Today the Marine Corps released the long-awaited RFP for its Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV). This is the service’s latest attempt to replace the aging Amphibious Assault Vehicle. The ACV is the centerpiece of the Corps’ amphibious operations strategy, intended to assault hostile beaches and help the infantry fight their way inland.
You may remember that the last attempt to replace the Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV), the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, was cancelled in 2009 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates based on its escalating costs just as, some would argue, it was achieving technical success. Not wishing to repeat the experience, the Marine Corps has broken this procurement into two phases or increments. The first version of the ACV, increment 1.1, will be a non-developmental item, meaning it will be based on an existing combat vehicle, and be capable only of relatively slow movement in calm waters. In some instances this vehicle will have to be transferred to the beach via ship-to-shore connectors. A later version, increment 1.2, will carry more troops, move through the water faster and perform a wider range of missions. The ultimate vehicle the Marines want, dubbed ACV increment 2.0, will perform all the functions of its predecessors as well as move through the water at a high speed. It will also have to be affordable. The ACV also is important because it, along with the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle competition and the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle award to BAE Systems, constitutes virtually the sum total of new U.S. military vehicle programs.
In general, the Marine Corps acquisition strategy for the ACV makes sense. Get something deployed relatively quickly that meets a set of critical requirements while at the same time upgrading a number of the legacy AAVs. Once increment 1.1 has proven itself, go forward with the procurement of a larger number of the more capable increment 1.2 vehicles. In parallel, do the investments in technology and systems development to move to the ACV 2.0.
Developing a combat vehicle that can move rapidly across miles of potentially choppy waters from amphibious ships stationed over-the-horizon offshore to the beach, conduct an assault and then continue the fight inland along with the rest of the Marine Corps’ fleets of combat vehicles is an extremely challenging endeavor. Not only must the vehicle meet all the modern standards for mobility, protection, internal passenger volume and firepower, but it must also have sufficient buoyancy and speed to transit a significant amount of water in a relatively short period of time. It is tough enough just to build a ground combat vehicle that is mobile protected, lethal and affordable. Just ask the Army. To design and build one that can also scoot along the water like a speed boat is really challenging. These requirements remind me of the old saying about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: she had to do every step he did only backwards and in high heels.
As it begins the long journey from the AAV to ACV increment 1.1, then increment 1.2. and finally increment 2.0, perhaps the Marine Corps should consider alternative or at least supplementary options. The sheer breadth of requirements placed on an amphibious combat vehicle are breathtaking. Moreover, the trade-offs can be extremely difficult. Weight is determined largely by vehicle volume and by the armor required for protection. The more passengers and the higher the level of protection desired, the heavier the vehicle. But weight is the enemy of speed, both on land and in the water, as well as buoyancy. Speed is particularly desirable for water transits in order to allow the amphibious ships to stand off farther as well as to reduce the period of time the vehicle is making the vulnerable trip to shore. Tough choices. Maybe too tough without significant breakthroughs in materials, power systems and weapons.
Perhaps a way to solve this dilemma is by reframing the problem. Getting to shore is one problem. What happens once the Marines have landed is another. What if the challenge of getting to the beach safely could be made easier? Then the ACV’s need for high water speed and possibly even firepower, could be reduced.
There is an obvious and even urgent requirement for the ACV. However, the Marine Corps might want to consider accompanying the ACV with an autonomous system, an amphibious robot, whose missions are to draw enemy fire, complicate his targeting, return fire, breach obstacles and otherwise help the ACV’s get to shore. These platforms would be lighter and possibly smaller than the ACV since they wouldn’t carry passengers or need high levels of protection, hence they could be faster in the water and cheaper. Some might just be decoys intended to draw fire while others would have a weapons station. They would provide the leading edge of an amphibious assault as well as accompanying the ACVs with the latter’s precious cargo of Marines.
Autonomous systems are most valuable when they replace manned platforms in the performance of missions that are time consuming, dangerous and/or repetitious. Manned-unmanned teaming approaches are being developed by the Air Force and Army for a number of missions. It is time for the Marine Corps to consider a similar option to address the problem of getting combat forces to the beach.
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