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Amphibious Vehicles Are the Military’s Latest Tax Dollar Sinkhole

One of the worst symptoms of the paralysis in Washington and at the Pentagon has been the inability to correctly match weapon systems with current enemy threat capabilities. Hence the United States Marine Corps is set to announce the final winner between defense contractors BAE Systems and SAIC to build and field their new Amphibious Combat Vehicle [1], or ACV.

Or should we say the old Amphibious Combat Vehicle? Because after 46 years and tens of billions of dollars, the Marines are right back where they started with this technology, which leaves no one—except maybe the contractors feeding off this farcical routine—feeling very satisfied.

So how did we get here?

The naval campaigns in the Pacific theater of World War II were successful due to the capability of the Marine Corps to conduct amphibious assaults against Japanese-held islands. Following the war this capability was written into law via the National Security Act of 1947, which stipulated that the Marine Corps was responsible for the seizure of advanced naval bases.

In order to move from Navy ships to enemy-held territory, the Marines must be transported across a distance of water and rely on what is generally called a connector. Both the Navy and Marine Corps operate various connectors from ship to shore, while the job of the Marines is to fight their way into enemy territory. Marine connectors only carry one weapon: Marines. Step one is to take the beach.

During World War II, the Navy ships could move to within a few miles of the Japanese-held islands before loading Marines into connectors. But with the advent of ballistic missile technology during the Cold War, a new weapon made its debut: the anti-ship missile.

The idea is simple. If Navy ships are within range of an anti-ship missile, they risk being severely damaged or even sunk. The solution is standoff. The Navy ships must stay outside the effective range of the missiles or use defensive measures to shoot the missiles down. This forces the ships further out to sea and increases the distance the connectors must travel over the open ocean to transport the Marines.

The connector vehicle the Marines adopted in 1972 was the Amphibious Assault Vehicle [2] or AAV. AAVs are stored in hollow lower sections of naval ships known as well decks, which can be flooded so the AAV can exit the aft end of the ship into the ocean. The vehicle moves through the water using two traditional water propellers and also has tracks similar to a tank in order to drive on land. The AAV can carry around 20 Marines, swim through the water at seven knots (nautical miles per hour; seven knots is eight mph for comparison), and has an advertised water range of approximately 20 nautical miles, which in reality is closer to five nautical miles.

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But anti-ship missile technology advanced in the 1980s, and proved deadly in the 1982 Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina as the British lost two ships* to French-built Exocet [3] missiles. So the Marine Corps and Navy rewrote their doctrine to move their ships over the horizon to approximately 12 nautical miles.

This strategy necessitated a new connector vehicle. Marine amphibious doctrine requires a “swift introduction of sufficient combat power ashore.” If the AAV can only swim at seven knots and the ships are 12 nautical miles away, you are looking at close to a two-hour ride to the beach. Time equals distance divided by speed. For the Marines stacked like sardines in full combat gear in the sweltering troop compartment of the AAV, this bumpy two hours becomes a rather nauseating and incapacitating experience.

So work began in earnest on the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle [4], or EFV, in the 1980s. It was designed with a powerful jet propulsion system that allowed it to plane above the water like a speedboat and achieve 25 knots, three times as fast as the AAV with a water range of approximately 65 nautical miles. Over the course of 20 years, more than $3 billion was invested in the program. Operational EFVs were due to be in service by 2015, completely replacing the aging AAVs.

But potential adversaries didn’t stagnate. They developed a defensive Anti-Access/Area Denial [5] (A2/AD) strategy. Waters around potential landing sites would be mined, and the range, speed, and lethality of anti-ship missiles enhanced significantly.

The increasing complexity of the operating environment did not go unnoticed. During the Obama administration’s first term, Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work envisioned an either/or [6] type of scenario for the future of amphibious conflict. Either Marines would land essentially unopposed as in Grenada in 1983 or the A2/AD posture of our enemies would be so preventative as to require a massive bombardment using long-range stand-off weapons like Tomahawk missiles and bombers to clear out anti-ship missiles and other defenses. Neither situation necessitated the use of a high-speed, heavily armored connector like the EFV.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled the EFV program [7] in 2011. Immediately afterwards, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Amos, decided to pursue the next iteration of troop connector named the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, or ACV. High speed on water remained a top priority as late as 2013.

After some research proposals were explored, General Amos decided in January 2014 that the ACV would be developed in a phased approach [8] with a decreased need for speed on water. The ACV 1.1 was to be an off-the-shelf, armored, wheeled vehicle that met requirements for armor protection on land but would rely on connectors like the Navy’s Landing Craft Air Cushion [9] (LCAC, aka Hovercraft) to move it swiftly from over the horizon at 40 knots to a few miles from its objectives, where it would then swim the last few miles. The LCAC has a large deck area that can accommodate several ACVs. Traditionally the LCAC would bring in heavy equipment like tanks or trucks after Marines secured a beach since the LCAC lacks armor protection.

