The USMC Is Buying New Amphibious Vehicles That Can’t Swim Faster Than What They Have Now
The service itself isn’t sure that the expensive new wheeled vehicles will ever be able to fully replace the existing tracked types.
U.K.-headquartered BAE Systems, in cooperation with Italy’s Iveco, has secured a deal to build new amphibious armored vehicles for the Marine Corps that could be worth more than $1 billion. But the wheeled design isn't any faster than that the service’s Cold War-era tracked Assault Amphibious Vehicle family in the water and there are serious questions about whether it offers enough other improvements to avoid having to buy a third type in the near future.
The Marines announced they picked the BAE-Iveco team's SuperAV vehicle as the winning design for what is formally known as the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) 1.1 program on June 19, 2018. American defense contractor SAIC and Singapore’s ST Kinetics had also been competing for the contract with the latter firm’s Terrex design.
The initial $198 million contract covers low-rate production of 30 vehicles with deliveries ending in 2019. The Marine Corps could exercise options to expand that to cover full-rate production of a total fleet of more than 200 vehicles, which it would receive over an as yet undefined period afterward.
The service’s 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion will get the first SuperAVs in 2020 and Marines hopes to achieve full operational capability with the type in 2023, according to an official release. It is not clear whether this latter date reflects when 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion will be fully able to use the new vehicles or if this is when the service hopes to have a larger fleet deployed across various units. Even if the Corps pursues the larger order, it will not be able to replace its nearly 900 Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAV), which includes various subvariants for specialized roles, on a one-for-one basis with the ACV 1.1s.
But “the ACV provides a mobile capability that mechanizes the force to maintain tempo with the remainder of the [Marine Air-Ground Task Force]; specifically the M1A1 tank,” U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Kirk Mullins, the officer in charge of the ACV 1.1 program, said in a statement to coincide with the contract announcement. “It isn’t maintenance intensive because of its increased reliability, and it also provides greater protection against threats we encounter on the battlefield.”
The 8x8 SuperAV has a weight of around 20 tons depending on its configuration and can hit top speeds of up to 65 miles an hour on improved roads, which makes it significantly faster than the AAV on land. The two vehicles have similar speeds – both less than 10 miles per hour – in the water and the old tracked design may actually turn out to be marginally faster.
The ACV 1.1 will be able to carry a full squad of 13 Marines, which was an important selling point over Terrex, but this is almost half the capacity of one AAV. The vehicle does offer superior protection against mines and roadside bombs over the tracked vehicles thanks to a V-shaped underbody that deflects the blast away from the hull and a suspended, flexible seating system that better absorbs the shock.
The steel armored body is supposed to shield the crew and passengers against small arms fire and shrapnel, but add-on armor kits and active protection systems could offer addition defenses against rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles. The Marine Corps is still deciding exactly what weaponry it will install on the ACVs, as well.
Iveco originally designed the SuperAV in the late 2000s, but only Italy and Brazil had previously purchased variants of the type. In 2010, the Italian Army selected it to replace the LVT-7-series amphibious tracked vehicles in its Lagunari Regiment. In 1984, the Marines changed their name of their LVT-7s to AAVs after the first of many upgrade programs.
For the U.S. Marines, the new ACV 1.1s are supposed to be the first step in ending a saga that began in 2012 when it canceled the ambitious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program. That project sought to develop a new tracked design that would have used water jets to propel it up to nearly 30 miles per hour as it sped from amphibious assault ships to the beachhead.
The impetus for this was to give Marines the ability to launch from ships further offshore to better protect those vessels from shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles, naval mines closer to the beachhead, and other threats. Potential near-peer opponents, as well as smaller nation-states and non-state actors, have steadily improved their capabilities in these regards, increasing the possible risks to an amphibious force in the future.
Unfortunately, the EFV proved to be especially complex and expensive, with a unit price over $20 million – more than double the cost of a new M1 Abrams tank at the time. At the same time, it was increasingly clear that the AAVs, which first entered service in the 1970s and had already received various performance and protection upgrades to try and extend their useful life, were in need of replacement. Less than stellar performance in Iraq in 2003 had then given way to increasingly regular and often deadly accidents, including fires and instances where the vehicles sunk, trapping their occupants.
