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Marine Corps Perseveres Amid Budget Cuts

The Marine Corps faces amphibious vehicle and reset budget battles

The Marine Corps, which has a history of persevering through adversity to achieve victory in combat, is counting on applying that same quality to gain success in the less lethal but still crucial arena of procurement of vital weapons programs.

The challenge is to turn the cancellation of its long-sought but troubled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program into the foundation of a drive to quickly produce an alternative amphibious vehicle and a needed land combat troop carrier, while sustaining and improving its current amphibious tractors.

That three-pronged drive, however, must be maintained while the Corps is struggling to get the necessary funding to “reset,” meaning repair or replace its equipment that has been worn out, damaged, or destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The effect of nearly 10 years of heavy operations in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world has worn most on the ground vehicles and rotary-wing aircraft.

The Marines also must count on Navy funds to finish developing and then procure its two top aviation requirements, the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing fighter and the CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter, and to finish buying its MV-22 tilt-rotor and the four-bladed H-1 helicopters.

The Corps is trying to do all that, plus the normal need to support its active-duty and Reserve Marines and their families and sustain and update its command and control and communications systems and its domestic and overseas bases, with the knowledge that a decade of annual defense budget increases is ending and real cuts in the future are becoming more likely.

The driving need to reset the Corps’ equipment was reflected in the posture statement Commandant Gen. James F. Amos presented to the congressional defense authorization and appropriations committees this spring.

After highlighting his long-term goals of reshaping and equipping the Corps for the future, taking care of his Marines and their families, and educating the force, Amos said, “There are pressing issues facing our Corps today that give cause for concern.

“Resetting the Marine Corps for the future after nearly a decade at war is my No. 1 equipping priority.”

Part of the problem with worn out or damaged equipment is that much of the gear that was expected to be brought back for depot maintenance during the withdrawal from Iraq was shipped to Afghanistan to support the “surge” of 33,000 U.S. troops, including nearly 10,000 Marines.

Assault Vehicle-Launched Bridge (AVLB)

U.S. Marines with Company D, 1st Tank Battalion, assemble an Assault Vehicle-Launched Bridge (AVLB) at Combat Outpost Ouellette, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 16, 2011. The AVLB allows Marines and tanks to maneuver at will over various canals throughout their area of operation. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Bryce Piper

That shift involved “most of our deployed medium tactical fleet, the majority of our fleet of Mine-Resistant [Ambush-Protected] vehicles [and] Light Armored Reconnaissance vehicles,” the general said. That resulted in the deferment of previously planned reset actions, and “the acceptance of considerable risk in the long-term readiness and future availability of our ground equipment,” he told Congress.

“It is vital that we reset our equipment from nearly 10 years at war to maintain the necessary levels of readiness to posture ourselves for the future,” Amos said.

Because the Corps prioritizes its equipment allocation to the deployed forces, approximately 98 percent of those units report the highest levels of readiness, he said.

But that “has come at the expense of home-station, non-deployed units,” with about 68 percent of those units reporting degraded levels of readiness, largely due to equipment shortages.

“This lack of equipment impacts the ability of non-deployed forces to respond rapidly to other potential contingencies” and restricts training for future deployments, Amos said.

Lt. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, commander, Marine Corps Forces Command, said at a breakfast meeting with defense reporters that the equipment in Afghanistan “is holding up pretty well,” because they applied lessons learned in Iraq to augment the maintenance Marines and because they rotate the gear periodically back to the states for depot repairs.

And they have alleviated the shortage of gear used for training the non-deployed forces by redistributing equipment throughout the Corps and by pushing equipment to the depot at Albany, Ga., quicker and augmenting the civilian workforce there, he said.

Maj. Gen. James A. Kessler, commanding general, Marine Corps Logistics Command – which has to overhaul and refurbish the war-worn gear in his two depots – said the problem was that reset is “a constantly moving target,” with the reset plan designed in 2009 undone by the surge to Afghanistan.

“What we thought would get done in two years has stretched out because we’re fighting a new war in Afghanistan.”

Marine Corps budget officials said the reset bill was $10.6 billion going into fiscal year 2011, and $3.1 billion had been requested for reset in the FY 11 budget, leaving $7.5 billion to make up. Another $2.5 billion was requested in FY 12.

The budget officials, in written responses to questions, also said the Corps “would be unable to fund reset requirements from within our base budget. The Marine Corps will continue to need this critical funding until reset is well under way, post-conflict.”

But all the early congressional action on the FY 12 defense bills has resulted in cuts, ranging from $7 billion to $9 billion below the president’s request. And deeper defense cuts in the future are becoming more likely as Congress and the White House seek solutions to the national debt. So there is no guarantee the Corps will get the reset funds it needs.

