The Marine Corps Program that Refuses to Die
With the recent election in the rear-view, the Pentagon will concentrate on prodding Congress to approve its department budget for FY11. The increasing focus of U.S. lawmakers going forward – underlined by electorate and market concerns – will almost assuredly become fixated on ballooning U.S. debt. The combination of Congressional debt/deficit concerns and Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ drive to bring Pentagon budgets under control may have significant ramifications for the pet project of the U.S. Marine Corps: the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, or EFV.
To the Marine Corps the EFV program is an integral component of its central mission as the nation’s amphibious, combined-arms expeditionary force. A combination floating transport, armored personnel carrier and assault vehicle, the 38-ton EFV represents a power-projection capability that the Marines insist they cannot do without. Ideally this swimming infantry vehicle would provide the Marines with a ship-to-shore component allowing them to conduct forcible entry operations from an over-the-horizon, ship-borne departure point.
But like so many other large defense projects, the EFV has been plagued by delays, cost overruns and emerging threats unforeseen at the time of the programs inception. Because Secretary Gates and others view the EFV as an unnecessary, diamond-encrusted niche platform meant for past operations having no bearing on today’s battlefield, the program is considered very vulnerable to the budgetary axe.
Whether in current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq or in future scenarios against potential foes such as Iran or China, under what circumstance, Gates and his staffers wonder, would the Marines conduct a forcible-entry amphibious operation requiring the EFV?
Against a sophisticated enemy, opposing harbors and beachheads would be mined, gunfire from concrete bunkers would rain down on Marines disembarking from the vehicles, and anti-ship missiles would force the amphibious assault to begin from as far away as 25 miles from shore. The latter is an important point in that Marines would be compartmentalized inside the EFV for roughly an hour during which the vehicle would be skipping over choppy water.
If, on the other hand, a vacated point of entry was found to land Marines ashore then there would be no need for a Swiss Army knife of a platform like the EFV when another, cheaper landing craft option would do.
Perhaps more worrisome for the Marines is that Gates’ concerns are echoed by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which in September chose to underwrite only one more round of tests on the vehicle. It also authorized $184 million towards termination costs for the contractors in the event the EFV does not measure up to snuff during its latest testing phase.
The last such round of tests in 2006 exposed problems with the EFVs reliability and performance. Currently the vehicle suffers a system failure every 16.4 hours; the requirement is for the time between failures to average 43.5 hours, thus indicating the distance the program needs to make up to meet the Marines’ stated objective. Because of this current shortcoming the EFV remains in the systems design and development (SDD) phase almost eight years after many of the vehicles kinks were supposed to have been ironed out.
Worse, the EFVs costs have spun upwards resulting in a more expensive program that will produce fewer units for the Marines. The original plan called for the purchase of 1,025 EFVs at the cost of $8.5 billion. The Marines now plan on a buy of 573 vehicles at roughly $24 million apiece, bringing the total cost of the program to up over $11 billion. Little wonder that the independent Sustainable Defense Task Force produced a report for Congress back in June arguing that they should cancel the EFV in order to save taxpayers an estimated $8-9 billion from 2011-20.
Other program critics point out that the EFV was not designed to withstand against the now-ubiquitous threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), although adding the necessary v-shaped hull to withstand such blasts would likely weigh down the vehicle more and defeat the purpose of having rapid ship-to-shore, sea-skimming capability.
For the Marines the entire debate over the EFV is representative of their current identity crisis. Rather than concentrating on the amphibious role that earned the service a place in American military lore, since 2003 the Marines have in effect been made to serve as a smaller version of the U.S. Army, conducting land operations in Iraq and now in the volatile Helmand province in Afghanistan.
The fear within the Marines is that the further away they get from their amphibious roots, the principle raison d’etre of the Corps becomes submerged within the Army. Because of this the Marines remain wedded to the concept of amphibious forced-entry capability, despite the fact that the last such high-intensity landing occurred 60 years ago at Inchon during the Korean War. In essence, the Marines have made the EFV – or the concept of the EFV – an either-or dilemma, a false dichotomy whereby its higher brass insists they get an upgrade to their ancient amphibious assault vehicles, the AAV7A1 (originally designed in the 1960s) or the Marine Corps as it is known becomes a distant memory.
There is the point that for the U.S. military to remain a full-spectrum force it must retain capabilities that seem outdated to the modern strategist. The purpose of the Marines’ ship-to-shore basis is emphasized by past and present Marine commanders who note that since the Inchon invasion the Corps has conducted 106 amphibious operations, most recently in the case of the relief mission to Haiti.
There is also the point to be made that this small, elite service has watched as other branches have been beneficiaries of the Pentagon equipment pipeline in recent years. The Air Force has gotten its F-22 jet fighters (albeit in much smaller numbers than anticipated), the Army has received Stryker armored combat vehicles and the Navy has its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. Meanwhile, the Marines have continuously upgraded their AAVs while waiting for their own specialized, new-generation alternative.
The hope for the Marines now is that the 6-7 EFVs undergoing development testing show marked improvement from the last round, thereby making cancellation a difficult proposition for Gates. The fact that an FY11 defense budget has not yet been passed buys the program more time and allows the Marine brass the opportunity to make their case to newly-elected House members who might be inclined towards placing the Pentagon on a fiscal diet.
But the Marines, who are a component of the U.S. Navy, are also vulnerable to a naval department whose own budgetary pressures may make it keen to shed itself of “wasteful programs” that become public relations nightmares during periods of austerity sentiment. If so, the Marines may be better off looking at less expensive alternatives to the EFV concept rather than turning the program into an Alamo of their choosing.
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