Cottonmouth Amphibious Recon Vehicle Prototype Joins The Marines

The technology-packed Cottonmouth is competing to replace the aging LAV-25, but its future isn’t guaranteed as changes sweep the Marines.

byEmma Helfrich| PUBLISHED Dec 16, 2022 7:46 PM
Cottonmouth Amphibious Recon Vehicle Prototype Joins The Marines
Textron Systems
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Textron has delivered the first prototype of the 6x6 Cottonmouth wheeled amphibious reconnaissance vehicle to the U.S. Marine Corps. This is one of two designs competing to become the Corps’ next Advanced Reconnaissance Vehicle or ARV. Variants of the winning ARV are slated to succeed the service’s four-decade-old Light Armored Vehicle, or LAV, family of vehicles. 

Textron handed off the Cottonmouth prototype to the Marines on Dec. 1 at the privately owned and operated Nevada Automotive Test Center, located in Silver Springs in that state. The delivery signified the completion of contractor verification testing of the prototype’s “mobility, swim capability, vetronics integration, and C4UAS [command, control, communications, and computers-unmanned aerial system] mission capabilities,” which wrapped last August in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is also worth noting that the prototype delivered is actually the “second iteration of the vehicle informed by lessons learned from an original Alpha prototype vehicle and approximately 3,000 miles of testing,” according to Textron.

The Cottonmouth ARV prototype as seen on Textron's website. Credit: Textron

Textron was selected along with General Dynamics as one of two companies chosen to build an ARV prototype last July. The winning company will receive a contract worth up to $6.8 billion to supply as many as 533 ARVs over a period of five years. 

The ARV program seeks to produce a vehicle for Marine Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) battalions that will replace the service’s fleet of LAVs, which is scheduled to begin phasing out in the mid-2030s, with a system more capable of ingesting and analyzing battlefield data. The first in the LAV series of vehicles entered service with the Marines in 1983 to provide LAR units with greater mobility and combat support.

The LAV family comes in seven primary variants that are respectively optimized for the Marine Corps to serve a variety of missions. These include the LAV-25 for scouting and reconnaissance, LAV-LOG for logistics, LAV-AT for anti-tank operations, LAV-C2 for command and control, the LAV-M 81 mm mortar variant, LAV-R for recovery, and the LAV-MEWSS mobile electronic warfare type. That being said, LAV-25 is the main vehicle of choice for LAR battalions and the base variant of the LAV family, with over half of the 772 LAVs procured by the Marine Corps between 1984 and 2003 being that variant. 

Marines drive their LAV-25 along the beach at Samesan Royal Thai Marine Base, Thailand, after offloading from a U.S. Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion, during an amphibious assault exercise conducted during Exercise COBRA GOLD 2002. Credit: DOD

To fill these shoes and adhere to the Marine Corps’ overarching ARV requirements published this time last year, Textron is offering its Cottonmouth amphibious reconnaissance vehicle to serve as what it describes as a "multi-domain command-and-control suite" intended to support the expeditionary operations of LAR battalions. This means that Textron is developing Cottonmouth with a predominant focus on sensors and reconnaissance capabilities so that the vehicle can more comprehensively observe its surroundings and provide targeting information to LAR units to engage threats beyond line-of-sight.

According to Textron, Cottonmouth measures 270 inches in length, 114.5 inches in width, and 121.9 inches in height — dimensions that the company is touting as one of the vehicle’s advantages for making it easier to deploy quickly. A crew of two with five embarked Marines can inhabit the vehicle. It clocks in at a gross weight of 37,000 pounds with the ability to reach max speeds of 65 miles per hour. Cottonmouth can self-deploy (swim to shore) for amphibious operations, and up to four vehicles can also be transported by naval hovercrafts like Ship to Shore Connectors or Landing Craft Air Cushions.

A slide from an Office of Naval Research presentation on the ARV. Credit: U.S. Navy

While its armament isn’t the main selling point of Textron’s ARV offering and would appear more humble than the LAV-25’s 25 mm chain gun, the company is designing Cottonmouth to accommodate a primary gun turret. The prototype can also be seen in company photos fitted with a smaller remote-controlled weapon station and armed with a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun and a Javelin anti-tank guided missile launcher.

In terms of electronics, Textron has said only that Cottonmouth will be equipped with “advanced full-spectrum reconnaissance and surveillance sensors,” but any additional details in this regard are sparse at this time. Although, the vehicle will possess an open architecture design, allowing for the streamlined integration of new electronics, software, and other hardware upgrades as the need arises. 

The company literature also highlighted how Cottonmouth is equipped with Elbit Systems of America’s IronVision head-mounted display technology. In effect, this system will allow the crew to ‘see through’ the hull of the vehicle, which is a massive upgrade in situational awareness for armor crews that have long lacked this level of awareness while ‘buttoned up’ inside the vehicle with its hatches closed. However, it is unclear if the prototype version of Cottonmouth came with this technology.

