Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Marines Giving up on High Speed to Shore Capability for new Amphibious Combat Vehicle

For years the Marines have argued they need a new amphibious combat vehicle that can cut through water at high speeds so Marines can get to the beach safely and then fight their way inland. But Marine Commandant James Amos signaled yesterday there just isn’t enough money to buy a vehicle capable of planing in the water. Instead, the Marines will buy something much more modest.

“I envision the ACV as kind of a phased approach,” Gen. James Amos said when I asked about the program’s status in a Q&A at the RAND Corp.. “Phase one being, ‘okay what can we get now that makes sense, that’s affordable in this budget,” he explained, “and then [see] what is it that science and technology can give us in the future for perhaps a phase two, which might be a high-water-speed vehicle.”

Note that “perhaps” and “might be.” Amos’s second phase sounds more like an aspiration than a plan.

“My sense is the S&T [science and technology], the R&D [research and development] is not quite there yet” for high speed movement through the water, Amos said, “but I still have the need for an amphibious vehicle” now.

“Right now,” he said, “we have a 40-plus-year-old amphibious tractor,” the Amphibious Assault Vehicle-7 (AAV-7), aka the LVTP-7, which was first built in the 1970s. “We need the Amphibious Combat Vehicle [soon] to replace these 40-year-old vehicles.”

But what kind of replacement? What kind of ACV is actually going to be in the 2015 budget request — due out in weeks — and in the Pentagon’s accompanying 2016-2019 budget plan, the notorious and powerful POM (Program Objective Memorandum)? It sounds like a new, improved, evolved, but hardly revolutionary version of the existing AAV-7. The “Phase 1″ Amphibious Combat Vehicle will plow through the water the old-fashioned way, much like the AAV-7 and indeed its ancestors all the way back to the famous “amtracs” (amphibious tractors) of World War II.

The ACV will not be able to skim over the water like a speedboat (planing), a capability the Corps has pursued at great expense and with great frustration since at least 1988. That’s when the Marines began developing an Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a “water-skiing tank” that became so costly, complex, and mechanically unreliable that then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cancelled it in 2011. Ever since then the Marines have wrestled with what their new amphibious troop carrier needs to be.

“We’ve done the homework now. It’s taken three years of a lot of rigorous analysis to figure out the high water speed business,” Amos said at the RAND event. (RAND is closely linked to the Army and the Air Force, and Amos is the first Marine Commandant to visit that anyone can remember). “You can build a high-water-speed vehicle and you can make it affordable — yes, I’m convinced of it — but the issue is the trade-offs in the capabilities inside that vehicle.”

Within the limits of current technology and budgets, it seems, making an affordable troop transport that can skim across the water at high speeds requires too many compromises to its capabilities as a combat vehicle once on land. And while Marines come from the sea, they fight on the land.

“This vehicle will live predominantly, probably 99 percent of its time, ashore,” Amos said. “In Iraq we had our amphibious tractors ashore; we had hundreds of them ashore,” for years.

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