WASHINGTON — As the US Marine Corps returns to its expeditionary roots, it is planning a safety and reliability upgrade — and a possible replacement — for its internally transportable vehicle (ITV), designed to fit in an MV-22 Osprey.

The efforts dovetail with higher demand in operations and the service's Expeditionary Force 21 concept, which emphasizes lighter forces, such as its quick-reaction Marine expeditionary units (MEUs), a Corps official said. When the last dozen or so MEUs have deployed, each has brought as many as 20 ITVs with them.

"Dispersed company operations are our way forward, and with this platform we are finding, with the infantry community, a desire to reduce the load they're carrying on their backs," said Mark Godfrey, transportation branch chief at the Marine Corps' logistics division and capabilities integration directorate.

The efforts also run parallel with US Special Operations Command's effort to develop an Osprey-transportable vehicle.

This fall, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is conducting a limited objective experiment and a limited technical assessment to define the need and find vehicles that could fill it. Though originally designed for light-strike missions, such a vehicle is also considered a contender for logistics and casualty evacuation missions.

The machine, or machines, are envisioned as readily available at an affordable price, particularly as the Marine Corps prioritizes its Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV). The ACV, in development now, is expected to eat a significant chunk of the service's budget when it is fielded, Godfrey said.

The Corps is in talks with 12 vendors whose vehicles can fit inside a V-22 to participate in the technical assessment at the Nevada Automotive Test Center. The limited objective experiment will involve an infantry company in an exercise set for Camp Pendleton and Fort Hunter Liggett in California.

These efforts mark something of a comeback for the ITV. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw a reluctance to use a vehicle without armor to protect it from roadside bombs. Intended for the infantry, ITVs were fielded primarily to the reconnaissance, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and artillery communities.

When the last of the vehicles was purchased and fielded in 2010, the requirement had been pared from 750 to 266, with another 145 "prime mover" variants, which carry a 120mm mortar. These M1161 and M1163 Growlers were originally manufactured by American Growler in 2004 and subsequently bought out by General Dynamics.

"The fielding was a bit of bad timing because we were heavily involved in [Iraq and Afghanistan], and trying to field a vehicle that was unarmored led to a delay before there was a lot of use of this platform," Godfrey said. "Of late, we are seeing a lot larger demand signal as we are trying to transition the Marine Corps back to its expeditionary roots."

Meanwhile, the program office is working to resolve the readiness and parts supply issues that have gnawed at the ITV program. The goal is to have the Corps' own maintenance and supply personnel maintain the vehicle organically by 2020, said Andy Rodgers, the Marine Corps' program manager for light tactical vehicles.

The original ITV had to be light enough to fit into the V-22. and beas mobile as a Humvee, with a multiheight suspension. Those stringent requirements yielded technical problems that became maintenance problems.

"You added a lot of complexity on the maintenance side to achieve the lightweight parts needed to have it fit in the aircraft, and durability to go over that same terrain that you expected a Humvee to go over," Godfrey said.

For Rodgers, parts and supply issues play into the argument for better cooperation with Special Operations Command and its effort to develop an ITV.

"Any opportunity for commonality between services is a good thing for lifecycle support and overall cost to the government," Rodgers said.

Email: jgould@defensenews.com

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.