We commend Captain Jay T. Snelling for his June 2019 Proceedings article, “The Amphibious Combat Vehicle Delusion.” Challenging the status quo is neither easy, nor popular. Furthermore, we are proud the Marine Corps promotes a culture that encourages its personnel to challenge the status quo and take a stand in a professional journal.
However, he presented an incomplete argument as to why the Marine Corps is acquiring the amphibious combat vehicle (ACV). He made unsubstantiated claims about the reliability and performance of the ACV, incorrectly downplayed the ACV’s value in supporting expeditionary advanced based operations (EABO), and failed to highlight major challenges the Marine Corps experienced in pursuing a high-water-speed (HWS) amphibious vehicle. The following is a historical perspective of amphibious vehicle procurement and professional insights from both the infantry and assault amphibian communities.
The Long Pursuit of the HWS Amphibious Vehicle
In the past 50 years, the Marine Corps experienced significant adversity in developing HWS amphibious craft. During the Vietnam War, the landing vehicle tracked-five (LVT-5) was the service’s amphibious platform. As the war progressed, enemy weapons proved the platform obsolete—it lacked the survivability, mobility, and lethality required in protracted land warfare. As a result, the Marine Corps searched for an HWS tracked amphibious vehicle to replace the LVT-5. While designing this replacement, the Marine Corps determined the technology required to develop an HWS-capable armored personnel carrier did not exist.1 As a result, it changed its approach, opting for a more traditional evolution that replaced the LVT-5 with the LVT-7, which today is known as the assault amphibious vehicle-7 (AAV-7). After the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps renewed its pursuit of an HWS-capable amphibious vehicle and designed the landing vehicle assault (LVA). However, LVA prototype modeling revealed that an HWS amphibious vehicle would be too large, complex, and expensive, and the service canceled the program in 1979.2 Later attempts in the 1980s encountered the same fate. Research and testing revealed the technology required for a viable HWS vehicle had not matured enough to justify the cost of a new platform.3
By the 1990s the proliferation of long-range precision-strike capabilities, such as the Soviet P-15 Termit antiship missile (Chinese variant: the Silkworm), forced naval landing embarkation and debarkation points farther from shore. As a result, the service again sought an HWS-capable amphibious vehicle, this time with a new platform—the advanced amphibious assault vehicle (AAAV). The Marine Corps sought bids for a vehicle that would extend the range of the amphibious task force, extend the ground combat element’s tactical reach, and optimize a vehicle for forcible entry from the sea against near-peer threats.4
The new requirements articulated the need for an amphibious vehicle capable of maneuvering 65 nautical miles on the water at 20 knots, and negotiating up to three-foot waves.5 While this was a step in the right direction, other requirements stated that “the vehicle would operate 20 percent of its time in water (both ocean and riverine operations) and 80 percent of its time on land.”6 This is problematic, as it is challenging to optimize a vehicle for water operations while also enabling it to operate four times as much on land.
The AAAV ultimately morphed into the expeditionary fighting vehicle (EFV). EFV development continued through the early 2000s, encountering a myriad of issues along its developmental path—technology, cost, and competing with other Marine Corps programs for funding. Most notably in 2006, increasing development costs breached the Nunn-McCurdy Act thresholds, whereby the cost per vehicle exceeded 125 percent of the original cost.7 As a result, the EFV’s requirements were rebaselined and entered a revised engineering and manufacturing development phase. Furthermore, the 2006 Strategic Planning Guidance directed the Marine Corps to “consider capability alternatives to support a single two Marine Expeditionary Brigade forcible entry operation.”
To cut EFV program costs, the Marine Corps’ Program Objective Memorandum 2008 reduced EFV end strength from 1,013 to 573 vehicles.8 Simultaneously, senior leaders were forced to redirect resources for the rapid acquisition of the mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle to support Marines deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The EFV program also faced considerable challenges in Congress; specifically, the EFV program required billions of dollars for a highly complex vehicle that possessed a flat-bottomed hull, which would likely fare only marginally better than the AAV-7 in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast. Thus, with the increasing number of casualties from IED blasts in the Iraq war, allocating additional funds to the EFV program lost political support.
