Amphibious warfare capabilities, the ability to project military power onto a hostile shore, is a unique tactic exclusive to the Marine Corps. Since 1972, the Marines have used Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs), a sort of hybrid between a boat and tank, to safely transport Marines directly from ships and up onto land.
In 1988, the Marines decided to initiate an Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAAV) program, which in 2003 was renamed as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program. In 1996, the Marine Corps awarded General Dynamics a contract to build 573 of the vehicles with full operational capability by 2025.
This 13 billion dollar project substantially upgrades the previous AAV models. For example, the original AAVs’ high speed in water is about 8 knots. They carry a 50 caliber machine gun and must be deployed less than two miles from shore.
“In today’s day and age that’s a troubling aspect to have to operate in when missile defenses and rogue terrorists are able to get a hold of shoulder mounted weapons,” said Emanuel Pacheco, public affairs officer of the U.S. Marine Corps EFV Program Office.
The new EFVs can deploy from their mother-ships as far as 25 miles from shore, can reach up to 25-30 knots in the water and come equipped with a stabilized 360 degree turret and a 30mm cannon that can reach targets up to 2,000 meters away.
“It’s a night and day difference,” said Pacheco.
But the program has received strong criticism both from Congress and defense experts, mainly due to an initial testing phase in 2006, which showed various problems associated with the new vehicles.
The Congressional Research Service has expressed concerns about the vehicles vulnerability to IEDs in its report, The Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV): Background and Issues for Congress, released Sept. 1, 2011.
The report states, “The improvised explosive device (IED) threat that has plagued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan was not envisioned in 1988 when the EFV program was initiated. The EFV’s low ground
clearance and flat bottom make it particularly vulnerable to IEDs; this has raised congressional concern that the EFV, as currently designed, would provide inadequate protection to transported Marines.
Other main problems included the frequent jamming of the 30mm cannon, and the average time between operational mission failures was very low, only 4.5 hours.
But Pacheco said important lessons were learned from the initial testing and the whole program has been basically redesigned.
Part of the reason for the high failure rate, he said, was that the vehicles had been put through the equivalent of 20 to 30 years of testing at the bases before actually going through the operational assessment.
So when the EFVs go through the second phase of testing scheduled to begin in November to see if these problems have been resolved, they will evaluate seven brand new prototypes, rather than the originals they used before.
“I think it’s fair to say that this is the litmus test to see if the program goes forward,” Pacheco said.
The testing will last until the end of January. Each vehicle will have to endure 500 hours of mini-missions and operate 16 hours before experiencing mission failure in order to pass.
“We’re optimistic we’ll be in the low 20s [of hours] just based on all the early testing that we’ve done,” Pacheco said. “We’ve had a lot of success in high water testing and we put more time and effort into the turret system in these new prototypes just to ensure that we work out a lot of the bugs early on.”
But Lawrence Korb, defense budget expert and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says the EFV program is too costly and is a misuse of tax-payer dollars.
“It’s not that you don’t want them [Marines] to be able to project power from the sea. They’ll still be able to come ashore and do various things, but you don’t need this expensive vehicle,” Korb said.
Over the past 25 years, the Marines have conducted 106 amphibious operations, most of which have been humanitarian crisis support missions such as those in Rwanda, Somalia and most recently in Haiti. The Marines also used their amphibious capability to evacuate American citizens from Lebanon in 2006.
“When are you going to do an amphibious landing under fire again?” asked Korb. “We haven’t done that since 1950.”
But Pacheco says that doesn’t mean the Marines don’t need the capability.
“We’re not going to be in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of our history. There’s trouble brewing around the corner somewhere and we have to continue to be most ready when perhaps that the nation is the least ready,” Pacheco said, echoing a Corps slogan. “And part of that requires us to get back to those roots, to be a force in readiness and to be ready to deploy.”
In June 2010, the Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group of more than a dozen defense experts, published Debt, Deficits, & Defense: A Way Forward, a report that recommends canceling the EFV program and refurbishing the older AAVs instead, which it says would save $8 billion to $9 billion between 2011 and 2020.
Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees voted to fully fund the President’s FY11 EFV budget request, but their support, along with that of the Secretary of Defense, will likely end for the next defense budget submission due in February if the EFVs don’t pass this upcoming test.