This is part IV of a four-part series on AAVs. You can read part I here, part II here, and part III here.

I return to the AAV that sunk in July and the question that prompted me to write this: What caused the sinking? Was it a human or mechanical error, or the condition of the sea? The retired Master Sergeant I spoke with, my former fellow platoon commander at 2nd AA Bn, had some theories: “Too much pressure from water on the plenums. Bad plenum seal, etc.” In the comments section of one article about the incident, a user named DevilDog47 claimed that the Sailor got a top hatch open, but the sea levels were so bad, a wave smashed it back down and crushed him. How did he know? Was he there? Could he be a Marine who watched from a nearby amtrack? 

As for me, I think back to an eyewitness account saying that the AAV “rapidly sank.” From my experience in amtracks, I can only assume that there was a major failure in the vehicle’s watertight integrity for it to go down so quickly. Normally, an AAV taking on water would at least allow enough time for the crew and passengers to evacuate. As multiple commentators have written in the comments sections of articles about this mishap, it’s likely that the culprit was the plenums. This is a cavernous section at the front of an AAV, so big that, when open, it could fit a sleeping Marine. When it is filled with water, the AAV takes a front-loaded nosedive into the ocean.

I don’t question the safety of the AAV. I rode in them in the water many times without incident. Although the bulk of my time in the Marines was spent in MRAPs and in the desert, I knew other officers and enlisted Marines who operated AAVs with hardly a single mishap. It’s not their safety that concerns me so much as their usefulness. I spoke to an Air Force officer about the future of amphibious war. He made a point: there is a certain nostalgia surrounding amphibious operations by generals who cut their teeth on amphibious operations. Marines take blitzkrieg to heart.

U.S. Marines with Combat Assault Company, 3rd Marine Regiment, stage their assault amphibious vehicles during around-the-clock operations on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, May 28, 2020. CAC conducted the training in order to enhance combat readiness and amphibious landing proficiency. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jacob Wilson)

While we, the public, won’t know the cause of the July accident until the investigation is concluded, it is a foregone conclusion. The tragic accident confirms what we already know: AAVs are as obsolete today as the warhorses that rode into battle at the start of World War I. Those horses were originally essential parts of a military’s offensive force. Yet, as warfare evolved and modern weaponry was introduced, their utility on the battlefield was lost. Like those horses, the AAV no longer belongs on the battlefield. 

The future of the American military is low-intensity conflict and small unit tactics. But high-risk training will always be a part of the military experience. As the economist Thomas Sowell wrote, “There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs; and you try to get the best trade-off you can get, that’s all you can hope for.” In the AAV’s nearly five decade run, there are officially only two that sunk and resulted in the loss of life. There is no question that amphibious operations training means high-risk training, but is that risk being deposited into an account that will later pay dividends, or is it simply a risk being taken for the sake of keeping a dying capability afloat?

In other words, training on the AAV is not training for a war that will happen, but one that already took place in the past. AAVs are as irrelevant in today’s world as the very amphibious assaults they were built to lead. Other than for recruiting purposes and PR — and maybe the occasional humanitarian aid or disaster relief mission — they belong in that museum, the one with YAT-YAS written on the side. 

The Marine Corps, on the other hand, needs to return to its amphibious roots as America’s expeditionary force-in-readiness. The evolving doctrine for amphibious operations will hopefully be met by the Amphibious Combat Vehicle and news that the Marine Corps, like amphibious operations, is upgrading and preparing for future war. If it doesn’t, it will be stuck in the past, in a museum of its own making.