The Marines may be full speed ahead on adopting its first new amphibious vehicle since the Vietnam War, but the Corps’ newest ride is still facing significant operational and mechanical issues, the service’s top officer recently revealed.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger submitted his written statement on the service’s current posture to the Senate Appropriations Committee ahead of a hearing alongside Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday on the Navy and Marine Corps’ fiscal year 2024 budget requests earlier this week.
Berger stated that the adoption of the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), which is meant to replace the Vietnam-era Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) “has the potential to greatly enhance [the Marine Corps’] littoral mobility and expeditionary reach” during future operations. However, he added, ”as with all new systems and technologies, there have been a few notable challenges.”
According to Berger, those challenges include “major” ACV component issues, such as a problem with the shock absorbers that support the vehicle’s eight wheels, and another with the central tire inflation system, both of which “have caused part failures, resulting in a decrease in reliability and a corresponding decrease in readiness.”
The Corps has also identified issues arising from “possible water incursion into the power train,” Berger said, noting that ACV manufacturer BAE Systems is working closely with the Marine Corps to address all of these issues.
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The disclosure of fresh mechanical issues, though far from dire, represents the latest tech challenge to befall the ACV in recent years. A fiscal year 2020 report from the Defense Department’s top weapons tester detailed that, apart from survivability issues detailed in a classified annex, the vehicle’s design made for an uncomfortable ride for kitted-out infantry Marines, and that it was difficult to rapidly exit in the event of an emergency.
The rapid egress problem appeared particularly troubling at the time because it came in the aftermath of the deady 2020 sinking of an AAV during an exercise off San Clemente Island in California that killed nine crew members. The deadliest training accident in the history of the Corps’ AAV fleet, a subsequent command investigation led to the dismissal of two Marine commanders due to a “loss of trust and confidence.”
It’s worth noting that Berger’s disclosure of the ACV’s issues is the first public mention of fresh problems in recent years. While the 2021 report from the Defense Department’s weapons tester was extremely detailed, there was no follow-up assessment in the office’s fiscal year 2021 report and the fiscal year 2022 iteration only focused on issues related to the ACV’s command-and-control variant. The ACV is also missing from the Government Accountability Office’s June 2022 assessment of DoD weapons systems, although the office’s 2021 report notes that the ACV “did not meet all reliability, availability, and maintainability threshold requirements” during testing.
The other major challenge facing ACV adoption stems not from mechanical woes, but “training shortfalls” which Berger stated BAE and Corps safety investigators had confirmed were responsible for a pair of rollovers in surf zones in July and one in October that prompted the Corps to pause surf training with the vehicles.
The “rollovers were caused by a lever effect generated when the vehicle becomes parallel to the surf line and is struck by a large wave,” Berger said, adding that the Corps is “enhancing the training regimen for our vehicle operators on this new and more sophisticated amphibious vehicle” to avoid future rollovers.
As Military Times noted, Berger’s comments echo those made by Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday regarding issues with how Marines are trained to assess and approach a surf zone in an amphibious vehicle.
“The vehicle’s gonna be great,” Heckl told lawmakers, per Military Times. “We just gotta work out these problems and make sure when we make a decision to go or no-go through a surf zone, whether coming ashore or going back to the ship, that we have the right and accurate information to make that judgment.”
Heckl had previously told Breaking Defense in February that the Corps was exploring new autonomous undersea vehicle technologies — think tiny robot submersibles — from the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab to help Marines make better decisions when evaluating surf conditions ahead of a potential amphibious transit.
“In the days when we grew up, you threw a Gatorade bottle out in the ocean and watched what it did — and that’s what you used [to figure out] are we within limits? This [technology] is completely not that,” Heckl told Breaking Defense. “If it’s green, Marine knows I go. If it’s yellow, Marine [has] got to make some decisions. [They’re going to] have to use his or her judgment. If it’s red, we’ve got to find a workaround.”
Solutions to those training shortfalls detailed by Berger and Heckl apparently can’t come soon enough. In January, the head of the Marine Corps Assault Amphibian School at Camp Pendleton, California was relieved following an investigation into October’s ACV rollover. While details are scant, the service stated at the time that the firing was a result of “after receiving information obtained during the course of the ongoing investigation.”
The Corps plans on acquiring 632 ACVs to replace the aging AAVs in the service’s assault amphibian battalions, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report on the vehicle. The service initially planned on acquiring 1,122 ACVS before reducing its projected buy as part of its Force Design 2030 modernization push.
In early March, the Corps awarded BAE Systems a $256.8 million contract for additional ACVs under the service’s third full-rate production order, the company announced. As part of its fiscal year 2024 budget request, the Marine Corps is asking Congress for $557 million to procure a fourth full-rate production lot of 80 vehicles, up from the 74 funded in the fiscal year 2023 defense budget.
“The Amphibious Combat Vehicle is imperative to realizing Marine Corps requirements for Fleet Marine Force 2030,” according to the service’s fiscal year 2024 budget request documents. “The capability to project power from the sea
ensures joint freedom of maneuver against increasingly sophisticated area denial and anti-access strategies across the range of military operations in areas vital to our national interest.”
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