By Greg Grant
Both the Army’s FCS vehicles and the Marine’s future amphibian, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), were designed to solve the same problem: how to provide forced entry light-fighters with mobile, protected firepower. Then the IED strewn battlefields of Iraq changed most everybody’s calculus of what armored vehicle survivability really means. So far, the EFV has faired much better than the now-cancelled FCS, even though the EFV has had its share of development problems.
The Marines figure it will cost around $12 billion to buy 573 of the amphibious vehicles (enough to haul eight rifle battalions), according to 2011 budget documents; low rate initial production is scheduled to begin in 2013. The EFV’s development has suffered rising costs, including a Nunn-McCurdy unit cost breach in 2007, and the three prototype vehicles experienced serious “reliability” problems during testing, which means they broke down a lot. The Marines promptly ordered seven more prototypes from builder General Dynamics.
“We have high hopes for these new vehicles,” said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway last week when I asked him about the EFV program’s progress at an editorial board meeting. “They [GD] believe that they’ve overcome a lot, if not all, of the disparities that we saw when we tested the other prototypes, which, by the way, were beyond their life expectancy.” Break downs on the three initial EFV prototypes included various hydraulic systems, onboard computers, leaks, steering problems and engine issues.
He said the new vehicles are due to be delivered this spring and summer, after which, they’ll be put through a rigorous series of tests to determine whether GD was able to get the bugs out. “We’re going to watch it very closely,” he said, adding the vehicle must meet all of its key performance parameters before it will go to full procurement.
He sympathized with designers trying to build a heavily armored vehicle that can carry 17 Marines, is armed with a 30mm stabilized cannon and must also reach a speed of 20 knots across the water. The EFV is able to reach those speeds on water because it comes with powerful engines and a flat bottom.
Yet, that flat bottom has also led to criticism that its vulnerable to underbelly IED blasts; the better survivability provided by the V-shaped MRAP hull has now become the standard in armored vehicle design. That’s not possible. In order for it to get up on plane and reach high speeds on water it must have a flat bottom.
Conway said the redesigns GD has put into the vehicle, and subsequent explosives tests, show EFV has “almost MRAP” levels of survivability. Factoring into that EFV survivability equation is the ability to maneuver across areas other than expected lanes of approach which an enemy has had time to seed with mines and IEDs, he said. “When you get static and the enemy starts viewing you and pattering you is when it gets dangerous. That’s what we’ve seen both in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. So our mobility counts for something here.”
This is a similar argument pushed by the Army on their follow on to FCS, the Ground Combat Vehicle. The Army says the future vehicle must be able to maneuver cross-country, away from roads, so as to avoid the most heavily mined avenues of approach.
On those battlefields where IEDs are found in large numbers and are harder to avoid, Conway said the EFV will have a “modular” armoring approach, where additional armor protection against IEDs can be added by troops in the field. He said the recent tests showing EFV survivability against IEDs are a “big deal… we’re pretty excited about it.”
As far as an operational need for a costly new armored amphibian, Conway was unequivocal in arguing that the Marines must have a vehicle able to cross up to 25 miles of sea to reach an enemy beachhead and then fight alongside infantry once ashore.