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Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle: The Marine Corps’ $3.3bn Mistake

According to the American general John J. Pershing, the deadliest weapon on earth is a U.S. Marine and his rifle. Well, what about a U.S. Marine in a big tank that can swim? Sounds pretty scary, right? Well, not really, actually, if the tank is an expensive pile of crap, can easily be taken out by missiles, and is basically the poster child for everything wrong with the military industrial complex. This is the story of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the mistake that cost the Marine Corps $3.3 billion.

The Worst Kind of Warfare

As you might have guessed, the primary purpose of marines (at least, originally) is to perform amphibious landings, like the kind at Normandy or in the Pacific during World War II. But the thing about amphibious landings is that, well, they suck. Really, really badly. So, to make things at least a little easier, development began during World War II for armored vehicles that could be deployed at sea, which would then be capable of reaching land and taking on the role of front line combat. And this actually resulted in some rather capable designs, notably the Landing Vehicle Tracked (no, that’s not a mistake, that really is the official name) or LVT. This design and its variants were often nicknamed “Amtracs”, short for amphibious track, and any proper tanks that were redesigned to be amphibious were nicknamed “Amtanks”. Not incredibly original, but you can’t argue with the results.

With all of that in mind, our actual story begins in the 1980s, when the Marine Corps found itself with something of a dilemma. Their current amtrac vehicle, the LVTP7, also known as the Assault Amphibious Vehicle (again, that’s not a mistake, that’s the actual name), was getting a bit long in the tooth. So, they paid a company by the name of General Dynamics to design a replacement, with some very specific goals in mind. You see, the Marine Corps had come up with a new strategy for amphibious assaults, termed “over the horizon”. Under this strategy, assaults would be capable of being launched from, take a guess, over the horizon. As it stood, the ships launching the assault had to get quite close to the shore to do so – as in, within range of being shot at. As such, the intention behind this new strategy was to keep those ships safe from enemy mines or shore defenses.

This brings us to the actual design of the EFV. It was to be a fully tracked armored infantry combat vehicle, with a crew of three marines to operate it, and capable of carrying up to 17 more beyond that. It was to be able to move up to 20 knots while in the water, about three times faster than the AAV, and up to 45 kilometers an hour (28 miles per hour) on land. In keeping with the over the horizon strategy, the EFV would be capable of being launched up to 25 miles from the shore. To put that into perspective, the AAV could, and still can, only be launched 2 miles from the shore. Beyond that, it was to have about twice the armor of the AAV, making this a seriously powerful vehicle. Right?

Not Right

The program for the EFV officially began in 1988. Prototypes of the design had begun as far back as 1974, but this was the real, official, “yes we’re throwing millions of dollars at this now” start of the project. Initially, the project seemed to be going quite well, earning two Department of Defense awards in 1995 for “successful cost and technology management”. That proved rather premature, as not too long after that, it became clear that the program was not going to pan out the way they had hoped.

The first problem came in the overarching design. The strategy of over the horizon assaults was rendered rather obsolete by the further development of the most pesky military technology of all, the missile. Bit of a spoiler here, but in an official document discussing the EFV’s cancellation, the development of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles was specifically cited as one of the primary reasons for why the project was cancelled.

Beyond that are the problems that anyone who’s had a good look at failed military industrial complex projects would be familiar with: behind schedule and over budget. This isn’t a complete disaster for a military project; the F35 fighter program was behind schedule and over budget, too. But the primary difference between the F35 and the EFV was that, well, the F35 actually works.

In 2001, the project entered the Systems Development and Demonstration phase, which is a fancy way of saying beta test. The SDD phase was originally slated to take around two years, which was later described as “too ambitious”. That was the kind way of describing it, as a report by the Government Accountability Office later said that, “The program did not allow enough time to demonstrate maturity of the EFV design… the original schedule did not allow adequate time for testing, evaluating the results, fixing the problems, and retesting to make certain that problems are fixed before moving forward.” We’ll just list off a few of those problems for you here.

In late 2004, during testing, the main computer system failed in several prototypes, which knocked out the steering and made the vehicle dead in the water. There were problems with everything ranging from hull leaks to hydraulics to bow flaps, basically it was a mobile Murphy’s Law at high speed. The program was “rebaselined”, that is to say pushed back, no less than three times during this period, until in 2006 when it was finally subject to an Operational Assessment, basically a final exam, which it failed spectacularly.

The vehicle failed 9 of the 11 amphibious tests, 9 of the 10 gunnery tests, and all of the 3 land mobility tests. What’s more, the EFV needed about 3.4 hours of maintenance for ever 1 hour of operation, and only managed to operate for around 4.5 hours total before breaking down. There were also problems with limited visibility and reloading the main gun, but those were honestly small potatoes in the face of such a catastrophic failure.

The test went so poorly that the Marines actually issued a request to industry leaders for information on “tracked combat vehicles that can provide an alternative design concept of the EFV”, which was interpreted as the Marines saying to General Dynamics, “You screwed this up so badly that we need to bring in outside help to try and salvage this whole thing.” So yeah, if you ever feel bad about a low test score you got in school, at least you weren’t an engineer for a military contractor scoring 3 out of 24.

Back to the Drawing Board

The program basically went completely back to the start of the process. The entire vehicle was redesigned, and it was ultimately decided that the entire SDD phase would be repeated, again. This put the entire program a total of eight years behind schedule, in what some called “the largest program setback”. And that, of course, was assuming that the new testing worked out.

As it turns out, it did – the new design saw some major improvements in reliability, fixing the most obvious problems, and the new tests showed some promising results. For a moment, it seemed like this new design might actually be used. But then, in 2008, Obama happened.

Obama actually didn’t have much to do with what happened to the EFV project; he was rather busy stressing out about the collapsing financial sector at the time. But a number of his appointed staff did. Specifically, a man by the name of Robert O. Work, the Undersecretary of the Navy, said in 2010 that the future of amphibious warfare would “Work” out (get it?) to one of two things. Either the Marines would land unopposed, or the resistance on the shore would be so fierce that it would require the US military to throw basically everything it had at them to clear a path. Neither of these options really have a place for the EFV.

Even the new, updated design was not perfect. It had a flat underside, making it vulnerable to improvised explosive devices, and creating something to fix that would’ve required redesigning the entire vehicle. Again. What’s more, the aforementioned missile problem had become very apparent, and there was really nothing they could do about that. Ultimately, the cost of the EFV became more trouble than it was worth, and the project was cancelled in January of 2011 at the recommendations of the Navy and the Marine Corps.

Oh Well

Speaking about the cancellation, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this. “To be sure, the EFV would, if pursued to completion without regard to time or cost, be an enormously capable vehicle. However, recent analysis… suggest that the most plausible scenarios requiring power projection from the sea could be handled through a mix of existing air and sea systems employed in new ways… scenarios that do not require the exquisite features of the EFV.” So, ultimately, the EFV was dead, some forty years after the idea had first been floated, and almost thirty since it was put into practice.

But do you want to know the worst part of all this, the part that just makes you shake your head in disbelief? The AAV, the vehicle that the EFV was supposed to replace, is still in use. That’s right, the Marine Corps extended the lifespan of the vehicle multiple times and retrofitted it to be more modern, and that vehicle is still the primary landing craft for the US Marines. Man, it really is something when you realize that doing nothing would’ve been more effective than the thing you actually did.

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