This may be the week that the future of the U.S. Marine Corps is decided. In separate meetings with defense secretary Robert Gates, Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Conway and Navy secretary Ray Mabus will offer their recommendations on whether to continue developing the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV). EFV is the top ground-system acquisition priority of the Marine Corps, a system that both Conway and his designated successor have said is essential to sustaining their service’s amphibious warfare capability. If Secretary Mabus agreed, there wouldn’t be a need for two meetings.
The political dynamics of the meetings are interesting, because both Conway and Gates will soon depart government service. Secretary Mabus, the most politically adept and charismatic of the current service secretaries, knows that Conway will retire sometime in the autumn — removing the biggest obstacle in his efforts to cut EFV. But he also knows that Senator Reed of Rhode Island has turned down an offer to be defense secretary, making Mabus an attractive candidate for the top Pentagon job when Gates leaves early next year. Although Mabus has been gunning for EFV almost from the first day he became Navy secretary, he has to think through the political consequences of killing a big Marine Corps program on the eve of midterm elections.
At the very least, Mabus needs to have a convincing explanation of why killing EFV won’t put the lives of thousands of Marines at risk. The Department of the Navy has embraced “forcible entry” as the defining mission of the Marine Corps, which means storming enemy beaches under heavy fire. It also acknowledges that forcible entry requires an “amphibious tractor” like EFV that can maneuver warfighters from ship to shore and then quickly transition to land operations upon hitting the beach. Having made those two concessions, it has put itself in a box in explaining how to fashion a credible force structure in the absence of EFV. Even if EFV didn’t have three times the water speed and twice the armor of the existing amphibious vessel — which it does — the simple reality is that the existing vehicle was developed in the 1970s, and littoral regions have become more dangerous since then.
The biggest operational complaint against the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle is that it was developed before the era of improvised explosive devices, and its flat bottom might be vulnerable to such devices once ashore. That is a dubious argument, though, since it is precisely the flat bottom that allows the vehicle to plane through water at 30 miles per hour, enabling Marines to survive hostile fire and then go ashore at places where improvised explosives are least likely to have been laid. Once ashore, it has all the power and traction needed to stay off dangerous roads while keeping up with an Abrams tank.
Improvements have already been devised to assure the EFV’s planing design does not compromise survivability ashore, but maybe policymakers ought to be paying more attention to whether Marines are likely to make it to shore in the first place. The current amphibious vehicle lacks the speed and range to maneuver ashore from warships over the horizon, meaning the ships must come within range of shore fire to launch a vehicle that itself is highly vulnerable. In fact, the ships must come so close to shore that their on-board defenses won’t have the time to sort out threats from topographical clutter if attacked. EFV is the only solution available that remedies this dangerous situation, so Secretary Mabus will have a tough time explaining how his bid to save money doesn’t mean putting young Marines at greater risk than necessary for many years to come.
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