In 2008, the service began pursuing a wheeled vehicle more suited for an IED-laden environment—the Marine personnel carrier (MPC). Recognizing the need to rapidly procure and field vehicles, the MPC program manager explored “off-the-shelf” wheeled armored personnel carriers with “MRAP-like” protection.9 Meanwhile, rising costs and underdeveloped technology resulted in the EFV program being canceled. The pursuit of an HWS-capable amphibious vehicle was shelved yet again.
A 2013 review found that the available HWS technology still lacked maturity and was too expensive for the Marine Corps’ budget.10 But, Japan has shown interest in waterjet technology for amphibious vehicles. So, the Marine Corps Systems Command and the Japanese Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency have entered into an information-sharing agreement that facilitates collaboration and lessons learned from technology developments.11 While the door is not closed on an HWS-capable vehicle, the AAV-7’s rapid obsolescence and escalating maintenance upkeep burden required the service to seek a replacement before HWS technology becomes viable and affordable. The programmatic demands of cost, performance, and schedule compelled the service to capitalize on investments into the MPC and pursue an “off-the-shelf” vehicle within the overall acquisition strategy to minimize developmental cost. This left no feasible alternative to the ACV.
Today’s Threat Environment and the ACV
Long-range antiship missiles are a serious challenge for the naval service, not just the Marine Corps. No HWS-capable amphibious vehicle will achieve independence from naval support. From a force-protection perspective, being over-the-horizon (OTH) protects you from direct-fire weapons, but nothing more. Yes, the increased standoff provides naval units with additional response time; however, given current adversary long-range precision missile capabilities, the additional time—mere seconds—is negligible.
At an altitude of 100 feet, the horizon is approximately 12 nautical miles away. During operations and developmental testing, the AAV and ACV swam more than 13 nautical miles. Is that ideal given their slower speed?12 Perhaps not, but it is certainly feasible if Marine forces must launch from OTH. Swim range is not an issue for the ACV or AAV, as both vehicles can maneuver for more than four continuous hours in the water; the issue is combat effectiveness of embarked personnel after a four-hour swim. Human-factors testing indicates it is highly likely embarked personnel will not be combat effective after four hours in the troop compartment of an ACV, just as they are not in an AAV—and would not have been in an EFV.13
Amphibious operations do require surprise, but surprise is relative to the adversary. Whether embarked on a fishing vessel or an ACV, Marines can achieve surprise if the operation is planned appropriately. The author argues that “one type of vehicle does not fit every scenario, and in many cases, wheeled or tracked vehicles will be of limited to no value.” He is right to a degree, but the Marine Corps embarks multiple platforms with varying capabilities on amphibious ships. The ACV provides commanders with an option for ship-to-shore maneuver, as does a combat rubber raiding craft, MV-22 Osprey, or CH-53E Super Stallion.
Most notably, the author fails to include the top reason why the Marine Corps does not have a cost-effective HWS-capable amphibious vehicle—affordable, proven technology simply does not exist. If the Marine Corps could procure a $24 million HWS amphibian (cost of an EFV at cancellation), the long‑term cost to maintain such a platform would detract from other critical components across the Marine air-ground task force?14
An Infantry Officer’s Perspective
The author’s claim, “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,” lacks critical context in that he fails to offer a scenario in which this could be the case. Certainly, readers could imagine an EABO in terrain only accessible by helicopter or tilt-rotor platforms, but such a scenario assumes aircraft will have unimpeded access to the EABO site. This is a risky assumption that could prove costly for grunts who have become accustomed to flying relatively unimpeded in recent wars.
The author also failed to cite the ACV’s capabilities, upgraded aspects for future mission role variants, and design features that enable future systems growth. He presents a false perception of what the ACV could provide ground forces during EABO. In May 2019, the Marine Corps Gazette article, “Every ACV a Sensor,” presented many creative and unique ways the ACV could facilitate increased operational security during an EABO. For example, the ACV’s advanced communication network could enable ground units to use the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS) and Communication Emitter Sensor and Attacking System (CESAS) II to influence enemy action, facilitating operational security more effectively than traditional methods alone.15 Using the ACV as a host for low-cost unmanned aerial system swarming technology could help detect enemy movements, ultimately affording commanders time and space for force posture changes that enhance operational security.
