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. 

But the program for the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), the replacement to the AAV, was terminated on January 6, 2011, after spending approximately three billion in funding. The reasoning behind the termination cited poor reliability, demonstrated during operational testing, and excessive cost growth. A major obstacle proved to be creating a prototype that could skim the water’s surface — almost like a hovercraft or a jet ski — rather than swimming through it like the AAV. In water, the AAV moves with 75 percent of its bulk submerged, giving it a low, but slow, profile. To increase speed on the water and lethality on land, the EFV traded in the low profile of the AAV and mounted a stabilized Bushmaster II 30mm cannon. Yet, after years of trying and faltering, confidence in the program wavered until its eventual cancellation. Even if the program had been successful, it would have cost another $12 billion to build the vehicles. Virtually all of the Marine Corps’s vehicle procurement budget would have been behind the EFV. 

An Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle at the Amphibious Test Vehicle Branch is displayed with its bow flap fully extended. The EFV did not pass testing and was never produced for the Marine Corps despite billions of dollars spent on R&D. (Source: DoD)

For its 2021 budget, the Marine Corps requested $46 billion, a slight uptick from its 2020 budget of $45.9 billion. As part of its request, the Corps has plans to reduce its numbers from 186,200 to 184,100 personnel, a sign of the continued drawdown, and a way to afford modern equipment and weapon systems. This reduction in forces from the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is part of the plan to position the Corps to where it needs to be in the next 15 years. According to budget documents, the Marine Corps is being reshaped to fulfill its mission “as a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness and prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime space in support of fleet operations.”

Of the 2021 budget, the Marine Corps plans to spend about 6 percent, or $2.9 billion, on new equipment. That includes the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Amphibious Combat Vehicle, High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet. After the EFV was permanently shelved in 2011, the Marine Corps took a knee and reset. Then Marine Corps Commandant General Jim Amos formed the Ellis Group: 10 handpicked officers and civilians charged with rethinking how the Marine Corps will conduct future amphibious operations. After three months, the group gave their recommendations and two years later, in January 2013, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, or ACV, program launched. 

With the AAV hitting its fourth decade of service and the EFV program having created discouragement and disappointment, the Marine Corps had to avoid delays and cost overruns with the ACV. Arguably, the EFV program was too ambitious at the time. It sought to create a vehicle with the capability to maneuver while combat-loaded with a Marine rifle squad at 20-25 knots in the water from 65 miles offshore and move cross country with agility and mobility equal to or greater than that of the M1 Abrams. It was probably two or three steps ahead of what the Corps could hope to achieve with fiscal constraints and technical limitations. What it needed was a vehicle to immediately replace the AAV, but still offer an improvement.

With costs being a top-line issue, priorities were set and weighed against the money put aside for the program. The development of the ACV became the Corps’s number one acquisition priority. The pressure was on to find a balance between a vehicle that would be enough of an improvement over the AAV to warrant its procurement, but not so much that it would become untenable and run over budget thus repeating the failings of the EFV program. Above all, the Marine Corps could not continue to maintain its status as a modern amphibious force with the over-the-hill AAV. 

In June 2018, the Marine Corps awarded the ACV contract to BAE Systems. The individual, off-the-shelf ACV comes at a price tag of five-six million, compared to the $24 million price per unit of an EFV. The Marine Corps has already purchased 56 ACVs and plans to buy 72 more next year, for a total of $470 million. What is the Marine Corps getting for that money? The ACV essentially takes a single, less ambitious step forward than the EFV, focusing on IED survivability, better armor, and armaments, rugged mobility over all-terrain. And there are plans for an eventual high-water speed variant. In a multi-phased approach, starting with the ACV 1.1, this new vehicle largely matches the capabilities of the AAV when wet, with top water speeds of eight knots and capable of a 12-mile ship-to-shore movement, though it will likely be traveling at only five miles maximum. Due to the range of modern missile defense systems, ships need to maintain a standoff distance of anywhere from 75-100 miles from shore. Thus, a connector, such as an LCAC or LCU, will be used to bring the ACV to within five miles of the beach, where it can then deploy at the five-yard line to run the ball into the end zone. 

Marines take the Amphibious Combat Vehicle 1.1 out for a ride aboard Camp Pendleton, California. The Amphibious Combat Vehicle program office at Program Executive officer Land Systems recently completed ACV 1.2 anticipated requirement testing and has determined the ACV technologically capable of fully replacing the legacy Assault Amphibious Vehicle. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

In terms of survivability, the ACV surpasses the AAV and even replicates the attributes of the MRAP, with a higher ground clearance, a V-shaped hull, and the ability to drive with a missing wheel (four wheels per side) or re-inflate with a centralized tire inflation system. It will carry fewer Marines than the AAV, only 10-13 per vehicle. This means that a reinforced Marine rifle squad will be split between two ACVs as opposed to being packed into one AAV.

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

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One of the big differences is the switch from tracks to wheels. While it would seem that tracks make for better mobility across all terrains, developments during the Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC) program that was canceled in 2013, led to an in-line drive technology. This allows all four wheels on each side to pull together, much like that of a track, and without the mobility kill that would result if an IED blew a track off its sprockets.

The armament will change to a single 30 mm cannon allowing for faster and greater lethality. Additionally, it will be housed in a remote weapons station, thus offering protection to the gunner inside. The ACV 1.1 can be thought of as a hybrid, incorporating the best features of the AAV, MPC, and MRAP, but leaning more closely to an armored and amphibious personnel carrier than a true amphibious assault craft. On land, the wheeled ACV will have a much greater tactical advantage than the AAV, while maintaining the same capabilities in the water.

Program Executive Officer Land Systems put the Amphibious Combat Vehicle 1.1 through high surf testing in December 2018 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The vehicle successfully navigated through waves measuring over six feet in height, meeting the ACV 1.2 anticipated requirements, and enabling the Marine Corps to combine the program into a singular ACV family of vehicles. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Perhaps one of its best features, to DoD personnel at least, is its significantly reduced cost compared to that of the AAV and the dead EFV. Wheeled vehicles are much cheaper to sustain than tracked vehicles and “overall lifecycle costs will be significantly reduced.” With five decades of AAV service-life which extended maintenance costs and sucked up money, and the billions sunk into the doomed EFV program, having a reliable, survivable, and lethal amphibious combat vehicle for the next 15 years will create openings for the modernization and procurement of other needed equipment and weapon systems.

But even with the ACV rolling out, the question that always seems to come up is: what does the future of war look like?

This is part II of a four-part series on AAVs. Part III will publish tomorrow. You can read part I HERE.