Will Three Pedestals of Transformation Leave USMC with No Leg to Stand On?
By Mark Ash
For future operations the United States Marine Corps will require the ability to move
“over the horizon” from amphibious taskforces to hostile landing areas. To accomplish
this the USMC is placing its future with three systems, the EFV (Expeditionary Fighting
Vehicle, formerly AAAV), the V-22 Osprey and the LCAC (Landing Craft, Air Cushion). Lately major doubts have been raised about the future effectiveness and cost of these systems.
The EFV program started as the AAAV (Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle) in the mid-90s as a replacement for the aging AAVP7A1. At first General Dynamics claimed that the vehicle would have the mobility and protection to effectively operate with the Marine Corps’ M1A1 Abrams 63-ton Main Battle Tank. The AAAV also would have a 30mm cannon and a very high water speed thanks to the ability to retract the suspension into the hull. While the AAAV has indeed proven its high water speed, it isn’t without a price. The engine is a massive 12-cylinder diesel with an output of 2575 hp. On land it will be governed down to 850 hp. It is a very heavy and complex piece of machinery that takes up considerable internal volume. This lead the vehicle to be over its design weight and meant the AAAV would not gain any protection over the current AAVP7A1. The AAAV also needs over twice as much fuel to cover the same amount of territory as the AAVP7A1. Is flies in the face of the Marine Corps desire to reduce its “logistics tail” while conducting ground campaigns. The hydraulics will also be very complex. Having served with AAVs, I know maintaining of the comparatively simple AAV7A1 can be challenging. A program started in 1999 to upgrade the existing AAVP7A1s with a more powerful engine and the Bradley IFV’s suspension meaning the AAVP7A1 RAM/RS has the ability to keep pace with M1A1s on land. Several one-man turrets with a 20mm, 25mm or 30mm cannon can be fitted to the AAVP7A1, giving it nearly as much firepower as the AAAV. But this upgrade was not pursued in favor of the AAAV. What is the Marine Corps left with? A system that gives increased water speed, a decrease in infantry carrying capacity and at a massive cost with no other measurable gains. A vehicle that will be hard to support and a very tempting target to budget cuts or cancellation, threatening the Marine Corps signature mission of amphibious forced entry and maneuver warfare.
The EFV/AAAV is scheduled to go into low rate production in FY2006, so there is still time to come up with a fast maturing alternative, if the Marine Corps acts with the speed and determination as it did on so many islands in the South Pacific during the Second World War. What is needed is a simpler vehicle with a more modest water speed. A vehicle with greatly enhanced protection and land capabilities then either the AAVP7A1 or the EFV/AAAV. With the technologies available now that weren’t available back in the mid-90s this wouldn’t be hard. Nor would it be a long and expensive process with modern design techniques and software. If the Marine Corps fails to take the initiative it will lose it’s signature mission, leaving the Corps as merely a second land army, if it continues to exist at all. This isn’t the only program with problems though.
The V-22 Osprey is as controversial as it is need. The aged CH-46 should have been retired nearly a decade ago, however it must soldier on while problems persist with its replacement. While the Osprey program goes back to the 1980s, the design can trace itself back to the U.S. Navy’s XV-15 in the mid-1970s. No major alterations of the design have taken place since then. Despite the V-22 first flying in March of 1989, several crashes have exposed the design as flawed. Instead of initiating a new program, the Marine Corps has doggedly continued with the current program and it will continue to cost the USMC more of its most valuable asset, Marines. To make matters worse, those who are against the tilt-rotor aircraft concept are able to use the Osprey’s failures as ammunition against future projects. This will deprive the U.S. Military of a very flexible and potent design concept. While there isn’t much hope for the V-22 itself, there is still hope for the Marine Corps. Instead of placing in the engines with the rotors out on the wing tips, it would be better to move those engines inboard, where if one of the engines seizes up, it won’t leave dead weight far from the aircraft’s center of gravity. There is already a drive shaft that runs from wingtip-to-wingtip. This is to synchronize the rotors and provide emergency power to a rotor if the engine fails. If the engines are placed inboard, they can still run the rotors on the wingtips via this drive shaft. The second thing that needs to be done is placement of a second wing at the rear of the aircraft, with another set of rotors and engines. This will increase lifting power, as not as much attention must be places on balancing the load on one wing. This will increase safety, as the rear rotors will be able to keep the aircraft from losing altitude while the front wing transitions to forward flight. Once enough forward airspeed has been gained to give the aircraft the lift it needs, the rear wing can transition forward as well. This basic design also has the ability to be scaled up. Many in the U.S. Military see the need of a C-130 sized tilt rotor aircraft to operate along with the new “Sea Base” concept. Along with this there are four-engined civilian tilt rotor aircraft currently available proving that this concept is not only possible, but safe as well.
The third system the Marine Corps is basing its future on is the LCAC (Landing Craft, Air Cushion). Despite the fact that it entered U.S. service at the end of the Cold War, the high operation tempo since then means that to stay in service the LCAC must undergo a costly service life extension program (SLEP). Even after such a program its cargo carrying capacity is limited at best. While the 40 knots plus operating speed is handy, much time is consumed loading and unloading equipment. There are two alternatives to this. One being the LCU( R), or Landing Craft Utility (Replacement) and the HLCAC or Heavy LCAC. The first being more along conventional landing craft lines, with the capacity to carry three M1A1s up to speeds of 30 knots and the second simply tries to double the current LCACs capacity. With looming defense budget cuts these two programs, as well as the LCAC (SLEP) have a doubtful future. So, will the Marine Corps be left without a leg to stand on, or will it take the initiative to secure its own future as only the Marine Corps can?
About the Author
Mark Ash is a former US Marine, who served honorably from 1996 through 2002. He served with AAVs in Twenty-Nine Palms for three and a half of those years.