An Assault Amphibian Officer’s Perspective
While Captain Snelling acknowledges that the ACV would have been excellent for the battles at Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Inchon, and Normandy, he failed to mention that the ACV’s historic forbearer, the LVT, was first ashore in three of those operations. Without the LVT, many amphibious operations may have failed or incurred far more casualties had they not included the armored amphibious vehicles.
An armored vehicle must be mobile, lethal, and survivable. In most cases, the ACV is equal to, or more capable than, the AAV-7. The ACV’s water characteristics are equal to the AAV’s, and its landward maneuver capability exceeds that of the AAV. The unstabilized weapon platform of an AAV-7 is far inferior to the ACV’s remote weapons station (RWS), which offers all-axis stability regardless of the vehicle’s pitch and roll (both on land and in the water). This means assault amphibian units now can accurately engage threats in the water and suppress land-based threats while gaining a foothold at the landing site.
While the initial lot of ACVs will have an M2 .50-caliber or Mk 19 machine gun, a 30-mm cannon variant is well into development. Once fielded, it will greatly enhance the firepower available to assault waves at contested landing sites. In addition, the ACV has a modern digital communication architecture that includes display monitors in the troop compartment. Testing validated that the monitors vastly improve onboard personnel’s situational awareness before they disembark. Pertaining to survivability, the ACV’s v-shaped hull and independent seats offer far superior trauma protection when compared to the AAV-7’s flat-bottom hull and bench-style seats. Finally, the ACV’s armor is superior against direct-fire gunnery systems across the frontal glacis and sides. The ACV is not a monumental leap in technology, but it is superior to the AAV-7.
The ACV is not a delusion—it is reality. It gives the Marine Corps a more reliable, lethal, mobile, and survivable vehicle than the AAV-7. The ACV is expeditionary in design, permitting integration with naval shipping and ship-to-shore connectors. Its enhanced reliability and fuel efficiency will reduce the burden on logisticians and maintainers. Communications specialists will be equipped with modern digital architecture. The infantry will relish the ACV’s ability to provide deadly, accurate fires in support of maneuver. Assault amphibians will find that the ACV’s increased capabilities far outweigh any limitations associated with it being a wheeled vehicle. The Commandant’s guidance is clear—emerging conflicts and the increased capabilities of peer threats require us to evolve. To remain relevant and postured for the future operating environment, the ACV is an amphibious vehicle that can support EABO.
1. Headquarters Marine Corps, Landing Vehicle Tracked–5, Replacement Alternatives, 4 April 1968.
2. Headquarters Marine Corps, Memorandum for the Under Secretary for Research and Engineering–Landing Vehicle Assault Program, 29 January 1979.
3. Headquarters Marine Corps, Analysis of Alternatives in the case of the Landing Vehicle Tracked–X, 24 July 1988.
4. Headquarters Marine Corps, Proposed Operational Requirements Document for the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle, 23 February 1994, 7-8.
5. Headquarters Marine Corps, Proposed Operational Requirements Document, 12-13.
6. Headquarters Marine Corps, Proposed Operational Requirements, 12.
7. United States Government Accountability Office, Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle Program Faces Cost, Schedule, and Performance Risks, 2 July 2010.
8. Headquarters Marine Corps, Program Objective Memorandum 2008, 28 September 2007.
9. Congressional Research Service, Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle and Marine Personnel Carrier Background and Issues for Congress, 2 January 2013, 3.
10. Headquarters Marine Corps, High Water Speed Amphibious Combat Vehicle Out Brief to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, 4 December 2013.
11. Marine Corps Systems Command, MARCORSYSCOM Site Visit to Japan Ministry of Defense and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, 10 January 2019.
12. AVTB 20160405-IDR, Interim Date Report for the Amphibious Transport Compatibility of the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, Increment 1 Phase 1, BAE Submission, October 2017.
13. AVTB 20122203-FTR (v7.0), Final Test Report for the Habitability Assessment Test of the EFV and AAVP-7 RAM/RS, 20110808 to 20110824.
14. Congressional Research Service, The Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle: Background and Issues for Congress, 14 March 2011.
15. LtCol Lynn Berendsen, “Every ACV a Sensor,” Marine Corps Gazette, May 2019.