The phased acquisitions approach was a tacit admission that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The Marine Corps asked industry for a vehicle that offered protection first and then speed on the water at some point in the future.

The ACV 1.1 would not be able to self-deploy and swim from a ship like the AAV or EFV. The Marine Corps would buy a smaller number of the ACV 1.1, upgrade older AAVs and keep them in service until 2030, and research and develop ACV 1.2, a high-speed, fully amphibious vehicle.

But this solution appears to have been smoke and mirrors. In March 2015, Marine Commandant Joseph Dunford testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee concerning the program. He said industry might merge the ACV 1.1 and ACV 1.2 [10] requirements together.

BAE Systems and SAIC were awarded $100 million each in December of 2015 to develop 16 test vehicles for ACV 1.1. And lo and behold, abracadabra, both company’s test vehicles could self-deploy and swim from a ship at, wait for it, seven knots—as fast as, you guessed it, the 1972 version.

Since the introduction of the AAV, almost 50 years have passed and many billions have been spent in research and development. And now the taxpayer will be footing the bill for a connector that holds fewer Marines than in 1972 (13 versus 20), swims at the same speed, and is more expensive.

The Marine Corps and industry are touting the fact that the ACV is under cost and ahead of schedule. The program is projected [11] to cost $1.2 billion with 204 vehicles operational by 2020.

In October 2017, deputy Marine commandant Lieutenant General Beaudreault [12] stated that “we have to find a solution to getting Marines to shore, from over the horizon, at something greater than seven knots. We’ve got to have high-speed connectors.”

It appears the deputy commandant didn’t get the memo. As the F-35 and USS Gerald Ford programs have shown, whenever the system wins, the warfighter and taxpayer lose.

*Story has been changed to reflect the British loss of one destroyer and one container ship during the Falklands War in 1982.

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show [13] (2018).

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Amphibious Vehicles Are the Military’s Latest Tax Dollar Sinkhole"

#1 Comment By Centralist On May 24, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

I believe a good movie for this is Pentagon Wars. It’s free on youtube

#2 Comment By snapper On May 24, 2018 @ 1:48 pm

Military nerd nitpik. The British did not lose two capital ships in the Falklands. They lost 2 destroyers, 2 frigates, and a landing ship.

Capital ships typically refers to carriers or (in the old days) battleships.

If they had lost their 2 capital ships (they only had 2), the invasion would have failed.

#3 Comment By john On May 24, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

Well from a naval architecture perspective, you can’t push a heavy square object very fast unless massive power is used. Massive power means a big engine and lots of fuel, and less armor. The laws of physics won’t be changed by spending 1 billion or even 100 billion. You want it to go faster, make it longer and narrower, instead of 7 knots maybe it goes 9.

#4 Comment By b. On May 24, 2018 @ 2:33 pm

Loitering munitions – drones and mines over the beach, on the water, under water – and missiles that can target amphibious vehicles just as well as they could target ships raise the question whether the “contested amphibious landing” scenario is nothing more than murderously incompetent nostalgia.

Anything that can force navy vessels over the horizon can put smaller vessels down – including vessels already under water.

There is an inherent bias towards defense in systems now called “autonomous”, the ancestry of which goes from drones back to cruise missiles, cluster bombs, guided missiles, torpedoes, and the landmine. Of course, the US will counter-productively focus on how to use these as offensive capabilities. This is an arms race that will not favor the aggressor.

#5 Comment By The Anti-Gnostic On May 24, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

the “contested amphibious landing” scenario is nothing more than murderously incompetent nostalgia.

I’m going with this. Sending human waves in floating metal coffins while the enemy exhausts its ammo belongs mercifully in the past.

#6 Comment By mojrim On May 24, 2018 @ 4:25 pm

This development debacle is a perfect example of nostalgia: seeing the past in soft focus, gazing lovingly upon the good and blotting out the ugly. Amphibious landings have always depended on (relative) massive defense suppression, be that shore guns, artillery, or anti-ship air. Mines and beach obstacles are nothing new either. What’s missing is the navy: the guns are gone, the planes are fast and skinny, and the UDTs are AWOL. Thus the Corps is trying to go it alone, a proposition doomed to failure.

#7 Comment By JG On May 24, 2018 @ 4:47 pm

Snapper Comment about capital ships. You are correct, article has been updated. Thank you for correction.

