Gates Kills EFV; Marine Casualties To Follow

Defense secretary Robert Gates apparently has decided to kill the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) in the 2012 budget. As chance would have it, 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the date when the current amphibious assault vehicle joined the force. Think about how much technology has changed since Richard Nixon left the White House, and you can see why acquiring a new ship-to-shore vehicle was the top Marine ground modernization priority.

The current vehicle has been modified numerous times since it joined the force in 1972, but by modern warfighting standards it is a sitting duck. The EFV has three times the water speed, twice the armor, greater range and greater firepower than the existing vehicle. The range is especially important, because it allows U.S. naval vessels to stay beyond the reach of enemy guns and missiles rather than having to come in close to the beach before launching Marines towards shore. Greater range and speed also enable the Marines to turn the water near beaches from an obstacle into a maneuver space so they can come ashore at the most advantageous places.

Once ashore, the tracked EFV can make a quick transition to land operations, keeping up with tanks and other armored vehicles. Some critics have alleged that the flat bottom permitting the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle to plane through water makes it more vulnerable to improvised explosive devices, but tests done last year at the Aberdeen Test Center found EFV offers just as much blast protection to occupants as a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) truck. That means the 17-man Marine rifle squad carried ashore by each EFV is about as safe as warfighters can expect to be while making an opposed landing.

Military testers discovered reliability problems with the EFV in 2006 that delayed the program, but the Marine Corps now anticipates the vehicle will exceed its reliability goals by over 25 percent. So with the main operational concern resolved, why would the defense department want to kill the program after spending 15 years and $3 billion to get to a point where it is ready to enter production? The answer is that the vehicles are very pricey — up to $17 million each by some estimates. Secretary Gates wants to find a cheaper way to get Marines ashore.

Unfortunately, the only alternatives for getting Marines to the beach could also get a lot of them killed. The Marine Corps reviewed its options three years ago and discovered that there basically isn’t anything else like the EFV available. Yes there are tracked vehicles with amphibious capabilities and armor, but they do not begin to offer the combination of firepower, agility and protection afforded by EFV. So the bottom line is the Marine Corps either gets EFV or it loses a lot of men doing the mission the old fashioned way.

Some policymakers have advanced fanciful ideas about how this dilemma might be avoided. Gates told the Navy League last spring that major amphibious landings aren’t likely in the future, and the Navy’s under secretary suggested more recently that the Air Force and Army could take down defenders before Marines go ashore. Those are not realistic planning assumptions. The Marines must be prepared to conduct major amphibious operations under trying circumstances, otherwise enemies will exploit our inability to do so.

So should the Marine Corps be stockpiling body bags while it starts over on finding a successor to its decrepit amphibious assault vehicles? There is a middle option. Buy a handful of EFVs, say 200, that can satisfy the Corps’ most minimal warfighting needs, and then develop a plan to acquire a more affordable vehicle. That would enable the service to get through the period until something better than the current vehicle becomes available in quantity. Of course, some bright academic analyst will calculate that each of the 200 vehicles costs $30 million when you pro-rate development costs, but most of that money has already been spent. Do we really want to just waste the $3 billion spent to date? And how much is a Marine’s life worth, anyway?