“Our Cottonmouth vehicle is a completely clean-sheet design that provides transformative reconnaissance capabilities and meets Marine Corps requirements,” said David Phillips, senior vice president of Land and Sea Systems at Textron. “The vehicle was designed from its inception by listening to customer requirements. Because of its smaller size, the Marines can quickly deploy next generational combat power to the fight and lets commanders meet any mission anywhere.”

In a stark deviation from the original LAV variants, Textron’s Cottonmouth will leverage drones to better achieve the far-reaching reconnaissance operations the Marines are looking for with its future ARV. The service is calling this the command, control, communications, and computers-unmanned aerial system (C4/UAS) variant of ARV, which has essentially tasked Textron and General Dynamics with understanding how exactly their entries could use UASs by deploying them “potentially as far as 30 miles away from the vehicle” to gather data and feed it back to the ARV to be turned into actionable information, according to Breaking Defense.

The Marine Corps will be choosing the winning bid based on the C4/UAS variant of the vehicle alone, but the service is ultimately planning for six total ARV variants each designed with a unique set of capabilities. 

A slide from an Office of Naval Research presentation on the ARV detailing the Marine Corps's desired capabilities. Credit: U.S. Navy

In addition to the C4/UAS variant on which Cottonmouth is based, the Marines are also asking for an organic precision fire-mounted (OPF-M) type that would pair the vehicle with loitering munitions, which is becoming a major trend that the Marines have even explored with LAV types. A counter-UAS variant has also been requested, further indicating how significant the drone threat has become on modern battlefields, and a 30mm autocannon and anti-tank guided missile version was listed in the requirements as well. Lastly, both a logistics and a recovery variant are on the docket, too.

BAE Systems, which the Marines currently have as the prime contractor for the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) program, is also being tangentially leveraged for the ARV initiative. According to Breaking Defense, the Marines have contracted BAE Systems for this separate effort to study how the ACV’s own C4/UAS package could potentially be used on the ARV.

Needless to say, the ARV that the Marine Corps is envisioning could shape up to be an important capability. Packed with high-tech reconnaissance and data-sharing systems, combat drones, and anti-tank weapons, the future ARV would be a huge upgrade over its progenitor, the LAV-25. That is if all of these capabilities are to actually come to fruition. 

Whichever way the Marines end up employing the ARV, there is a clear interest in replacing the LAV family, which is an aging vehicle and also accident-prone. Even though General Dynamics’ LAV-25 has proven itself as a valuable asset for Marine Corps reconnaissance units over the years, the Government Accountability Office has since found it to have higher average rates of accidents than any of the other types of vehicles analyzed in the entity’s 2021 Military Vehicles report

A rendering of Textron's Cottonmouth ARV prototype. Credit: Textron

Although, exactly how relevant the ARV is to the Marines' future plans seems to be something of a moving target. The ARV program could be interpreted as being somewhat in line with the broad repositioning of the Marine Corps’s force structure under the service’s Force Design 2030 plan. This strategy, which can be read about in detail here, is centered around refocusing the Marine Corps from its mission of defending against extremists in the Middle East to addressing near-peer adversaries in the Indo-Pacific region with a heavy focus on reconnaissance

This recalibration would necessitate a shift from inland operations to those more littoral in nature using smaller, distributed groups of forward-operating Marines, with the strategy’s 2022 update specifically citing a planned transition from LAR battalions to more mobile reconnaissance units. This pivot requires that the Marines are equipped with the proper equipment to support this reorientation.

The Marine Corps has said that the ARV will be "imperative to realizing Marine Corps requirements for Fleet Marine Force 2030" in budget request documents cited by Breaking Defense, but senior Marine officials aren’t so sure. As our friends over at Task & Purpose highlighted, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger in the Force Design 2030 strategy underscored his doubts. “While I have repeatedly stated that all-domain reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance will be a critical element of any future contingency, I remain unconvinced that additional wheeled, manned armored ground reconnaissance units are the best and only answer – especially in the Indo-Pacific region.”

A front view of the Cottonmouth prototype as seen on Textron's website. Credit: Textron

Then again, in the 2022 Force Design update, Berger directed the Marines to “review and validate all assumptions regarding programmed or potential future capabilities, such as the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV)-30 and Advanced Reconnaissance Vehicle (ARV),” which seemingly implies there’s some level of uncertainty facing the program.

Regardless, Cottonmouth is now in the government evaluation phase, which is projected to last through 2023, and the Marine Corps isn’t expected to declare the winner of the ARV competition until around that time as well. It would then take another handful of years until the winning bid reached full operational capability, likely into the 2030s. 

But long before then, it will be interesting to see how the ARV program is justified within the Marine Corps’ operational reorientation in the Pacific, as well as exactly how it ends up being configured and in what numbers if it reaches production.

Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com

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