#8 Comment By David Smith On May 24, 2018 @ 6:15 pm

21 Trillion dollars missing from the pentagon, and that isn’t counting all the contractors who have been ripping off the military for decades. We spend so much money on our armed forces and everyone believes we have the most powerful military in the world, it is going to come as a complete surprise when we find out that we don’t. Our most advanced weapons systems do not work, our carriers are practically useless against any modernized enemy. We keep making old and useless weapon systems to keep the economy of certain states from completely collapsing. And our leaders are so damn stupid they actually believe our own propaganda.

God help us if we actually manage to start a war with Russia.

#9 Comment By J Harlan On May 24, 2018 @ 8:56 pm

Without opposed landings what is the USMC for? It must pretend it might do Tarawa again or risk it’s existence. What likely scenario could not be done by a MEU using helicopters off a LPH etc.

Likewise for army airborne forces. Under what scenario would you need (not want for show or justification)to mass parachute a brigade or division? I’d be interested in seeing war game results of parachute operations against first and second rate enemies. These would need to be launched in secrecy from beyond the range of helicopters to seize and hold an airhead(s). Imagine Dien Bien Phu but the Viet Minh get Manpads, PKMs and laser guided ATGWs.

I doubt helicopter-borne forces would fair well either. CH-47s would be death traps against a second rate enemy (the Taliban are 4th at best).

#10 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On May 25, 2018 @ 12:51 am

A better question should be asked. When and where, under what scenario, would these things ever be used? Uncle Sam is hell bent to develop the fastest, best fighter jet in the world, to spend billions of dollars that could go to education, housing, health care or, it could stay in the pockets of the taxpayers. To have a dog fight with who? ISIS? Hamas? Taliban? Muslim Brotherhood? Who? The Chinese? The Russians? In what fevered dream could a shooting war with Russia or China ever take place? Weapons programs are jobs programs, pure and simple. And no representative wants to lose jobs in their district. Pure 100%, 200 proof hypocrisy.

#11 Comment By T2 On May 25, 2018 @ 11:31 am

We should question the political influence of the production and profit of the ACV.

It reminds me of the Abrams tanks that the Army said it didn’t want; however, the General Dynamics Land Systems plant in Lima, which is the only U.S. manufacturer of tanks, is in the district of Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio a powerful politician and member of the Freedom Caucus.

#12 Comment By W On May 25, 2018 @ 11:46 am

I think Marines should transform into Frogmen.

#13 Comment By Bill Carson On May 25, 2018 @ 1:35 pm

Weapons programs are not just jobs programs, but they are a means whereby taxpayer dollars are transferred to the private sector—to stockholders.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 26, 2018 @ 1:51 am

Should there be a neither major conflict, it is not unwise to consider shore landings.

As I was reading this, by the time I got the second paragraph, I was thinking the — hovercraft. In fact, one could lightly armor its frame. In my view at those speeds there are not going to be easy targets.

But seven knots for twelve miles — that ‘s the marines old attitude –“oh well make it work and we will do.” “Make it happen.”

in this instance bad choice. Part of the problem is that we have not has to face an adversary that would this decision unthinkable — so there ya go.

the need for speed is the answer — seems we could remodel the old PT109’s.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 26, 2018 @ 1:56 am

Note: on of the advantages of the Assault vehicles is that once they hit land they are effective in providing fire and cover support several miles inland.

#16 Comment By Hibernian On May 26, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

@ J.B. Wiederspan

And education, housing, and healthcare programs, when government financed and run, are jobs programs for social workers and superfluous politically connected file clerks.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 27, 2018 @ 4:10 am

“A better question should be asked. When and where, under what scenario, would these things ever be used?”

And with all of the references below, if one is going claim a victory, they must occupy the space. The younger generations may think they can win conflicts via drones, and air power, ship to land — I don’t need high tech to defeat hi-tech weapons, smog, smoke and fog and moisture will do just fine.

Want to take down a 200 million dollar aircraft — not airbursts but millions and millions of floating tiny fins of foil into any exhaust system will.

But eventually, you have to have bodies on site. That means fighting man to man (I wouldn’t give two cents for robot decision making in battle).

Humans are creative dynamic beings, if they decide to fight they will and superior air power will not solve bunkers, and tunnels, and trenches, mountains, sand dunes, jungles, swamps, mud, snow . . . —-

You have you occupy that space and that means risking blood. It is that tragedy that makes wars the last least best political solution, best not fought —

#18 Comment By Whine Merchant On May 28, 2018 @ 3:31 am

Fortunately, we now have a graduate of a military primary and high school in the decision-maker role. I understand that he is asking for Q from MI6 and someone from Wayne Industries to provide all the innovations the military requires.

#19 Comment By Major Rage On May 29, 2018 @ 9:35 am

Oh, look! Can you see what is happening on the rocky heights up there? It’s a squad of Marines raising Old Glory in victory above Mount Boondoggle. Someone get a camera!