Under sunny skies at Quantico, with a crowd of several hundred well wishers and the Marine Corps museum as a backdrop, the Marines displayed the latest prototype of their swimming armored personnel carrier, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV). They unveiled it not quite 24 hours after Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly questioned the very need for the costly new vehicle.
In one of his now trademark policy shifting speeches, this one at the Navy League’s annual conference, Gates pointed to the tracked amphibian as one of two examples, the other being carriers, of weapons that fall into a yawning gap “between the capabilities we are pursuing and those that are actually needed in the real world of tomorrow.” His view is that real world is unlikely to see the need for the very niche capability provided by the EFV: transporting Marines at high speed from over the horizon onto heavily defended beaches.
It’s difficult to overstate how important the EFV is to the Marine’s traditional mission and self image as an amphibious assault force, rather than as a second land army, as it’s been operating over the past eight years. It is designed to enable maneuver from the sea, a key concept in Marine operations. “The EFV] creates places where it’s simply impossible for an enemy to defend against, so you can find those gaps and exploit those gaps, so that we don’t relive an Iwo Jima, a Tarawa, a Normandy,” said Marine Col. Keith Moore, EFV program manager.
The prototype displayed today at Quantico is one of seven the Marines have bought from builder General Dynamics that will be shipped out to the service’s amphibious test center at Camp Pendleton, outside San Diego, Ca., where they will be evaluated over the next two years. The plan is to field the first operational EFVs beginning in 2015, Moore said. When asked to respond to Gates’ comments about the EFV, Moore said the Marines are doing everything they can to drive down the vehicle’s costs, which currently stand at just over $16 million a copy. The planned buy is 573 vehicles.
There is little question that the EFV is a technological marvel. It is a massive armored vehicle weighing 40 tons that can reach water speeds in excess of 25 knots and 45 mph on land, all while carrying 17 Marines, oh and it has a 30mm auto-cannon as well. It’s also probably the Marine’s most controversial program, says Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ Dakota Wood, which, given the development history of the V-22 Osprey, is saying a lot.
The EFV was designed to meet the requirements of a very different era, when an armored amphibian was needed to land the assault echelons of a Marine division and hold that beachhead and beat back the Soviet motorized counterattack. It’s difficult to envision the scenario where that same niche capability is needed. “We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again – especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore,” Gates said.
If the Marine’s amphibious ships get pushed too far out to shore, then the EFV wouldn’t even launch, as it would run out of gas soon after landing on the beach. Yet, that’s exactly what today’s ever more capable anti-ship missiles are doing, says Wood. He points to the Chinese made C-802 anti-ship missile that Hezbollah used to hit an Israeli corvette; the C-802 has a range of nearly 75 miles. Anti-ship missiles are “now reaching a level of performance that will push Navy ships away from the coastline three to four times the distance the EFV was originally intended to traverse,” Wood writes in a white paper on the future Marine force.
Col. Moore said that if the EFV is launched from 25 nautical miles out to sea, it can move about 120 miles inland before it must refuel. But push that launch point too much further out and the EFV’s onshore mobility drops pretty quickly.
Yet, the EFV’s vulnerability once on land, not water, may prove its undoing. The vehicle’s flat bottom (necessary to reach high cross water speeds), low ground clearance (16 inches), and very flat sides, are precisely the design features armored vehicle builders have sought to avoid, says CSBA’s Wood. In recent years, the land forces, including the Marines, have spent billions of dollars buying up MRAP vehicles with hull’s designed specifically to withstand IED blasts.
Moore confirmed what sources had told us already, that recent tests showed the EFV was vulnerable to large underbelly IEDs that penetrated the hull of older prototypes. The plan is to fit the EFV’s flat bottom with modular appliqué armor kits, “when the vehicle is operating for extended periods inland in the type of threat environment where you would see a proliferation of IEDs.” The standard armor kit provides protection against 155mm high explosive fragments and up to 14.5mm direct fire; the vehicle’s armor held up well against IED hits from the side, Moore said.
But the EFV may well fall to Gates’ axe for the same reason the Army’s FCS vehicles did: he wasn’t convinced they would provide sufficient protection to the troops inside. The current wars show that the character of war is evolving, as it continually does; new enemies are searching for novel and unconventional means to best the American military’s high-tech arsenal. Today’s enemies have developed inexpensive yet very lethal IEDs and EFPs designed specifically to destroy American armored vehicles.
In many respects, the EFV makes the enemy's job easier, says a leading national security analyst who has served as a key consultant to OSD officials and Marine leadership, and who requested anonymity because he still works closely with the military. “The adversary doesn't have an unlimited number of EFPs, IEDs, precision rockets or modern ATGMs. He seeks a good chance for a first shot kill in an ambush to get the most for his buck. As the Marines deploy ashore in a smaller number of high value targets, with 20 Marines apiece inside, they dramatically abet the enemy's targeting problem. For a $1,000 round, he gets a $20 million vehicle and possibly 20 KIAs. This equation needs to be rethought,” he said.