The Obama administration will inherit a broken defense portfolio, the result, Anthony Cordesman recently wrote, of years of “mismanagement… incoherent force plans and unrealistic budgets.” Some programs are likely to be curtailed or cut altogether. A number of analysts have recently said the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle should be near the top of the chop list.
For twenty years the Marine Corps has been developing the EFV, an amphibious assault vehicle to replace its ageing AAV-7A1 vehicles. The Marine Corps intends to buy 573 of the new vehicles at a cost of $14 billion, or about $22 million a copy. The EFV is supposed to launch from ship up to 75 miles off shore and then race to the beach at 25 knots by going up on plane on the water like a “go fast” boat, all the while carrying 17 Marines. Once ashore, the vehicle would have mobility and firepower similar to the Army’s Bradley fighting vehicle, with a slightly larger 30mm auto-cannon.
The EFV is a key component of the Marine Corps amphibious assault doctrine, “Operational Maneuver from the Sea,” intended to restore maneuver warfare to the battlefield by exploiting vast ocean spaces and off-shore “seabases.” Instead of the classic “Tarawa style” amphibious assault with lengthy shore bombardment and predictable landing spots, Marines would present an opponent with multiple locations along a coastline where they could land with their speedy EFVs and then maneuver onshore with speed and agility.
The EFV program has been beset with cost overruns and reliability issues. The EFV can only reach high speed across optimal glass like water skiing conditions. The EFV prototypes are “only going between 4 and 10 hours before breaking down,” said House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Gene Taylor.
The biggest problem for the Marines and the EFV is that the development of potential threats, both off-shore and on land, have outpaced EFV development over the past two decades. As CSBA’s Dakota Wood points out in a report (.pdf) on crafting a future Marine force released last week, a growing challenge to any vessels operating off hostile shores is the increased range, speed and precision of anti-ship missiles, which means the littorals are becoming a hotly contested zone and the contest favors the shore based defender. “Some anti-ship missiles currently in use by China and other nations can range out to 200+ km (125 miles) with closure speeds of Mach 2.0 or more.” Ships operating close to shore would also be vulnerable to stealthy diesel electric submarines, Wood says.
The EFV was designed to cut transit time from ship-to-shore to under an hour or less at 25 nautical miles. With the proliferation of modern anti-ship missiles, that 25 mile gap has been “upended” by three or four times that distance, Wood says. “The investment that was put into creating a vehicle that can go up on plane has been overcome by the at sea threat and then when it gets ashore its completely ill-suited to anti-armor guided munitions found ashore,” he said at a conference in Washington, DC last week.
This was a point RAND’s David Johnson made recently in an interview, the EFV is no better protected than the Marine’s current Amtrack in the face of anti-tank guided missiles or even RPGs as its armor is quite thin. The EFVs hull has a flat bottom so that it can get up on plane, but that low-to-the ground flat hull design has been proven deadly on vehicles hit by IEDs in Iraq. The Marines designed a vehicle primarily for crossing the water, not for fighting on land, and certainly not against opponents armed with modern anti-armor weaponry, Johnson said.
As Naval Postgraduate School lecturer Craig Hooper writes in the current issue of Proceedings (.pdf), the Marines’ maneuver over-the-sea strategy “froze the EFV concept” so it remains a far too highly specialized vehicle. “The EFV design is tied to achieving high over-water speed. Eliminate that requirement, and the Marines might as well start with a clean slate,” Hooper writes. He recommends killing the program. “Between the Marines’ increasing desperation to field an amphibious means of forcible entry and the unpopular option of cancellation, something has to give.”
CSBA’s Wood also recommends the program be cancelled. Funds should redirected to develop a combination of platforms optimized for their combat environments. That would be an at-sea platform for landing troops and equipment from ever greater distances off-shore and a seperate fighting vehicle that is survivable on the modern battlefield.