ACV 1.1 was supposed to offer at least an interim solution to these issues. It was also supposed to save money by focusing on existing, in-production designs and purchasing the base vehicle first and then incrementally adding additional systems as necessary.
“In order to be a step ahead of our adversaries in the future, the Marine Corps needed to find a modern vehicle at an affordable price range that provided significant capability enhancement and performance over the AAV,” Colonel Mullins said.
“The path has been navigated to date with one primary goal in mind: ensuring that we field the best capability to our Marines as quickly as possible at an affordable price,” John Garner, the Program Executive Officer for Land Systems at Marine Corps Systems Command told reporters separately on June 19, 2018.
It’s not clear that the SuperAV is the most cost-effective option, though. Each one has a price tag of at least $4 million and it’s not clear what weapons, defensive systems, or other equipment that figure includes.
In 2015, SAIC began upgrading the existing AAVs again to improve their performance and survivability. The complete package costs around $1.65 million per vehicle and is expected to keep them ready for service through at least 2030.
There’s no guarantee that the ACV 1.1 will retain its performance advantages over the AAVs as it will almost certainly end up burdened by additional defensive systems and other equipment. Wheeled vehicles also traditionally have mixed performance on softer ground, such as sandy beaches, to begin with.
The U.S. Army has already experienced similar issues over the years with its Stryker 8x8 wheeled vehicles as they have received additional weapons and armor. Extra weight and bulk could limit the ACV 1.1's ability to maneuver in dense urban areas and cross gaps using existing civilian bridges once they get ashore, too.
Any added systems, especially remote weapon stations or manned turrets, could also impact the total number of Marines each ACV 1.1 can carry at a time. In addition, the Corps says it is only now investigating a “lethality upgrade” as part of the ACV 1.2 increment, but the limitations of the base SuperAV chassis will now be a primary factor in determining any future weaponry requirements.
Furthermore, unlike the AAVs, which shares engine and chassis components with the Army's Bradleys, the ACV 1.1s have no clear commonality with any existing systems. This could make them more difficult and expensive to operate and sustain in the long term.
More importantly, the need for a higher speed vehicle more capable of operating in the open ocean to allow amphibious ships to stage further away from enemy defenses hasn’t gone away. That concerns that led to the EFV program have only become more pronounced, especially given China’s continued militarization of the South China Sea and deployment of longer-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft systems on its man-made outposts in that region.
Earlier in June 2018, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels reportedly brushed off an attempted amphibious landing in Yemen involving United Arab Emirates forces, as well. This only underscores the reality that even non-state actors will be increasingly capable of challenging this type of operation in the future, too.
The video below shows Houthi rebels in Yemen attacking the ex-U.S. Navy High Speed VesselSwift with anti-ship missiles in 2016.
“We have to find a solution to getting Marines to shore, from over the horizon, at something greater than seven knots [8 miles per hour],” Deputy Marine Corps Commandant Lieutenant General Brian Beaudreault told Breaking Defense in October 2017. “We must find a high-water-speed vehicle on the surface. We must.”
The Marines are still hoping to eventually acquire a "Phase 2" ACV that would meet this need, but there is no indication of when such a vehicle might be available. The service has already outlined a backup plan to simply buy more ACVs to replace existing AAVs as part of an ACV 1.3 increment.
What it’s left with at the moment is a wheeled vehicle that is faster and has better underbody protection than the older tracked types, but is also slower in the water, has a far more limited payload capacity, and a significantly higher price tag. And since the Marines do not plan to purchase enough ACVs to replace all of the AAVs at present, the two vehicles will be expected to work together for the foreseeable future anyway.
All told, it appears that the ACV 1.1s could be an important supplement to or substitute for the AAVs in certain situations, but whether they’ll ever be able to actually replace the existing vehicles completely remains to be seen.
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