USMC Battling for the Future…
September 28, 2009
USMC Battling for the Future
In QDR, Corps Presses Case for Missions, Systems
The U.S. Marine Corps’ traditional amphibious assault mission is under review by the Quadrennial Defense Review along with the ships, aircraft and systems needed to execute it. Marines say the mission is key to their future as DoD struggles with a tightening budget.
By VAGO MURADIAN And KRIS OSBORN
The U.S. Marine Corps is fighting for the future of Afghanistan over seas, but back at home, officials are battling for the Corps’ future in the Quadrennial Defense Review.
Virtually everything important to the service’s future is up for grabs, from its core amphibious assault missions to its vehicle, ship and aircraft programs, current and former Marines say. And it’s all happening as the Pentagon responds to intense budget pressure that has already forced the cancellation of several high-profile weapon programs belonging to its sister services.
Perhaps no program is bigger or more controversial than its $14 billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a tank-sized amphibian Marine leaders see as essential to preserving its core amphibious assault mission.
Long-delayed, expensive and seen as vulnerable to roadside bombs, EFV is viewed by some as a symbol of ineffective program development, but by others as a key to advancing the Marine Corps into the future.
Pentagon, Navy and Marine sources said it’s too early to pass judgment on the program.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently labeled EFV “exquisite,” a term coined by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to describe systems so ambitious in design and scope that costs become disproportionate to the advantage they bring to the war fighter. Gates used the term in connection with several systems, including the Air Force’s F-22 fighter program, which the secretary ended ahead of plan earlier this year. But to Marine leaders, the service’s amphibious assault mission and the ships and gear needed to perform it remain critical. Without the mission, the service starts looking to some like a second Army. That’s why so many Marines say this review is the most important one in a long time.
“Since 1946, there has always been this tension about the existence of a Marine Corps so the threat is palpable in this QDR given the budget issues in the background,” said retired Marine Gen. Bob Magnus, a former assistant commandant. “This happens every generation and it’s fair to say that this time around there are more issues and programs at play.” The key player in making the Corps’ case will be Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway. As one retired three-star observed, Conway will have to “put on his magic armor and get out his broadsword for this one.” How much capability the Corps will be left with following the review is the most important issue at play, according to Magnus and others, and that will depend largely on how many ships the Navy will buy to move Marine forces around the world.
But even within the Marines, there are a range of views about the future of the service.
Some fear giving up so-called forced entry operations landing on opposed beaches if other unopposed options are unavailable because losing such unique capabilities weakens the service and would be difficult to reconstitute.
Others, however, maintain that as an amphibious expeditionary force, even without assault capability, the Marines would remain potent and agile with broad application across the conflict spectrum. In fact, some maintain that killing the 20-man EFV would allow increased investment for a new eight-to-12-manvehicle equipped with more survivable features like a V-shaped hull, more powerful weapons and better command and-control systems that could make the force more effective in both regular and irregular conflicts.
Critics of the amphibious assault mission argue the service has not performed an opposed landing since its massive 1950 operation at Inchon, Korea. Increasingly sophisticated, precise and available weapons are pushing naval forces farther out to sea, complicating amphibious landings, especially those facing enemy fire. But advocates counter that EFV’s 25-knot speed closes the growing ship-to-shore gap rapidly enough to operate effectively on contested beachheads.
“Thinking about this capability in terms of Inchon is all wrong,” Magnus said. “The question is what capabilities does the commander in chief and the nation need to project power from the sea to the shore. Amphibious assault is a small part of it because most of the time these are the same forces who are engaging with friends and allies around the world, performing short-notice noncombatant evacuations or humanitarian relief.”
Overall amphibious capability is already shrinking, however, as the Navy cuts ships from its long-range plan, including out-year amphibious ship construction. The Navy maintains that 27 ships are enough for two Marine Expeditionary Brigades and nine Marine Expeditionary Units, but the Marines contend they need 33 ships. Navy officials explain the service’s shipbuilding plans would cost $18 billion annually to realize, while the service is unlikely to get more than $13 billion annually, so something has to give.
Conway’s top priorities have been to assume a larger role in Afghanistan while at the same time trying to get his Marines back to sea given so many of his units have been land-bound in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past eight years.
Another issue under scrutiny is whether the Marines need their own strike fighters, a capability the service has staunchly defended over the decades.
While critics see potential savings by reducing tactical aircraft purchases, Marines counter that their air-ground integration is what allows their relatively small sea-borne forces to pack a disproportionate punch.
The program to develop a new K model of the Marine’s CH-53 heavy lift helicopter also is behind schedule, as costs continue to creep north. The vertical-takeoff and -landing version of the F-35 Lightning II fighter is also a top priority for the Corps, but that program is expected to be pruned over the coming years, also driving up unit costs.
The Marines say they need unique gear to perform unique missions. For example, the CH-53 is not just another helicopter; it’s vital to trans port heavy cargo from ship to shore. The Marine version of the JSF is the only craft that can replace the aging AV-8B Harrier, which operates off the relatively small decks of Navy amphibious ships, as well as big aircraft carriers and austere forward airfields.
The Corps’ most vulnerable program, however, remains the EFV, which has been in development for some 20 years.
Originally, the Marines wanted 1,013 EFVs, but the buy was slashed to 573 during the Bush administration. Now, further reductions are inevitable even if it survives the coming needs-based review, a move that will further raise unit costs.
Some critics, like Dakota Wood of the Center for Strategic and Bud etary Assessments, think the price is already too high.
