Marines put new amphibious vehicle through paces as report shows need for it
By ANDREW DYER | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: March 27, 2021
(Tribune News Service) — A two-decade-long effort to replace the Vietnam War-era machines that ferry Marines from ship to shore may finally bear fruit.
Marines who are among the first to operate the service's newest amphibious vehicle say that although testing reveals some problems with reliability, it is a substantial improvement over the vehicles they're replacing.
Right now, only one unit in the Marine Corps has received the 35-ton armored troop carriers. But the service will add more than 70 vehicles to its fleet over the next year and could order another 80 per year afterwards, according to manufacturer BAE Systems.
A replacement can't come soon enough. A Marine Corps investigation released this week paints a scathing picture of the conditions faced by nine service members who died on July 30, 2020, when their 35-year-old assault amphibious vehicle or AAV sank off the San Diego coast. Investigators found that several of the unit's AAVs were in poor mechanical condition on that day, and that the one that sank had two potential leaks that should have stopped the Marines from training with it.
The Marine Corps have been trying to replace its AAVs — commonly called "amtracks" — for more than 20 years. During the first decade of this century, the Corps developed a larger, faster version of the vehicle — the multi-billion dollar expeditionary fighting vehicle. The program was cancelled in 2011 and the Marines pivoted to the amphibious combat vehicle, or ACV.
While the ACV sacrifices size and speed when compared to the cancelled expeditionary vehicle, Marines who've worked with the new vehicle say it's "light years" beyond the amtrack.
The ACV differs from the AAV — which entered service in 1972 — in several significant ways. Gone are the tank-like tracks that propelled the old troop carrier on the ground; the ACV has eight wheels. It has a v-shaped armored hull designed to deflect blasts from the kind of roadside bombs or IEDs encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops sit on individual seats with armor underneath them instead of benches.
The ACV's speed in the water is comparable to that of an AAV, which can move at about eight nautical miles per hour. The ACV is almost twice as fast as the AAV on land, according to Marines who've driven it. It also has a longer range than the AAV, which suggests it can be launched from further offshore, minimizing risks to the amphibious ships from which they operate.
During the summer of 2020, the Marines of Delta Company at the 3rd Amphibian Assault Battalion put the vehicle through its paces both in the high desert of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms and in the surf at Camp Pendleton. Although some reliability issues came to light after those initial tests, the Marines on the ground who drive and maintain the vehicles are enthusiastic about the future of amphibious operations with them.
The new vehicles are quiet in the troop compartment, said Sgt. Devin Mendez, an ACV vehicle commander during an interview Tuesday at Twentynine Palms. The amtracks Mendez served in previously are noisy, with little material between the vehicle's engine and the troop compartment. That makes communication difficult. Fumes from the engine leech into the vehicle's interior and would often lead to disorientation among the Marines inside, he said.
"I think versus the AAV, operators are more attentive in this vehicle," Mendez said. "It makes your job 10 times easier."
The Union-Tribune met with four vehicle commanders who talked at length about their experience working with both the AAV and the ACV.
The Marines laughed when asked about the results of their initial tests over the summer which found the ACV had trouble with tires going flat, troop comfort and the reliability of its weapons system.
Sgt. Kyle Kohrs said that during one operation, an ACV ran over a stake, which stayed inside a tire for two days without causing a flat.
"It has a central tire inflation system," Kohrs said. "We were still able to operate that vehicle without having to stop and conduct maintenance versus an AAV where (a thrown track) is anywhere from a two to four-hour process to fix it. It is light years ahead of what that vehicle is."
Kohrs said the eight-wheeled ACV was also more capable over difficult terrain than the amtrack. The suspension of the wheeled-vehicle versus the rigidity of tank tracks made the difference, he said.
"I've taken this over terrain that I would never take an AAV over," he said.
After last summer's testing, some troops reported that the ACV's seats, which weren't designed for Marines wearing body armor, were uncomfortable.
The Marines from Delta Company took issue with that. They said that during training with infantry riding in the ACV, some of their passengers even fell asleep.
Besides the interior material upgrades, the ACVs also have modern communication, navigation and weapons capabilities that amtracks don't. Marines inside the ACV can see where other Marine assets are on the battlefield via the Joint Battle Command-Platform, a satellite communications system. That real-time awareness, Kohrs said, was key to their training over the summer.
"It was all 18 vehicles in one area," he said. "We were able to keep an eye on each other and we knew where everybody was at."
One of the issues the Marines had with the amtrack was unreliable radio communications, Kohrs said. The radio of the doomed amtrack that sank in July had failed, the Marine Corps' investigation found. The vehicle commander had to wave a distress flag for more than 20 minutes before others in the sea that day knew the vehicle was in trouble.
Much of the down time during the testing period was related to the new vehicle's Remote Weapons System, which allows the vehicle's gunner to target and fire via a computerized system inside the vehicle.
Maj. Brian Deiters, the commanding officer of Delta Company, compared the weapons system to an "aimbot," which, in video games, is a sort of hack that allows players to automatically aim at other competitors.
"You want to talk about why Marines love it? They hit every target the fired at," Deiters said, talking about the testing and evaluation exercise. "The ACV basically has aimbot where the AAV — you can't even stay on target."
The vehicle hit 91 percent of its targets while stationary during the evaluation and 97 percent of them while moving, according to the report.
Another benefit of the new vehicles is they require less maintenance than the old amtracks, Kohrs said.
"My day-to-day life as an AAV operator was I showed up to work and was doing some kind of maintenance from eight in the morning until 4:30, 5 p.m.," Kohrs said.
Other than a couple hours of preventative maintenance a day on the ACV, Marines were not spending hours and days on upkeep, he said, leaving them time for other types of training. He said junior Marines attached to ACV squadrons are better trained on other aspects of the Marine Corps than their AAV counterparts because they're not spending all of their time making their vehicles run.
Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C.-area think tank, said the Marine Corps needs the ACV, saying the AAV is "not just an old design — it's a worn-out design."
"If the Marines are going to remain an amphibious readiness force, then they must have the ACV," Thompson said in an interview. "The Marine Corps has always styled itself as a self-sufficient '911' force. It needs an amphibious vehicle that can be plugged in to a lot of different scenarios and the ACV fits the bill."
Deiters, and the vehicle commanders interviewed for this story, all said that the ACV's reliability was its main benefit over the amtrack. That, and safety.
"When they were designing this vehicle, I believe their whole thought process was 'how do we keep Marines alive' and they succeeded," Kohrs said.
Cpl. Nathan Mikell, who is also a vehicle commander, said the ACV has Marines wanting to reenlist.
"When I was on a track (AAV), I hated my life, I was like 'I can't wait to get out of the Marine Corps," he said. "Now I'm like, well, I want to do stuff with this vehicle, I want to get on a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit)." Those units are typically built around a Marine infantry battalion, Navy amphibious ships, helicopters, F-35B fighters and artillery and deployable to hotspots around the world, capable of operating at sea, in the air and on land.
Mikell might get his chance. Delta Company is disbanding this summer and its vehicles are being transferred to Camp Pendleton ahead of a possible MEU deployment.
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