.
As originally envisioned, the ACV would cost about $12 million each, but Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos has said that is too expensive, and so requirements changed in order to purchase about 300 wheeled ACV 1.1s for about $3 million to $4.5 million each.
Switching to a wheeled vehicle as opposed to tracked will be cheaper, Amos told a House Appropriations Committee hearing on April 1, as well as having the added benefit of being mostly non-developmental.
“These are commercial off-the-shelf … they’re already being made by several different manufacturers,” he said.
The ACV 1.1s are slated to begin arriving around 2020.
Pacheco said “depending on what path the ACV program takes will dictate how much of this [AAV] force will be retained and upgraded. At some point in time we’re going to make a mixed vehicle inventory because we’ll have a portion of AAV and a portion of ACVs 1.1 so all of those things will determine the path forward.” ■