M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank

A sailor guides the driver of an M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank from the deck of a landing craft to Camp Pendleton’s White Beach, Feb 23, 2011. The Marines are investing $7 million in modifications to M1A1 tanks. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Anthony L. Linan

And, Amos noted, his estimate did not include any reset cost accumulated beyond FY 12, even though U.S. forces are expected to stay in Afghanistan through 2014, although in reduced numbers.

“The reset estimate is based on current circumstances and will change as operational requirements are re-evaluated,” Amos said. “Moreover, as long as the war continues, our costs for reset will grow accordingly.”

The funding requested would support the depot-level maintenance of the equipment used in Iraq, and procurement of combat vehicles, other major weapons systems, engineering equipment, and ammunition used up or lost in combat, the posture statement added.

But the Corps has another critical need to re-equip its forces for the future, the commandant said in his posture statement.

“Our experiences in combat operations over the past decade have shown us that our legacy 20th century tables of equipment are inadequate with regard to the demands of the modern battlefield,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Corps completed a Force Structure Review to set the size of its post-Afghanistan force and a tactical vehicle review to assess its requirements for combat and support vehicles. Those called for reducing active-duty personnel strength from the current 202,000-plus Marines to 186,800 and a reduction of 10,000 ground tactical vehicles.

The leadership was still conducting a “thorough Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, and Facilities assessment” to determine what modern equipment would be necessary to support future operations, Amos said.

But the initial estimated cost of “reconstituting” the Corps’ equipment is $5 billion, “which is an amount entirely separate from our reset costs,” he said.

Some of that modernization was expected to be funded through reallocation of $3.1 billion the Corps said it would save through “efficiencies” ordered by then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last year.

The budget office said those savings would be invested in “critical warfighting programs to enhance readiness.”

That modernization challenge has been complicated by Gates’ decision to cancel the EFV.

The Marines had spent two decades and about $3.3 billion in an effort to get a high-tech and high-speed replacement for the current amphibious assault vehicles, the 1970s-vintage AAV7s.

The EFV was to be capable of skimming across the sea at 25 knots, three times the AAV’s water speed, carrying 17 combat-loaded Marines and a crew of three. That speed would allow the Navy to launch a future amphibious assault from 25 nautical miles offshore, beyond most coastal defenses.

Once ashore, the EFV was to provide the Marine infantrymen a climate-controlled, armor-protected ride to the fight and support them with a stabilized, high-tech, 30 mm weapon system.

Marine Corps Light Armored Vehicle

A Marine Corps Light Armored Vehicle kicks up a cloud of dust May 24, 2011, as it speeds toward the firing range during Company F, 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion’s final field training exercise as part of African Lion 2011. Of the available FY 12 budget, $151 million will go toward Light Armored Vehicles. U.S. Marine Corps photo

But producing a tracked, armored vehicle that could act like a speedboat in the water proved to be a technological bridge too far for General Dynamics (GD) Land Systems, the prime contractor.

Started in 1988, the EFV project was reprogrammed and delayed several times as GD ran into technology problems and was unable to meet the schedule. When it finally was able to produce prototype vehicles for testing, they fell far short of the minimum required reliability and some performance requirements.

Although threatened with cancellation, the strong advocacy by the Corps’ leaders convinced Congress to give the EFV program another chance to get it right. GD made substantial design changes and produced seven new prototype vehicles for testing.

The redesigned vehicles proved to be far superior to their predecessors, meeting or exceeding the meantime-between-operational-failure standard and most of the key performance marks in testing at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., test facilities.

But it was too late.

The estimated price for each EFV had soared from $5 million to $17 million, and Marine Corps officials said the $12 billion it would cost to acquire the 573 vehicles planned would have consumed nearly all of their expected funding for new vehicles and much of their total procurement budget for the next decade.

In a second round of program terminations and changes aimed at saving enough money to head off more drastic budget cuts, Gates ordered the cancellation of the EFV. But he made the point of stating that the program termination was not a negation of the Corps’ cherished amphibious assault mission.

Amos endorsed Gates’ decision, saying that although the EFV was a great vehicle, it had become unaffordable.

But in the Corps’ well-established tradition of fighting through adversity, the leadership quickly announced a plan to use the $12 billion they would have spent on EFVs to produce an alternative amphibious tractor and to achieve some of its other high-priority equipment needs.

Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, formerly deputy commandant for combat development and integration, said the EFV funds would be used to develop and procure a replacement, called the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), on an accelerated schedule, to move ahead on the long-planned Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC), and to pay for more life extension and upgrade work to keep the aged AAVs operational until the ACV can be fielded.

