A curious acronym adorns the side of an unassuming, khaki-colored Quonset hut aboard Camp Del Mar, CA. Painted in red on the wall are the bold letters “YAT-YAS.” Del Mar is part of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, so it’s easy to dismiss it as just another military acronym. But if a passerby stopped and asked a nearby Marine, “What does that mean?” the Marine would grin and reply, “You ain’t tracks, you ain’t shit.”

The hut, itself looking like a relic of World War I and like it might contain an old biplane from that era, is actually the World War II/Korea LVT museum. LVT stands for Landing Vehicle, Tracked. It is the predecessor of today’s assault amphibious vehicle, or AAV, or “Green Dragon,” “Big Green Monster,” “Gator,” “Amtrac,” “Track,” its different names go on and on. Yet, one thing the vehicle platform has yet to be called is retired. But that is soon to change, and the AAV may very well find itself inside that Quonset hut museum, with the museum’s name updated to WWII/Korea/OIF LVT and AAV Museum.

Rear of WWII/Korea LVT Museum, Kraus Street, Camp Del Mar, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. YAT-YAS means “You Ain’t Tracks, You Ain’t Shit.” (Source: Wiki Commons)

The Assault Amphibian Schoolhouse for both enlisted Marines and officers is located aboard Camp Del Mar, just down the road from the museum. I passed it on most days I was there for the amphibious officer course, 12 years ago. It was then I learned that YAT-YAS is the amtracker’s motto. I think it’s because they take a special kind of pride in their mission. After all, it succinctly describes the amphibious nature and mission of the Marine Corps. Just take a look at the Marines’ website. The section — Our Mission — features a hero image of a hulking AAV barreling onto a beach, excess ocean water draining from its hull, and sea spray shooting behind it. It captures aggression, violence of action, and embodies the old nickname for Marines, soldiers of the sea. It’s a modern-day sea monster come to wreak havoc. 

Marine Corps Systems Command awarded a contract to BAE Systems to produce and deliver the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, following a successful Milestone C decision by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition. The contract options, worth $198 million, called for BAE Systems to build 30 low rate production vehicles beginning in 2017.

In typical gallows humor, a hallmark of the military, Marines jokingly refer to AAVs as “aluminum coffins,” a much less flattering moniker than those listed above. There is a reason for that. Inside an AAV, up to 18 combat-loaded Marines (and there’s always room for more) can be packed in as the vehicle swims through the ocean to a beach or back to ship. Claustrophobia, seasickness, and aching muscles from sitting stiffly with gear on for an hour or more are the norm.

But then there’s the mental anxiety, knowing you’re riding in a creaky old amphibious vehicle built in the 1970s. A shallow puddle of water sloshing around your feet and dripping from the above hatches, smelling the salty seaweed mixture and diesel exhaust, not knowing how much longer it will be, but knowing that you’re actually sitting beneath the ocean surface in what feels like a dank dungeon, pitching left and right in rough seas while traveling at a top speed of only eight miles per hour. And then there is the yellow life preserver around your neck, and you look up and think, those two long, narrow cargo hatches are my best option for egress. If not that, then maybe the back hatch, but that’s only if you’re sitting close enough, can reach it in time, and force it open against the weight of the ocean.

On July 30, at 5:45 p.m., roughly 80 miles west of Del Mar and the LVT museum with YAT-YAS on its side, an AAV carrying 15 Marines and one Sailor was returning to the amphibious transport dock Somerset after a mock raid against a beach on the northwest side of San Clemente Island. It was about a mile away from the beach when it began taking on water. Below its bottom hull was the 400 feet-deep ocean. Witnesses in nearby AAVs said it sank quickly with the passengers still onboard.

Amphibious Combat Vehicles and the Future of War, Part Four: The Last War Horse

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Eight Marines managed to escape, but one was pronounced dead at the scene. The ones who didn’t — all riflemen — and the Sailor — likely their corpsman — would have all been sitting in “the dungeon,” the troop compartment in the back. The three-man crew — vehicle commander, driver, and rear crewman — were likely able to open their individual hatches and shimmy out before the 26-ton vehicle submerged. Five of the Marines in the troop compartment must have managed to climb or swim out of at least one of the cargo hatches above them or made the tight squeeze through the turret or rear crewman hatches and kick to the surface after the vehicle had already gone under. The cause of the sinking is still unknown, but AAV water operations have been halted while an investigation is underway.

In the wake of that tragedy, I’ve come to doubt that roaring, ferocious image of the snarling green beast bursting from the waves, dropping its ramp, and depositing squads of Marine rifleman into the enemy’s front yard. At nearly 50 years old, AAVs are no longer young, agile fighting machines. I’ve also wondered if they, and their soon-to-be successor, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), will withstand the test of future warfare and be practical platforms for fighting threats yet to come. 

When I was an amphibious officer, occasionally I heard about tracks sinking, but nothing like this mishap. It marks the worst loss of life from an AAV accident in Marine Corps history. That it happened is tragic. That Marines died during training is even worse.

It made me pause and think: whatever happened to the AAV’s supposed replacement?

First, there was the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle, and then the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and finally the Amphibious Combat Vehicle. Further, it made me wonder just how necessary they are to future war. I spoke to a Marine with whom I served, a fellow amtracker. He was a gunnery sergeant and platoon commander at the time we were with 2nd AA Battalion. He retired as a master sergeant, then worked as a civilian contractor on the EFV program to replace the AAV. I asked him if he thought the entire AAV fleet should be retired.

“Yes, they should be retired due to the age of the platform. In today’s threat like IEDs… it doesn’t offer protection like MRAPS.”

AAVs have been used for purposes other than ship-to-shore movement during combat in the past, and they still do a good deal of training on land. In Iraq in 2003, they carried Task Force Tarawa across the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border and north toward Baghdad. But should they still be used for non-amphibious purposes?

“No, they shouldn’t be used for other purposes. Again, it doesn’t offer protection for the Marines and it would be a logistical nightmare to get them even close to an objective.”

If AAVs are a potential hazard in the water and no longer defensible against the modern threat of IEDs, what happened to that program to replace the AAV? 

“Money!”

This is part I of a four-part series on AAVs. You can read part II HERE