Readers know I’m happy that the Marine’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) was cancelled by SecDef Gates last week. It is another entry in a long list of development programs that were far, far too ambitious, and yet allowed to remain in the development stage for far too long, in the hopes some miracle of procurement would occur. While most of the development issues with the vehicle have actually been ironed out, the unit cost of each vehicle would have been astronomical, somewhere around $27 million dollars a vehicle. Dude. The MV-22 Osprey helicopter/wonder transport is only $44 million a copy. And a Bradley runs around $4 million a copy. If the Marines had actually tried to buy the EFV, the Class I budget for the troops would have seen the troops eating mac&cheese and Top Ramen for the next generation. And the technical compromises to achieve the unrealistic performance benchmarks would have caused unholy hell in maintenance. To achieve its high water speed, the EFV had to hydraulically retract its tracks up into wells along the side of the vehicle’s hull. Look, metal tracks are robust, but hydraulics aren’t. And that’s just one of the tricks they had to use to get the unrealistic water speed demanded out of the EFV. All those things cost money. Lots and lots of money.
But here’s the thing. I absolutely, from the bottom of my heart believe the nation needs the Marine Corps to maintain a viable ability to execute forced entry on hostile shores, and the old AAAV-7 series of vehicles are getting just too damn tired to operate much longer, and the increasing threat from anti-tank missiles and other threats means it is not going to be a viable platform for amphibious assault much longer.
So what is to be done?
Well, there’s a robust discussion about our options over at the invaluable Information Dissemination on just this topic. I’d advise you to pay particular attention to Scott Brim in the comments. Technology drives tactics, and tactics drive technology. Scott grasps this with a clarity that is really surprising. You non-military folks may not understand some of the jargon, so just ask questions in the comments.
Also, right of the bat, in the very first comment, there’s a link to the excellent China Defense Blog showing what a less ambitious program might have produced.
That’s the Chinese ZBD05 amphibious infantry fighting vehicle, which has a water-borne speed of 16 kts. Not bad at all.
Part of the problem the Marines face is doctrinal. The Navy, realizing that shore based defenses have grown far more dangerous in the last few decades, now envisages launching any amphibious assault from over the horizon, which they define as being roughly 25 nm from shore. And the Marines strongly believe that the trip one way should be one hour or less, which was the driving factor in the design of the EFV. Speed counts. The faster you can move an operation along, the less chance an enemy has of screwing up your plans. Of course, given the Marines experience fighting ashore in the last two decades, they also need a vehicle that serves well as an armored fighting vehicle once it is ashore. It has to be able to take on enemy vehicles, protect its crew and troops from artillery and small arms fire, and increasingly from IEDs and mines. It also has to fit inside existing Navy amphibious ships. From where the Navy sits, they’d much rather see the Marines risk a bunch of $27mm tracks than one $2 billion ship. So the Marines have a tough nut to crack.
Another problem is structural. The current DoD regulations for procurement are known collectively as “DoD 5000.” Basically, to start a program, the services have to show a need for a program, and then explain in exhausting detail exactly what the key performance characteristics are. And lo and behold, the contractors strive to do exactly that. So when the Marines said the key performance measurement for the EFV was a 25kt speed in the water, the contractor came up with a vehicle that could make 25kts at sea. But to make that speed, they had to make compromises elsewhere, or vastly increase the cost of the vehicle. In the end, they did both. But as fun as it is to blame greedy contractors for massive costs in weapons programs, they are just doing what the customer wanted.
I have to wonder, given that we’ve spent $3 billion dollars on the replacement for the AAAV-7 series of vehicles with nothing to show for it, would we not have been better off in picking 3 different contractors, handing them a billion dollars each, and letting them come up with the best vehicles possible, and then choosing from those prototypes? I strongly suspect we would have had a viable replacement, sooner, and cheaper.