Budget officials said that of the funds released in fiscal year 2012 by the EFV cancellation:

  • $12 million would go toward ACV development;
  • $45 million to AAV modernization;
  • $5 million for MPC;
  • $7 million for modifications to M1A1 tanks;
  • $12 million for Armored Vehicle-Launched Bridge vehicles, and;
  • $151 million to pay for the Light Armored Vehicle.

Flynn said that because Amos said he wanted to be driving the next amphibious tractor before he leaves office, in 2015, he was “working that pretty hard.”

They had set up a “war room” that would bring together everyone who had to be involved in the ACV, MPC, and AAV efforts, he said. A key element was having the requirements officials directly dealing with the engineering, procurement, and budget experts, so that in determining requirements they could discuss benefits and tradeoffs at the beginning, Flynn said. Affordability would be a key driver, he said.

A big factor in lowering the cost and technology challenge was to cut the desired water speed in half, to about 12 knots, which still is faster than the AAVs. That was based on the idea that the Navy could launch the ACVs from about 12 nautical miles offshore and the Marines would be inside the amtrac for about an hour.

The program office was going to conduct an analysis of alternatives (AOA) for the ACV, with a goal of finishing it in six months, instead of the usual 18 months, Flynn said. They also wanted to have a technology demonstration stage, following up on a request for information from the defense industry.

Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV)

The EFV was to be capable of skimming across the sea at 25 knots, carrying 17 combat-loaded Marines and a crew of three. In the Corps’ well-established tradition of fighting through adversity, leadership announced plans to use the funds it would have spent on the EFV program to produce an alternative amphibious tractor and to meet some of its other high-priority equipment needs instead. U.S. Marine Corps photo

Meanwhile, the Marines were continuing to test the existing EFVs to produce information that could guide development of the ACV and to minimize what they would have to pay GD in contract termination fees.

In developing the MPC, which is envisioned as a lightly armored wheeled vehicle that would fit between the Light Armored Vehicles and the ACV, the Marines are working with the Army’s Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in an effort to save time and money.

Some influential members of Congress, however, have not accepted the decision to terminate EFV.

During the House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the fiscal year 2012 defense authorization, Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Chairman Todd Akin, R-Mo., threatened to block cancellation of the program.

Instead, he put language in the authorization bill saying the Marines could not proceed with developing the ACV until they provided Congress with details on their requirements for amphibious vehicles, as well as the costs of different scenarios, including keeping the EFV, buying a less-capable EFV, upgrading the AAVs while buying a small number of EFVs, and building the ACV. That language was in the bill approved by the House.

General Dynamics was encouraging the idea of buying a smaller number of EFVs, arguing that the Corps could buy 200 of the new vehicles and keep enough AAVs to meet their requirements for amphibious vehicles at much less cost than the full EFV program.

But Flynn rejected that idea, saying 200 EFVs would not meet the Corps’ need to equip two brigades for amphibious assault, and would cost $20 million each while he was expecting to get the first ACVs at $12 million and for $10 million when the program was in full production. The EFVs also would have the same high maintenance cost that was one of the factors influencing cancellation, he said.

EFV termination met similar resistance in the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, where Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., and ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., pushed hard for justification and alternatives.

The full Senate Armed Services Committee went even further than the House, declaring that the Marine Corps cannot afford to carry out its ground vehicle strategy and demanding changes to the plans to replace the EFV.

The committee warned that the Corps “is going to have to come to grips with the fact that it will have to spend significantly more money on ground vehicles in the future,” and as defense budgets tighten, it “will have to make difficult tradeoffs in multiple areas.”

The committee’s authorization bill, which had not been approved by the Senate as of July 1, would ban the Corps from giving the MPC program Milestone B approval, which would allow it to start the systems development and demonstration phase, until it submits a detailed AOA on the ACV to Congress.

It also would prohibit Milestone B approval for any Marine Corps ground combat vehicle under development, which would include the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle that could replace or augment the Humvees, until after the Pentagon gave Congress a life-cycle cost assessment of the service’s ground vehicle portfolio.

The House Appropriations Committee, however, approved EFV termination in the FY 12 defense spending bill it adopted in June, but which had not gone to the House floor at the time this article was written.

The future of the ACV, MPC, and other Marine Corps procurement programs, however, is clouded by increasingly tense discussion of defense spending cuts.

Gates, before leaving the Pentagon on June 30, and his successor, former CIA Director Leon Panetta, both have warned against deep cuts in defense spending in the face of continued threats from extremists in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and Africa.

But in a heated national political fight, in which federal spending seems to be the only issue, those warnings may not register.

This article first appeared in Marine Corps Outlook: 2011-2012 Edition.