“I think it’s time to go back to the drawing board because while the Marines need the ability to get from ships to shore, the EFV is not the best solution to do that,” Wood said. Making a 38-ton vehicle streak across the water at 25 knots and then fight effectively on land is a tall order, Wood argues. What’s needed is for the Marines to reconsider how they are going to do their job in the future.
The cruise missile attack on an Israeli patrol boat by Hizbollah forces during Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon is forcing the Navy to push its ships farther offshore and jeopardizing craft like EFV. Instead, Wood says, the Navy needs new systems including better protected ships and faster ways to get heavy combat equipment from ship to shore.
Wood conceded, however, that doing that will be difficult given defense spending is likely to drop over the coming years.
“We’re in the same situation American families are in,” Wood said. “Many bought too much house on adjustable mortgages, levered themselves up on available credit, and they’ve either seen pay cuts or lost their jobs. But when they meet with the credit counselor, they don’t want to give up their broadband smart phone, their $5 lattes or their big SUV. They don’t want to change, but they’re confronted with bills that are coming due and can’t be ignored.” As for EFV, despite a redesign last year, it continues to suffer from reliability problems that will delay production until 2014.
The 38-ton armored infantry carrier is designed to speed to shore at 25 knots, five times faster than the current Amphibious Assault Vehicle it’s slated to replace, thanks to two 22 inch waterjets that spew 100,000 gallons of water a minute. The aim is to ferry Marines from ships 25 miles offshore to the beach as quickly and with the best protection and firepower possible.
“The biggest capability is the capability to reach from ship-to-shore and follow-on objectives at a distance of 25 miles,” said Emanuel Pacheco, the EFV program’s spokesman. “In today’s environment, Navy ships don’t want to come any closer than that.” The Marines plan to buy 573 EFVs, according to the Corps’ tactical wheeled vehicle strategy.
The Corps has $316 million slated for EFV research and development work in 2009 and has requested $293 million for 2010, an amount not appropriated yet by Congress.
“We have had a lot of issues in the past, but everything we have done has been an open book,” Pacheco said. “We’ve implemented the required improvements. We’ve had a lot of congressional inquiries, and people have been positive about the program.” Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, has expressed concern about the vehicle’s survivability and the program’s costs.
“Mr. Murtha has been concerned with the EFV for some time now, particularly the fact that the program is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget,” Murtha spokesman Mathew Mazonkey said in a written statement. “He has spoken with both the commandant [of the Marine Corps] and [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates about it. Also, many (including Mr. Murtha) on the subcommittee have been concerned with the ’flat hull’ design of the vehicle.” One analyst said recent improvements to the vehicle may still give the program a chance.
“This is a tough challenge, to build a fast-moving amphibious combat vessel,” said Daniel Gour�+1 of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank. “We’ve never been able to design something which can move fast on land and in water. This is a real combat vehicle that will get to the shore and go immediately into combat. Overall, the product is pretty good. It is mostly a successful program. It has overcome the criticism; the question is whether that is enough.”
Over the last several years, the Marine Corps studied the EFV’s reliability problems and developed a number of design changes.
The new EFVs have rewired electronics, a rebuilt gun turret and added trim tabs to stabilize it in water. Five new EFV prototypes have been built at the U.S. military’s joint tank manufacturing facility in Lima, Ohio. After further testing and electronics integration, they will come off the assembly line in early 2010, said Dave Branham, a spokesman for Marine Corps Program Executive Office Land Systems.
The Marines and EFV builder General Dynamics signed the System Design and Development II contract for the new prototypes in August 2008, Dan Keating, a combat systems specialist with General Dynamics, said last year.
Since then, the Corps has been testing and evaluating the EFV, even building upgrades into older prototypes to prove out designs.
“We have been learning daily from older prototypes we still have,” Pacheco said. “With the new ones, there will be more than 400 upgrades overall, from hydraulic systems to computers and more. At least from an electronic standpoint, we are incorporating or planning to add evolving technologies over time.” The Corps also has been conducting ocean, river and ballistic fire testing on the old prototypes to pave the way for the emerging new design.
“Lessons are being put to the test with the old prototypes,” Pacheco said. “We’ve been doing ballistic testing up at Aberdeen [Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.]. We did river testing at [Camp] Lejeune [in North Carolina] a few months ago, and we have been doing a lot of saltwater testing in California. The idea is to test the differences in different environments.” The ballistic testing is aimed at proving out a more survivable chassis design complete with additional underbelly armor for roadside bomb protection. The chassis is being built to withstand fire from 14.5mm rounds or greater, Pacheco said.
“We are developing a bolt-on armor that will be similar to what the Abrams uses,” he said. “Ideally, the ballistic protection will be equal to a [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle] or an Abrams with a TUSK [Tank Urban Survivability Kit].” The survivability and lethality enhancements are aimed at improving the vehicle’s forced entry capability. “The ability to engage targets at 2,000 meters at high speeds allows us to come to shore at a time of our choosing,” said Pacheco.
Additional details regarding the EFV redesign include:
■ Improving wiring to better resist saltwater corrosion.
■ Strengthening the Mk 44 gun turret to solve ammunition feed problems.
■ Adding trim tabs to make the EFV more stable on the water.
“Once the vehicle is put into the water, it can steam ashore at 40 knots and hit the beach and go inland an additional 28 miles before being refueled,” Branham said. “The vehicle can be delivered to the sea base from a San Antonio-class vessel, or an LPD 17. There is no vehicle like this in the world.”