Here lies the United States Marine Corps
Born: Nov. 10, 1775, in a Philadelphia tavern
Died: Jan. 6, 2011, in a Pentagon news conference
“235 years of Semper Fi, until the EFV died.”
To hear the critics describe it, that epitaph is currently being inscribed on a tombstone at Quantico. “An attack on our military,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “He’s trying to destroy the Marine Corps,” claimed Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. “You’re not going to have a Marine Corps anymore.”
Based on such fears, one would think that the ghost of Harry Truman had taken over Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a voodoo ceremony and that legislation from 1947 to disband the Marine Corps had been resurrected . But that wasn’t the case, as far as we know. Instead, Gates had done something even worse: He had decided to cancel the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV).
How could a single program cancellation be taken to mean the end of a service with more than 235 years of distinguished history? It couldn’t, and that is the very problem. We should never get to the point where a troubled acquisitions program is framed as equivalent in our minds with the role and survival of a valued military service. Yet, that is how the situation with the EFV has been debated inside the Beltway for the last decade, illustrating a key problem of recent defense policy and politics.
CONCEPT AND REALITY
The original concept for the EFV was a good one. It was to be an updated assault amphibious vehicle (AAV) that would be able to operate over the horizon and move Marines at a higher speed onto potentially hostile shores. The new vehicle would also have an enhanced sensor, communications and weapons suite. By all measures, it was to be superior to any Marine tracked vehicle that had fought ashore before.
Unfortunately, as the program went from original concept back in 1988 to actual development and initial manufacture more than two decades later, the threat environment changed and, even more importantly, the program was plagued by a range of cost and reliability issues.
Offshore, new families of guided anti-ship weapons were developed, and then proliferated not just to potential enemy states but even to nonstate actors like Hezbollah. These new missiles extended their targeting range well past 75 miles, meaning the EFV’s range of 25 miles was no longer the critical game-changer originally hoped for. Now remaining inside an enemy’s threat envelope, the additional range of the EFV wouldn’t protect the ships from which it was launched. Nor would the EFV itself be protected from even more numerous precision-guided munitions and guided anti-tank weapons that could strike it on its way closer in to shore. Once past the beach, a lightly armored, flat-bottomed 35-ton vehicle (too heavy to lift by helicopter), with the size and maneuverability of a city bus, was a less-than-ideal match for a world of ever-proliferating urban battlefield environments and improvised explosive devices. Indeed, even for the increasingly frequent humanitarian response situations, its ability to carry bulky cargo is considered to be worse than that of the AAV it was to replace.
But more troublesome than the vehicle’s comparative capabilities was the matter of cost. As requirements crept and a number of tests were failed over the years, the original plan to buy 1,071 EFVs had to shrink to 535, solely because of the escalating price of the vehicles. By the time Gates pulled the plug, the expected per vehicle price was between $17 million and $22 million (depending on who was running the numbers), about seven to nine times the price of its predecessor AAV-7 and ironically the same price as the 150-ton air-cushioned landing craft, known as LCACs, which might be used in its stead to ferry ashore a wider range of combat vehicles from a greater range and speed. Indeed, immediately after the EFV cut was announced, the Corps issued plans to use the freed-up funds to pay for an upgrade of current AAVs, the purchase of a new Marine personnel carrier and ultimately an AAV replacement that would be more reasonable in price and better optimized for modern land warfare with a V-shaped hull, faster land speed and better handling capabilities.
OFF THE BEACH AND INTO THE FIRE
Yet, at the same time the EFV program was slipping and sliding, its defense became wrapped up in hyperbole. It was as if the Corps’ very identity and survival was at stake from the rhetoric that surrounded the debate. Rather than contemplate a post-EFV future, defenders typically jumped straight to 11 on the volume scale. They would claim that a Corps without an EFV would be an extinct or, at the very least, a toothless force. “We’ll just pray that we don’t have to go into harm’s way in the next 10 years,” said retired Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold (notable in that the EFV buy wasn’t planned to be completed until 2026), while defense industry consultant Loren Thompson sent out a series of fax and blog blasts that painted the blood of future Marine casualties on Gates’ hands, accusing him of “killing Marines.”
But, after the decision was made, the storm passed and senior Marine leadership issued a series of statements that made clear they had recommended the cancellation because of the costs and doctrinal issues mentioned above and that the Corps and its capabilities were never in jeopardy.
