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Keeping Marines Off the Beach

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As the new administration takes office, the defense budget will come under extensive scrutiny. A recent editorial in The New York Times entitled "How to Pay for a 21st-Century Military" calls for a halt to the F-22 Raptor fighter, the DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, SSN 688 Virginia-class submarines, and MV-22 Osprey programs, among others.

Some "big dollar" programs could be cut, in part to demonstrate the seriousness of the Obama administration to reform the U.S. military establishment. But there will be many programs at risk that have less visibility. One of the leading candidates for cancellation is the long-gestating Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), the advanced "amtrac" that has been under development for almost two decades.

The Marine Corps now has ten of the EFVs -- that designation being assigned in 2003 to replace the more prosaic but useful AAAV -- Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle, which in turn replaced the LVT -- Landing vehicle Tracked -- designation in 1982.

The EFV can carry 17 Marines on land or sea, at a speed up to 45 mph on land and about 25 knots at sea.  The EFVs range is 325 miles on land and 65 nautical miles at sea.

But those specifications are the "rub." How does the EFV fit into the Marines Corps concept of Operational Maneuver From The Sea (OMFTS)? That concept calls for launching an assault from 25 to 100 nautical miles from the objective -- which may be an inland location, such as an airfield, capital, or military base. Recent studies by the Defense Science Board (DSB) and Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) call for amphibious ships to stand offshore at least 50 miles because of the threat of land-launched cruise missiles (as struck the Israeli frigate Hanit operating off the Lebanese coast in 2006).

Thus, launching an assault from 25 or more nautical miles offshore would see the assault troops flown in by MV-22 tilt-rotor STOVL aircraft and CH-46E and CH-53E helicopters, the former at more than 300 mph and the helicopters at more than 100 mph. And, of course, they could land troops on an inland objective.

Follow-up equipment that was not air landed would be brought ashore by Air Cushion Landing Craft (ACLC), with a new design being developed, and the few remaining LCU landing craft.

Where does the EFV fit in? It cannot be launched from more than about 30 miles offshore because of its limited waterborne range if it is to return to the launching ship; it could be launched farther out if it is to then climb ashore and operate as a personnel carrier. And, even at 30 miles the transit time would be more than an hour, or longer if the seas are rough. If too rough, of course, the EFVs could not be employed.

After the EFVs "hit the beach" they must then travel to the objective. At that point the troops will have been "in the box" for at least an hour. Once ashore, an EFV operating as a personnel carrier has the benefit of a relatively heavy gun armament -- a 30-mm cannon and 7.62-mm machine gun. But it will lack support from armored vehicles -- tanks or even the Marines valued LAV (Light Armored Vehicle) -- making the EFV particularly vulnerable to the widely proliferated anti-tank weapons found in the Third World.

The official cost of the EFV is $10 million per vehicle, with several hundred planned to replace the existing AAV-7 series. The total EFV force will not be fielded until at least 2020.

With some "bugs" still to be worked out after two decades of development and the high cost per vehicle, coupled with the operational limitations or at least questions about how the EFV fits into the OMFTS concept, the EFV must be considered a highly visible target for administration budget cutters.

-- Norman Polmar

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