The Marine Corps is purchasing a next-generation amphibious vehicle for the wrong fight. While preaching one thing about modernizing the force to execute the critical tasks outlined in the Marine Operating Concept (MOC), it is doing another.
The amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) is more than 40 years old and has been rendered obsolete on the modern battlefield through the advancement of technology and doctrine. The amphibious combat vehicle (ACV) was recently declared the AAV’s successor. By selecting the ACV to replace the AAV, however, the Marine Corps is recklessly disregarding the “key drivers of change” identified in the MOC, in particular, the “increasingly contested maritime domain.”
The latest MOC recognizes that naval power projection ashore now faces serious opposition, particularly from sophisticated long-range missiles. Specifications for the new ACV are no better than the AAV’s—neither can operate independent of naval support in an antiaccess/area-denial, over-the-horizon environment because of their inability to achieve high water speed (HWS) of greater than eight knots and lack of range. Wheeled and tracked amphibious vehicles have, thus far, been unable to achieve the HWS and range necessary to conduct amphibious operations on the modern battlefield. To fight and win in the contested maritime domain the Marine Corps must insist on a modern, long-range, HWS-capable landing craft to serve as the ship-to-shore connector capable of executing the expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) called for in the MOC.
The Future EABO Environment
During modern amphibious operations, ship-to-shore speed at extended ranges will be essential to achieve surprise, seize a beach, occupy a small island, or offload equipment. Moreover, the amphibious vehicle must be flexible enough to transport Marines and equipment to a secondary location and back to a ship. The first objective of most amphibious operations remains to seize a beachhead. Terrain, vegetation, and infrastructure at the landing site will dictate how, when, and what equipment can be brought ashore. One type of vehicle does not fit every scenario. In many cases, wheeled or tracked vehicles will be of limited or no value, as an EABO may require a minimal footprint to maintain operational security. Launching wheeled or tracked vehicles relatively close to shore would not support this requirement.
At Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Inchon, and Normandy, foot-mobile infantry were the first to reach, assault, and secure the beach via landing craft. Once the beaches were secured, the Marine Corps and Army flowed in additional combat power in the form of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and indirect fire assets. Today’s force must revisit this model to accommodate the full range of expeditionary operations a future maritime fight will demand—seize the beachhead and then transition to follow-on operations with assets best suited to the mission.
Unfortunately, the Marine Corps is now emphasizing the ACV’s 65-mph land speed, maneuverability, and survivability while downplaying its lack of HWS and range. The ACV’s water speed is 6–8 knots, no better than the AAV. The Higgins Boat of World War II and Korea had a functional water speed of 9 knots, 12 under ideal conditions. Surely a modern landing craft, even one with sufficient armor and armament, could achieve a HWS much higher than that advertised for the ACV. In addition, the AAV can transport 21 Marines while the ACV can only carry 13. This substantially increases the logistical burden, as it would require approximately 35 ACVs to transport three standard rifle companies (150 Marines each) from ship to shore, while 22 AAVs can accomplish the same task—a more than 50 percent increase in vehicles required.
The Marine Corps is not the Army
In a recent article on the Marine Corps’ website, a Marine colonel comments that:
The ACV provides a mobile capability that mechanizes the force to maintain tempo with the remainder of the [Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF)]; specifically the M1A1 tank. It isn't maintenance intensive because of its increased reliability, and it also provides greater protection against threats we encounter on the modern battlefield.
This assumes M1A1 tanks are employed. However, M1A1 tanks are rarely used in expeditionary operations. Moreover, the ACV the colonel describes sounds more like one designed for fighting extensive land campaigns than one whose primary purpose is to transport Marines from ship to shore. This identity confusion is the root of the problem.
The ACV is another example of the Marine Corps’ incoherence regarding its expeditionary nature. Senior Marine Corps officers persistently express their concerns that the force is too heavy. Nevertheless, the Marine Corps is purchasing an amphibious vehicle whose utility in combat rests on it being employed with a fully mechanized force. The ACV does not make the force lighter or more expeditionary. Instead, it makes the Marine Corps more like the Army, with the ACV an amphibious equivalent of the eight-wheeled Interim Armored Vehicle Stryker.
The cumbersome land force the ACV concept appears designed for does not support the current MOC. Consider how useful an ACV would have been during the amphibious assaults on Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Inchon, or Normandy’s Sword, Gold, Juno, Utah, and Omaha beaches. Those beaches were littered with obstacles, natural terrain features and extremely dense vegetation that would have negated the ACV’s high survivability, top speed of 65 mph, and supposed maneuverability entirely until roads could be built and obstacles cleared. This demonstrates the necessity of first seizing the beachhead and then bringing ashore those assets necessary to accomplish the mission. Accordingly, HWS and range should drive the development of a modern Marine Corps amphibious vehicle.
Lighter and Faster
A landing craft, similar to the Higgins Boat, updated with weapons and light armor and capable of achieving water speeds of 40 knots and transporting a platoon of Marines and its equipment is the solution to the problem the Marine Corps fails to solve with the ACV. Without a beach foothold, subsequent operations cannot occur. The principles that should characterize the concept of this vehicle are: the necessity to seize the beach first; HWS and extended ranges; and the Marine Corps’ identity as a light, mobile, expeditionary force.
According to the MOC, “MAGTFs may be task-organized for missions to seize, establish, and operate multiple EABs.” If small, isolated, and widely dispersed expeditionary bases are to be established where the enemy can deny access, then ship-to-shore speed and extended range will be essential. Amphibious ships will no longer have the luxury of driving right up to the objective and unloading three miles from shore. If the Marine Corps were to acquire a landing craft capable of HWS and extended range, it could execute discreet amphibious vehicle operations from a central, offshore point, such as an amphibious ship or group of ships.
Many advocates of the latest ACV design argue that a light, fast landing craft does not allow the Marine Corps to quickly and effectively extend its zone of control beyond the beach without an operational pause. They are correct, but only if they assume that the ACV will be landing on an uncontested beach against a peer/near-peer threat, which is neither plausible nor in accord with the MOC. Considering the logistical requirements of the ACV and assuming they are launched from over-the-horizon, it is unrealistic to assume a handful of ACVs from Marine expeditionary units or task forces are going to significantly extend their zone of control behind the landing site without additional resources.
There are also those who argue that the Marine Corps’ practice of maneuver warfare means that modern amphibious operations will not take place on a contested beach. However, the Marine Corps has not faced a true peer/near-peer threat since it adopted the practice of maneuver warfare in the 1980s. Therefore, it is merely wishful thinking to assume the Marine Corps will dictate the time and place of the landing. A peer/near-peer adversary is going to dictate a lot more than the Marine Corps wants to believe.
The Marine Corps needs to clarify its identity as a service. Technological proliferation is changing amphibious warfare, and the Marine Corps must adapt to the challenges ahead. The MOC has provided the Marine Corps with ample direction, but through the acquisition process the Marine Corps drifted away from that direction. Ship-to-shore transport should come first in amphibious vehicle design, but that is not the case with the ACV. The ACV does not support the EABO mission envisioned in the MOC; it is a vehicle designed primarily for extended land campaigns. The Marine Corps should pursue developing a modern, long-range, HWS landing craft to serve as the ship-to-shore connector required to fight and win on the modern battlefield.