San Diego Union Tribune

December 15, 2005

Marines focus on replacing amphibious troop carrier
Technical glitches have led to delays


By Otto Kreisher
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WOODBRIDGE, VA. – With the MV-22 Osprey apparently past its long struggle to become operational, the Marine Corps' top priority has become a replacement for its 30-year-old amphibious troop carriers.

The proposed replacement, the expeditionary fighting vehicle (EFV), is a technological marvel that is motorboat fast in the water and can keep up with the jet-powered M1 tank on land. It also gives Marine infantrymen better protection and tremendous fire support from a high-tech weapon system.

But to get the new vehicle into combat service, the Marines and the manufacturer, General Dynamics, will have to keep the $10 million machines from breaking down.

Because of multiple technical problems and funding cuts, the production date has been delayed three years, and the time when the new vehicles could begin replacing the current amphibious tractors by four years, to at least 2010.

Those delays have increased the estimated total cost of the EFV program by about 25 percent, to more than $8 billion for the planned 1,013 vehicles, according to Col. Michael Brogan, program manager at the combined Marine-General Dynamics facility 30 miles south of Washington.

Delaying the new vehicles' operational debut also will require additional expensive work to keep the tired old amphibious vehicles running.

The Marines have used amphibious troop carriers with tanklike tracks since World War II.

The "amtracks" proved their worth in 1943 by carrying the first wave of Marines across the shallow lagoon to the beach on the Pacific island of Tarawa.

Improved models of the amphibious tractors have been introduced over the years, up to the current AAV-7 version, which entered service in 1972. But the water speed has not increased above the 6 to 7 knots of the first amtracks.

That slow crawl through frequently rough seas has forced amphibious ships to launch assault vehicles from about 3 miles off shore, which puts the ships within range of ordinary artillery, let alone modern precision-homing missiles. And it allows an enemy to see where the infantry-loaded vehicles will come ashore, adding to the risk.

But the new vehicles have demonstrated a water speed of more than 30 knots, Brogan said.

That speed allows the amphibious ships to stay out of sight from land, making it harder for an enemy to target them. It also exposes a wider area as the potential landing site, again complicating the defenders' task, the colonel said.

To obtain that speed, the EFV must convert from a clunky tracked vehicle into a flat-bottomed craft that skims over the surface of the water, propelled by two powerful water jets.

That conversion requires a complex hydraulic system of thin tubing, connectors and pumps, more like an airplane than a tank-like vehicle. When skimming across the water at top speed, the vehicle also is controlled by a computerized "fly-by-wire" system similar to those used by jet aircraft. The vehicles also have high-tech navigation, communication and fire-control systems.

But subjecting those complicated, sensitive systems to the pounding of land operations has produced an unacceptably high rate of failures, particularly in the hydraulics and electronics – similar to the problems experienced by the Osprey in its 20-year development.

Reducing the rate of those failures "is our No. 1 priority," said Joseph Teets, deputy program manager.

"We have made improvements in many aspects of maintainability and reliability," said Lt. Col. Michael Carter, director of the Amphibious Vehicle Test Branch at Camp Pendleton, which has been testing the new vehicles. "The mean time between failures has increased."

"These are prototypes," Carter noted. "We are here to push the systems, see what breaks. They are running through the paces and performing very well."

Carter said the program was on track to start operational assessment, which will determine whether the EFVs can get approval for low-rate production late next year.

Like most major new weapons programs, the EFV has its critics.

Max Boot, a military analyst and author, noted that the last time the Marines conducted a full-scale amphibious landing against a defended beach was at Inchon, Korea, in 1950. And he questioned if anything like that would ever be repeated.

"In light of that, I wonder if it really makes sense to spend $7 billion to buy a thousand expeditionary fighting vehicles to replace today's amtracks," he said.

The Marines, however, want the new vehicles as much for their improved ability ashore as for their high water speeds.

While the original amphibious tractors were designed to get ashore and move a short distance inland, the AAV-7s carried Marines hundreds of miles over land during the rapid assaults in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We have not done a good job of articulating the land combat role," Brogan said.

"This is a significant improvement over the AAV," particularly in combat power, survivability and the distance it can go without refueling, he said.

The new vehicles are designed to be harder to detect, to provide much improved fire support with a stabilized, computer-aided 30 mm cannon, and to protect the 17 infantrymen and three crew members against chemical, biological or nuclear hazards. The pressurized system that provides that protection also can cool the interior, reducing the heat fatigue problems with the current AAVs.

The Marines will subject the new vehicles to an extensive set of operational trials, starting with tests of its weapon system at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in January, followed by amphibious exercises at Pendleton and simulated combat at Twentynine Palms.

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