How can the USMC enhance application of power projection from the sea?
One of the lessons from the Iraq campaign for the AAV-7 was the need to vastly improve its survivability. On several occasions, vehicles were destroyed by enemy actions resulting in numerous casualties, particularly to embarked infantry. Even if not committed to direct combat action, they proved vulnerable to handheld anti-armour weapons, mines and IEDs. Higher protection levels against a wider range of threats are essential. Thus, a major component of upgrades includes added protection. Buoyant armour has been added that both increases protection and improves water stability and freeboard.
The water performance of an amphibian assault vehicle has remained relatively constant over the years and various models of Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVT). The vehicle is able to move through off-shore waters to the beach, negotiating swells, waves and other conditions typical of the open seas. Ideally, it should also be stable in the water and self-righting should it be capsized by rough water. A higher water speed and manoeuvrability is always favourable, as it reduces transit time to the beach and assists in safe passage through the surf zone, including plunging waves which can broach a craft. A faster transit also improves the condition of the embarked Marines when they reach the beach. This is an important consideration when one considers being in the enclosed, constantly moving and shifting compartment of a vehicle for a long period. These characteristics are what differentiate it from armoured vehicles that can simply swim.
Still, on studying the series of improvement programmes applied to the Assault Amphibious Vehicle AAV7 over the past 45 years, it is clear that priority has been given to its land operation. Although the basic criteria of transitioning seamlessly from the water to land remains the same, the performance sought on land has moved from being a small fraction of the intended operational use to a significantly more dominant use.
The most recent effort to improve the AAV-7 was initiated in August 2017, with a contract awarded to SAIC to incorporate a Survivability Upgrade (SU). Dennis Nihiser, Vice President Platform Integration Programs at SAIC, stated that, “the focus of the enhancements selected for the vehicle are on crew protection and safety as well as regaining or improving its performance and reliability. A primary driver behind the SU is to accommodate the increased land operations, especially off-road, which are significantly harder on the vehicle and crew as well.”
Amphibious Vehicle Requirements
A number of improvements have also been made that reflect lessons learned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as addressing the vulnerability to mines and IEDs.
An additional consideration in a vehicle intended for extended land-use is its habitability, including considerations given to the comfort and provisions for the embarked Marines to travel in and operate from it. This means reducing the number of troops carried to provide more space. The AAV7 Program Executive Officer (PEO) stated that the SU has individual blast resistant seats with harness for up to 21 in the troop compartment, compared with 25 on bench seats in the earlier version. Even then, used in ground combat it is likely to carry only 18 Marines. In addition, provisions have been made for carrying troop packs and equipment.
The SU is intended to provide the Marines with a “bridge amphibious” combat vehicle capability maintaining the AAV7 in service through 2035. Kevin McConnell, Deputy Director, Fires and Maneuver Integration Division, Capabilities Development Directorate, CD&I, stated to MONCh that the AAV-7SU, “trades multiple aspects of performance for capacity in order to project tactically complete reinforced infantry units across the beach in the assault echelon.”
Meanwhile, the AAV-7SU itself has a number of additional improvements that are being considered. These include possible replacement of the current track with a lighter, more durable and better performing one. This might include Soucy Defense’s Rubber Band Track that has already established its benefits in use on the BAE Systems CV90. There is also consideration being given to replacing the manned .50MG/40mm AGL unstabilised turret with the stabilised Kongsberg .50 PROTECTOR remote weapons station (RWS).
Evolving operational environments and anticipated threats have driven the requirements that lead to the development of the AAV7, and similarly impacted on the manner in which it was employed. The USMC plan had for many years been to replace the AAVs with an amphibious vehicle with a high speed in the water: the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV).
Concerns over the effectiveness and proliferation of long-range anti-ship missiles has caused the US Navy (USN) to seek to move its ships further from shore, often to beyond the horizon. To accommodate this without an excessive transit time to the beach seemed to demand amphibious craft that could achieve high water speeds. This means a planing hull and a high power-to-weight ratio. The larger the platform, the greater the power required to reach plane. Thus, the Marines’ initial requirement to carry 25 embarked Marines (later reduced to 17 -18) plus a crew of three significantly increased the development challenge.
It is a tribute to General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) engineers that they were able to design and build such a vehicle in its EFV. Still, the engineering compromises necessary to meet the requirements laid out resulted in a system that was large, complex, and expensive. Tactical reality, coupled with its many delays in development and growing unit costs in an austere fiscal environment, eventually caused the then USMC Commandant James Amos to recommend cancelling the programme in January 2011.
The end of the EFV may well have been fortuitous, as it made funds available for alternative approaches and a redefinition of the needs of the Corps in execution of its Operational Manoeuvre from the Sea (OMFTS) concept, which was formally laid out in 1996 in MCCP201. Lawrence J Oliver, in a 2000 article in the Marine Corps Gazette suggested this “provided a potential framework in which maneuver warfare principles are applied to operations in the littoral environment.”
This emphasis on manoeuvre was already represented in the Marine wheeled 8×8 Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) that had been fielded in the 1980s and had successfully demonstrated its potential in exercises and in combat. What LAV lacked was open-water swim and surf transit capability. That such a capability had since been made available in off-the-shelf wheeled combat vehicles became evident in the Corps Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC) technology demonstration/evaluation, conducted from 2012 through mid-2013. BAE Systems with IVECO Defence (SuperAV), SAIC with ST-Kinetics (TERREX), GDLS (LAVIII) and Lockheed Martin with Patria (HAVOC) each provided vehicles, which underwent survivability, amphibious water, operational human factors, and automotive evaluation.
