The Marines’ Amphibious Assault Vehicles Just Got Banned From Going In The Water Indefinitely

The Corps has also yanked its aging tracked amphibious vehicles from any future scheduled deployments, leaving a big capability gap.

byJoseph Trevithick| UPDATED Dec 16, 2021 12:37 PM
The Marines’ Amphibious Assault Vehicles Just Got Banned From Going In The Water Indefinitely
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The U.S. Marine Corps has decided to ban its entire fleet of tracked Amphibious Assault Vehicles, or AAVs, from taking part in “regularly scheduled deployments” or entering the water for any reason except to support emergency crisis response operations. This comes more than a year after an AAV sank during a training exercise, killing eight Marines and a U.S. Navy sailor, an accident that was attributed to a slew of maintenance, training, and leadership failures. The Corps is already working toward replacing its aging AAVs with new 8x8 wheeled Amphibious Combat Vehicles, or ACVs, but is also in process of scaling back its heavy vehicle capabilities – it notably began divesting all of its M1 Abrams tanks last year – as part of a radical redesign of its overall force structure.

The Marine Corps announced the new policies for employing its AAVs, a primary job of which is to move troops and equipment ashore from amphibious warfare ships, earlier today. It's not clear how many AAVs, of which there are a number of variants, the service has in inventory in total at present. A 2016 edition of The Military Balance, an authoritative guide to military forces around the world that is published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a U.K.-based think tank, put the figure at 1,311 vehicles. 

A Marine AAV exits the water during training, something the service has now prohibited., USMC

"The Marine Corps stands by the efficacy of the recommendations that came from the multiple investigations into the AAV mishap from the summer of 2020, and with those recommendations implemented and sustained, the AAV is a safe and effective vehicle for amphibious operations," the service said in a statement according to USNI News. "That said, given the current state of the amphibious vehicle program, the Commandant of the Marine Corps has decided the AAV will no longer serve as part of regularly scheduled deployments or train in the water during military exercises; AAVs will only return to operating in the water if needed for crisis response. This decision was made in the interest of the long-term health of the amphibious vehicle programs and future capabilities."

This is a reversal of a decision the Marines made in April to allow AAVs across the service to return to the water after certain inspections of the vehicles were completed and after amphibious vehicle units went through new certification processes regarding their operation. Certain units had already begun doing so before then, after meeting the specified requirements, in order to meet scheduled operational and training demands.

A Marine AAV on the water in Norway during an exercise in November 2020., USMC

The Marine Corps is adamant that this policy change will not end AAV operations for good. "The AAV will continue to operate on land," the service's statement to USNI News said. "In doing so, we reserve the capability to reverse this decision should the need arise." Conceivably, AAVs could even still take part in amphibious operations, albeit in the ironic position of having to use Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercrafts and other landing craft to get from ships to shore like any other vehicle. Certain ships might also be able to unload them directly ashore using established or temporary port facilities.

No matter what, this can only represent a significant loss of amphibious assault capability of the Marine Corps, at least in the near term. At the same time, the final fate of service's AAVs has appeared to be increasingly in limbo in recent years.

The Marine Corps first began operating the AAV family, the original variants of which were known as the LVTP-7 series, in 1972, but has upgraded and overhauled the vehicles on multiple occasions since then. However, they have become notoriously labor-intensive to keep properly maintained, something that was a factor in the fatal accident last year.

In 2018, the Marines announced that they had selected a version of the SuperAV 8x8 wheeled light armored vehicle, which had been proposed by a team-up of U.K.-headquartered defense contractor BAE Systems and Italian vehicle-maker Iveco, as the winner of the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) program and the intended replacement for its AAVs. The ACV program was a follow-on to the abortive Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) effort, which has resulted in the development of a complex high-speed tracked amphibious vehicle design, but that was canceled in 2012 due to ballooning costs.

The ACV is smaller, slower on the water, and has less troop-carrying capacity than the AAV, but is faster on land and has been touted as being easier to operate and maintain. Its remote weapon station can accommodate a .50 caliber M2 machine gun or a 40mm Mk 19 automatic grenade launcher, but not both as is the case with the AAV's current turret. The Marine Corps is looking to acquire at least some up-gunned ACVs with turrets armed with 30mm automatic cannons that would provide substantially improved firepower. 

After the selection of the winning ACV design, the Marine Corps decided to halt a refresh of the AAV fleet. The planned upgrade package included, among other things, new engine, transmission, and suspension components that would have improved the vehicle's overall performance, even with the added weight of additional armor and other added features, and helped with their reliability.

Still, in announcing the new policies relating to AAV employment today, the Marine Corps admitted that "76 percent of its tasks are land-based" already, which raises questions about exactly how useful the service felt the vehicles were for amphibious operations even before making this decision. There is also the question about what will happen now to the proficiency of AAV crews in the skill sets they need to be able to safely and effectively operate in an amphibious context if they cannot train on the water going forward. This could limit the ability of the Marine Corps to deploy any significant number of AAVs in those environments in the future even in an emergency scenario.

Even with all this in mind, it very much remains to be seen how the Marine Corps' new rules regarding the use of AAVs will ultimately impact its operations. The service's Force Design 2030 initiative, which it unveiled last year, significantly deemphasizes the importance of traditional armored vehicles, amphibious or otherwise. As part of this force structure plan, the Corps will have divested its entire fleet of M1 Abrams tanks and other heavy armored vehicles by 2023. 

One of the last of the Marine Corps' M1 Abrams tanks at the service's base at Twentynine Palms in California is trucked away as part of a service-wide divestment plan., USMC

It has also cut its planned purchases of ACVs roughly in half, down to 632 examples from the original expected fleet size of 1,1,22 vehicles. It's unclear how many ACVs the Marines have received so far, but the service was expected to have taken delivery of around 76 of them by the end of this year. Another 80 are set to arrive each year going forward.

These are just some of the dramatic changes the Marines are making as the service remodels itself to be better suited for new expeditionary and distributed concepts of operations, known collectively as Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), which you can read more about here. EABO is centered on the idea of employing smaller, more mobile, and highly flexible groups of Marines to rapidly establish temporary forward bases in remote and austere locations, while also retaining the ability to readily redeploy to new areas. From these sites, Marines would be able to exert control over portions of the battlespace, including adjacent seaspaces. 

New capabilities, including ground-launched anti-ship missiles and more capable unmanned aircraft than are in Marine service now, would be key to these future operations, as would be a fleet of new Light Amphibious Warships. The latter vessels reflect another major planned shift on the part of the Marines away from relying on traditional amphibious warfare vessels.

“We will become smaller if we have to,” Marine Corps Gen. David Berger, the service's top officer, told reporters at the Reagan National Defense Forum earlier this month. “We have to provide the Marines what they need to operate in that environment. And if that [means] less Marines, I’m willing to do that. I don’t want to do that. … I’d rather have a smaller Marine Corps that can deal with that, than a big Marine Corps that doesn’t have that capability.”

All told, whatever happens to the Marine Corps' AAV fleet going forward, these vehicles appear to be firmly entering the twilight of their careers after nearly five decades in service, and their days of operating out on the water look to be all but over. 

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

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