Editor’s Note: This is part II of a four-part series on AAVs. You can read part I HERE.

Plans to develop a replacement for the Amphibious Assault Vehicle date back at least 25 years. They have cost the Marine Corps about $3.5 billion across four different failed high-water speed amphibious vehicles. Interestingly, the general public rarely hears about AAVs outside accidents involving sinking or loss of life; the public is typically unaware the vehicle exists at all. But the AAV is central to the Marine Corps’s amphibious assault mission, and the only vehicle of its kind across the military branches.

In Iraq, AAVs looked more like armored personnel carriers than landing craft, rolling and booming on their threaded tracks over the desert at speeds of up to 45 Mph. Civilians probably mistook them as a tank variant. Lighter than a tank, but with armament that includes a .50 caliber machine gun, MK-19 grenade launcher, and .240 machine gun in a turret 10 feet high, an AAV could inflict significant damage while providing overwatch and cover for infantry in tow.

However, the growing threat of IEDs against the AAV’s flat aluminum hull, its vulnerability to RPG fire when the back ramp is lowered, and its armor’s inability to defend against tanks, demonstrated the disadvantages of using AAVs as armored personnel carriers. In March 2003, during the battle of Nasiriyah, eight AAVs were disabled during fighting in “Ambush Alley.” Then in August 2005, 14 Marines were killed when their AAV struck a roadside bomb in Haditha. 

U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Marines assigned to Combat Services Support Battalion 18 (CSSB-18) work to retrieve a destroyed USMC Amphibious Assault Vehicle, (AAV7A1) near an-Nasiriya, Iraq. (Photo by Master Sergeant Edward D. Kniery, USMC)

As the war in Iraq raged on, and even when the focus shifted back to Afghanistan, Marine officers working in Washington must have sensed that their greatest fear slowly being realized: The nation would wonder why it has a second land army — the Marine Corps — fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and why should not the two branches just become one massive force? In 2010, it was reported in the Los Angeles Times that then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had “ordered a review of the future role of the Marine Corps, given the ‘anxiety’ that service in Iraq and Afghanistan had turned the Corps into ‘a second land army.'”

This fear of losing relevance explains why Marines, meant to act as a rapid response, light infantry force aboard ships and sea bases around the world, have always played a part in the big wars, even if it meant as a long-term, occupying land force, like the Army. 

Looking back at my deployment to Afghanistan, with Marines policing the country as nation-builders and winners of hearts and minds, we seemed out of place. The fact that the Marines have always espoused the “do more with less” philosophy and an attitude of not caring about bigger budgets, but about fighting and winning wars, endeared them to the public. But these principles have less meaning to a nation increasingly in debt and weary of neverending wars. With the identity of the Marine Corps tied to its amphibious assault mission, and that mission requiring a modern vehicle to fight future wars, the Marine Corps would need to develop an affordable replacement to the AAV in order to stay afloat as a separate branch.

That they intended to reemphasize the Marine Corps’s role as an amphibious force after Iraq and Afghanistan seems evident in the EFV program. An expeditionary, force-in-readiness Navy/Marine Corps team, sailors alongside “soldiers of the sea,” fighting in littoral and brown water regions, was the original vision for the Marine Corps. But with no major amphibious landings conducted since the Korean War in 1950, Marines have historically been in search of a mission. They suffer being culled down, underfunded, and maybe even dismantled or assimilated.