The results established that there existed a number of mature systems that could fill many of the Marine requirements for a highly mobile, survivable land combat platform for an infantry squad with the possibility of retaining water performance at least equivalent to the AAV-7. This coincided with a growing assessment that better alternatives to achieving more efficient ship-to-shore connectors might be available. The Corps thus made the decision to shift emphasis of its future combat infantry vehicle to the demands of ground combat, while maintaining the ‘status quo’ equivalent to the AAV-7 for water performance.
Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV)
The ACV programme, drawing from the MPC results, laid out an aggressive and accelerated timeline for a wheeled, protected and highly land-mobile infantry squad transporter with amphibious capabilities equivalent to the current AAV7.
An RfP was issued in November 2014 and a down-select to two candidates (BAE Systems and SAIC) was made a little over 12 months later. Following further evaluation the Marines, on 19 June 2018, awarded a $198 million Phase 1.1 production contract to BAE Systems. An initial 30 systems will be delivered in 12 months, followed by a second option for an additional 30 and a planned full-rate production decision in 2020. A Phase 1.2 effort to develop C2 and maintenance and recovery variants, as well as to identify and introduce additional improvements to the 1.1 version, will be conducted.
USMC Details ACV Contract
USMC Systems Command awarded a contract to produce Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACV), a much-needed modernisation to the Corps’ ground combat element, to the BAE Systems team, for which Iveco Defence Vehicles will provide its 8×8 amphibious armored platform design, core components and services. It includes an option of up to $1.2 billion for a total of 204 vehicles. Following a successful Milestone C decision by the Assistant Secretary of the US Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, the contract options worth U$198 million will allow BAE Systems to build 30 low rate production vehicles, which will commence delivery in late 2019. These vehicles will begin the transition of a portion of the Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV) fleet.
The USMC said in a statement issued on 20 June that the AAV has been in service for more than 40 years, and many of its components and parts are obsolete and no longer manufactured. Because of this, the vehicles are becoming increasingly costly and difficult to maintain. That, coupled with the changing environment in which Marines find themselves plagued by the IED threat, has produced a need for a new, more survivable combat vehicle that can manoeuvre from ship to shore and beyond.
“In order to be a step ahead of our adversaries in the future, the Marine Corps needed to find a modern vehicle at an affordable price range that provided significant capability enhancement and performance over the AAV,” said Col. Kirk Mullins, ACV 1.1 Product Manager in Program Manager Advanced Amphibious Assault in the Program Executive Officer Land Systems.
The ACV is an eight-wheeled vehicle that will provide protection akin to the MRAP, with landward manoeuvrability and mobility that is superior to that of the AAV. It will be outfitted with a precision weapons station for enhanced lethality, and a robust swim capability, allowing it to operate within the littorals and beyond. “The ACV provides a mobile capability that mechanises the force to maintain tempo with the remainder of the [Marine Air-Ground Task Force]; specifically, the M1A1 tank,” Col. Mullins said. “It isn’t maintenance intensive because of its increased reliability, and it also provides greater protection against threats we encounter on the battlefield.”
I Marine Expeditionary Force will be the first to receive the new ACV when fielding starts in the fourth quarter of 2020. Full operational capability is scheduled for 2023.
The SuperAV selected epitomises the USMC’s new manoeuvre concept. It should not be a surprise that it is derived from over a decade of development by Iveco Defence, a leader in wheeled combat vehicle design and innovation. First it was designed from inception with the intent to offer amphibious, not simply calm water swim capability. It also sought to gain and assure superior mobility through an innovative ‘H-Drive’ that transfers power from the powerpack through shafts running along the chassis sides. This eliminates centre axles, providing a much lower profile while still permitting a vee-hull and lowering the centre of gravity, with both water and land stability benefits. It also guarantees mobility despite battle damage to one or even several wheel stations, as power is still provided to all remaining stations.
The SuperAV 1.1 version also accommodates a full 13 Marine infantry squad, which had been a 1.2 ‘growth’ requirement. Although demonstrated with the Marine directed .50 machine gun RWS, it has already been demonstrated by Iveco with armament up to 40mm calibre. It thus has an inherent capability for mounting the 30mm BUSHMASTER auto-cannon that was planned for the EFV and has been fitted in a remote turret on the upgunned US Army STRYKER DRAGOON. An Orbital-ATK (now Northrop Grumman) executive suggested that, “the 30mm with its programmable ammunition is ideally suited for the infantry combat vehicle. It is not only capable of excellent armour penetration but its multi-purpose round offers delayed, point and airburst high explosive that address a wide range of targets.”
The Super AV appears to have impressed the Marines in its fit to the ACV role as John Garner, PEO Land Systems at US Systems Command stated: “This vehicle could enter production as tested and meet the Marines requirements.”
A New Direction
The emphasis on manoeuvre and land combat in the Corps’ latest amphibious vehicle’s requirements represents a recognition of the critical shift that has taken place in the balance between the ship-to-shore and ground combat aspects of amphibious expeditionary operations. To a degree this was somewhat acknowledged in the series of AAV7 improvements and upgrades executed since 1980, including the most recent SU. Each was directed primarily to enhancing land performance and survivability. Removing the demand for a fourfold increase in water speed as integral performance criteria has allowed for optimising the Marine IFV for the land combat environment in which it will, given the projected tactical employment demands, need to operate and survive. Undoubtedly it has highlighted other challenges, such as finding other ship-to-shore connector solutions but, in fact, advances in this area have been and are needed in any case. It is here that the next critical development in amphibious capability will likely occur. Already a number of exploratory initiatives are being investigated by USN and Marine developers, as well as farsighted agencies like DARPA and the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The ramifications of not just new technologies but new operational techniques of employment offer increased possibilities for further enhancement of the application of power projection from the sea.