Three core lessons thus emerge from this episode. The first is that in many ways, the Marines’ normally effective power in public debate — the very thing that saved them when Truman made the egregious error of thinking to go after the Corps — worked against them here. The EFV’s flaws and costs have been well-known for almost a decade and it essentially has been a “dead program walking” since the 2008 Quadrennial Defense Review. But like a zombie kept alive by the best lobbying shop in existence, the program lumbered on, essentially awaiting Gates to amass the political power and moxie to finally go after it, long after he had ended the other services’ similar exquisite programs in the previous budget cycles. These years represent not just hundreds of millions of lost budget dollars, but also lost time in the still-needed effort to get Marines the effective and affordable systems to replace the venerable AAV-7.
Indeed, in the zeal to defend the program by making appeals that all too often connected the EFV to the very existence of the Corps, a key issue was set aside: What would have happened if the defenders of the EFV had been successful and the program continued? Part of the reason the current Marine leadership didn't go down fighting to save the EFV was their realization that the cost of the EFV, even at the limited numbers planned, would have been “unsustainable,” as Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said, not simply for the EFV program but for the Corps itself.
Akin to the corner the Army had painted itself into with the Future Combat Systems program a few years back, the EFV was threatening to not be the one program that kept the Corps in business, but rather the one program that ate the Corps whole. Purchasing just 535 EFVs would have taken up about 80 percent of the Marines’ acquisitions budget, at a time when the entire Corps has significant reset and refit needs.
But in letting a program define their vision of a service, rather than the other way around, defenders of the program illustrated a second lesson that must not be forgotten. As Dakota Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, explains, “The Marine Corps used to say, ‘Our weapons system is the Marine,’ and tout its affordability as a service. But they seem to have become enamored with the very high-end programs that in previous years they would have criticized the Army or the Air Force for pursuing.”
Proponents of the EFV would counter that it is the ability to carry out a massed amphibious assault that has defined the Marines, and without the sophisticated capabilities of the EFV this capability, and potentially the Marines’ very identity as something other than merely the nation’s “second army” (what President Eisenhower reportedly told Gen. Alexander Vandergrift he worried the Marines were becoming), would be lost. But by making such an appeal, they not only vastly overstate the ability of this system to make a fundamental difference in forcible entry operations, they also mischaracterize the unique tool that the Corps is in the nation’s arsenal.
Contrary to the way it is often painted in the movies, neither the Marine Corps’ identity nor its core capability is large-scale amphibious assault against a heavily defended shore. Indeed, such massed assaults across the sands of Iwo Jima may have the most notoriety, but they have been the exception, rather than the rule, in the Corps’ long history, extending only from the period of 1942 to 1950.
Instead, as Lt. Gen. George Flynn, the Corps’ deputy commandant for combat development and integration, noted there is a third lesson that must not be forgotten. The hallmark of the Corps in the past, and for the foreseeable future, has been its role as “America’s expeditionary force in readiness,” using the sea as a point of origin and maneuver space, but not always as the point of primary contact.
Whether its Samuel Nicholas’ first raids on New Providence in 1775, Presley O’Bannon’s march across the desert to Derna in the Barbary War, Daniel Daly fighting off more than 200 Boxers during the Battle of Peking, Chesty Puller working with local troops to relentlessly drive after bandits in the mountains of Nicaragua, James Deveraux turning Wake Island into the Alamo of the Pacific, Stanley Hughes leading the urban battle for Hue or today’s Marines deploying to the fight in Helmand province, the thread that runs throughout the long history of the Corps is not so much about mass assaults across enemy beaches than it is about independent units, operating in austere environments, that can rapidly deploy anywhere in the world with all their capabilities organic. The Corps’ unique benefit to the nation is that Marines don’t just typically arrive first to the fight, but are also uniquely able to operate on their own in the fight, bringing all their capabilities and support structures with them.
Fortunately, it is this very capability that will be needed in the years ahead, in just about any scenario one can imagine.
This is not to say that there are not serious issues to resolve, but they lie far beyond that of a single system like the EFV, even if it were capable and affordable. The Corps faces a tough transition in areas that range from how to reset after a decade of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to how to incorporate new war-fighting capabilities in the emerging electronic and cyber realms. Even more, the true challenge for future Marine operations at sea may not be about how to get Marines and their armored vehicles off Navy ships, but rather the very nature of coordination between the Corps and the Navy. That is, whether it is differing concepts of sea-basing, differing assumptions about assault and transport shipbuilding plans, or the significant questions that remain about the Marines’ role in the development and execution of Air-Sea Battle doctrine, the alignment between the Marine-Navy team is not as seamless as it should be.
These issues are all tough and, notably, none of them are issues that the EFV would have solved. But fortunately, all are manageable with the same type of leadership, creativity and fortitude that has characterized the Corps of the past and present. So, for those of us who cherish the role the Marine Corps has played in our nation’s past, we need not worry that the cancellation of a single program will jeopardize its future.