Article Published in the Armed Forces Journal International
U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak likes to quote an ancient Chinese proverb that describes change as a dragon:
If you ignore the Dragon hoping he will go away, he will eat you. If you try to control the Dragon and attempt to force him onto a path of your own choosing he will not go for he is very powerful and will ultimately knock you down and eat you. However, if you ride the Dragon of change, you can avoid his lethality. You can survive, you can even prosper.
According to Krulak, “The Marine Corps recognizes that it must ride the dragon of change in order to succeed in the future.” It’s therefore fitting that the Corps is at this very moment building a 21st century dragon the Marines can ride into future battles. That dragon is the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAAV) the third and newest element of the Corps’ “amphibious triad” composed of the Landing Craft, Air Cushioned (LCAC) and the V-22 Osprey aircraft and all three programs are quantum leaps beyond the systems they have or are replacing.
During an AFJI interview last January, General Krulak described the AAAV as “a unique combination of firepower, armor protection, and high speed mobility” that will greatly enhance the range, maneuverability, and survivability of Marine forces traveling from ship-to-shore and on land moving into enemy territory. This article outlines the military threats that drive the Marine Corps’ need for the AAAV, describes the program’s status, and explores where the dragon of change might take the Marines, the Navy and America’s military allies.
Life and Death in the Littorals
The littorals, the coastal areas where most people live and most large cities are found, will during the next quarter century become the AAAV’s hunting grounds. According to General Krulak, 70% of the world’s population “lives within 300 miles of a coastline.” In the next century, the majority of the planet’s big cities “will be within 100 miles of the sea.” Next to wealth, population and government centers, the littorals will likely become war-zones in the not-to-distant future. According to retired Army Lieutenant General John Moellering Assistant to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William J. Crowe “the abilities to both defend the littorals and bypass the weapons used to control them will become increasingly important to many nations.” The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps “already recognize such capabilities as the keys to the success in amphibious warfare,” Moellering added.
Coastal defense has become a highly profitable niche within the international arms market. According to a 1997 Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) report, 50 countries have bought or built 150 different types of naval mines. Particularly frustrating to the U.S. Navy is that even the least developed nation can easily manufacture crude naval mines that are “difficult to detect and counter,” ONI reports. More advanced mines, like China’s EM52 propelled rising mines, “represent the most serious mine threats to ships and submarines,” the report says. By 2016, ONI expects a “new generation of more capable and sophisticated” mines will be available on the arms market to “specifically…challenge amphibious operations.”
Furthermore, 75 countries own over 90 types of antiship cruise missiles that could be used for coastal defense, especially in the Middle East and Asia. Over the past few years, China has become the leading supplier of antiship cruise missiles to the developing world, with customers including Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. According to ONI, “proliferation [of antiship missiles] is expected to continue, and China will be a major player in the international arms market for the 21st century.”
A third coastal-defense threat has reemerged in the past few years: artillery, which has made tremendous advances in accuracy, mobility and lethality during the last decade. In its 1997 report, ONI says future U.S. amphibious operations “may be challenged by…foreign large caliber field guns” that could outrange U.S. Navy fire-support guns. Russia is now trying to export the Bereg, a mobile, self-sufficient coastal-defense artillery system capable of “destroying high-speed naval targets” up to 12 miles away. According to a May 1998 ITAR-TASS news report, the Bereg is a relatively inexpensive and reliable way to counter “small and mobile naval targets [like] small amphibious ships and hovercraft” at ranges too close for shore-based antiship cruise missiles to effectively target. Military experts predict the Bereg which has no foreign counterpart will be successfully exported, especially to Middle East, Persian Gulf and Pacific Rim nations.
Enter the Dragon
Facing these advanced, lethal weapons, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps will need to conduct amphibious warfare faster and over greater distances or risk increased casualties. To avoid these and other coast-defense threats, the Navy’s amphibious ships will need to remain “over the horizon” during amphibious operations. As a result, the Marine Corps will be forced to travel farther and do so faster if the Marines are to avoid threats and successfully reach the beach.
Today, Marine Corps amphibious landings begin about 4000 yards offshore and take about 30 minutes. But because of the emerging coastal-defense threat, the Navy’s ships cannot risk coming closer than 25 miles to the beach. The Marine Corps’ Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle, with its unique technological and performance characteristics, will allow the Marines to come in from beyond the horizon, bypass those threats, and safely make it ashore.
Origin of the Species
The AAAV is being developed by General Dynamics (GD), whose proposal to build a 37- ton, aluminum “planing” hull which offers significant operational and support advantages over air-cushion or hydrofoil alternatives won the Marine Corps’s 1996 competition. Starting in 2005, the Marines plan to field 1,013 AAAVs to replace 1,320 AAV7A1s now in service. The Corps is developing two AAAV variants a personnel carrier to transport a reinforced rifle company of 18 marines, and a command-and-control vehicle. The vehicle is expected to remain the Marine Corps’ principal amphibious assault vehicle until at least 2030.
According to Richard Bayard, the Marine Corps’ AAAV assistant program manager, the vehicle’s development is “going very well.” In January 1998, the first AAAV prototype’s hull has arrived at the AAAV Technology Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, for integration and vehicle assembly. In February 1998, the second prototype’ hull will arrive, and the first AAAV prototype will be built and rolled out in June 1999.
Between August 1999 and the summer of 2000, three AAAV prototypes will be built and tested by GD and the Marine Corps. The vehicle’s performance on land will be tested at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Sea trials of the AAAV will take place at Camp Pendelton, California. And the vehicle’s 30mm cannon will be evaluated at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, which is equipped with sophisticated weapons testing systems.
Should the testing go without incident, then the Pentagon in January 2001 is expected to buy 11 more AAAV prototypes for additional testing. The first batch of production-quality AAAVs could be bought in 2004 for delivery in 2005. “If all goes as planned, the Marine Corps will have its first operational company of 25 to 27 AAAVs in 2006,” Bayar
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