MPC and the Increasing Mechanization of the Marine Corps

One of the procurement programs at risk due to sequestration and budget cuts is the Marine Corps effort to buy an off the shelf armored personnel carrier. The Marine Personnel Carrier program is looking at a couple of existing 8 wheeled personnel carriers. With the cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the advanced age of the primary Marine personnel carrier, the AAV-7, the Marines are facing an overage fleet of vehicles with little room remaining for growth. Stopgap measures such as up-armored Humvees and MRAPs are in use, but are ill suited for the Marines primary focus on expeditionary and amphibious warfare.

The MPC isn’t intended to replace either vehicle. Instead, it is to fill  a niche role of providing rapid movement and armored protection to Marine infantry once the forces are ashore. Unlike Army mechanized and Stryker infantry, where the vehicles are organic to the infantry units, in the Marines, MPCs would be used similarly to how their AAV-7s are. AAVs belong to a separate battalion*, and provide lift to infantry forces. Similarly, units of MPCs will be made available to infantry forces for lift and limited direct fire support. 

MarinePersonnelCarrierDemonstrator

Marine Personnel Carrier demonstrator vehicle undergoing testing.

The Marines have been spending more and more time mounted in light armor. But this is a fairly recent historical trend. The Marines have long used light armor for transport, but for most of their history, that was simply a means of reaching the beach.

The Marines first combat use of tracked amphibians dates to early assaults in the South and Central Pacific. While LVTs were used in small numbers at Guadalcanal and other Solomons islands, the big debut as a carrier for assault infantry was at Tarawa. In that instance, the desire to use LVTs wasn’t so much for the benefit of armor, but more importantly, for an LVTs ability to cross over coral reefs that would block conventional landing craft, leaving infantry with a deadly slog through the shallows before they could even reach the beach. Having been delivered to the beaches, the Marine infantry dismounted, and fought on foot.

Indeed, since the establishment of the Fleet Marine Forces, Marine infantry has always been organized as a light, dismounted force. And it wasn’t just a desire to be hardcore that led to this force structure. Two major factors led to this organization. First, amphibious shipping space, especially in the post-WWII era, was especially tight. Finding space just for infantry and support forces was hard enough. Finding additional shipping and lift for armored personnel carriers would likely have been impossible.  Secondly, almost as soon as the helicopter was invented, the Marines grasped the possibility of using helicopters to lift infantry forces past the killing grounds of the shoreline. But the payload limitations of early helicopters meant it was only possible to lift lightly loaded infantry.

For most of the post-WWII era, this organization was quite valid. The restricted terrain in Korea was well suited to dismounted infantry. And the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam were also more suited to light infantry than to mechanized forces. Further,  it was still somewhat notionally doctrine that the Marines would seize beachheads, securing them for follow-on forces. If mechanized forces were needed, the Army would provide them after an initial lodgment had been secured.

But the trend in modern warfare has been toward greater mechanization. Partly because of the greater range and lethality of weapons and sensors, units occupy ever greater spaces on the battlefield. Where an 800 man infantry battalion might occupy a frontage of 1 kilometer on a WWII battlefield, today that same battalion might be responsible for security operations over an area as large as Rhode Island or even Vermont. Clearly, walking from point to point is no longer a realistic option. Whereas in the past, when the Marines needed to move elements over distances such as that, trucks would be used. But the vulnerability of trucks to direct fire and IEDs means that Marines need a significant ability to transport infantry using armored fighting vehicles. In Desert Storm, the Marines mounted their infantry on AAV-7s. The AAV-7 has little trouble operating on land, but was always designed primarily with its amphibious role foremost in mind. It’s light armor gives little protection against anything beyond rifle and machine gun fire, and the odd mortar fragment. RPGs and IEDs pose a very real threat to it. It is also quite a massive vehicle, making it an attractive target.

The  Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was to have been the Marines first real Infantry Fighting Vehicle**. With its failure, the Marines are left with tough choices.  The Humvee fleet is unsuitable for modern mounted combat. The AAV fleet is aging.  The MPC will be at best an interim solution to the problem of tactical maneuver for Marine forces. But the trend of increasing mechanization of the Marine Corps will likely continue, or Marine infantry will increasingly find itself unable to successfully fight enemies with even modestly modern armor.

*There is one AAV battalion per division. The AAV battalion is so organized that one AAV platoon can provide transportation to one reinforced infantry company, and one AAV company can provide lift to one reinforced infantry battalion.

**The Marines do operate Light Armored Vehicles armed with the same 25mm gun as the M2/M3 Bradley. While the LAV can carry small numbers of troops, it is seen more as a reconnaissance vehicle than a true IFV.