In March 2015 the US Marine Corps (USMC) embarked on the latest effort of its long-running programme to replace its ageing Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs). In service with the USMC since the 1970s, the AAV is a fully tracked amphibious landing vehicle designed to deliver a landing force and its equipment from ship to shore during assault operations, and to undertake inland missions including mechanised operations and combat support.

With a long operational history including deployment during the Persian Gulf War and Iraq War, the AAV was originally to be replaced by an Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle around 2015; however, this programme was abandoned in 2011/12 – despite some $3bn having been spent in vehicle development funding – due to what the Congressional Research Service called “poor reliability demonstrated during operational testing and excessive cost growth”.

Instead, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) was awarded a contract in March 2015 to update 396 vehicles of the 1,064-strong fleet. The company was tasked with upgrading the AAVs “to provide improved protection while gaining back land and water mobility that improves the AAV’s ability to fight”.

The first upgraded vehicle, known as the AAV Survivability Upgrade, was delivered to the USMC in March 2016. Upgrades include new armour, a rebuilt engine to improve horsepower and torque, new transmission systems, upgraded suspension components, new water jets and blast-resistant seats, and updated vehicle control, instrumentation and driver interface systems.

New and improved

The remainder of the AAV fleet will be gradually replaced by the ACV replacement programme. The ACV is to be acquired under two phases: ACV 1.1 and ACV 1.2. The first phase was designed to absorb many of the requirements being formulated under the Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC) programme – a non-fully amphibious vehicle with a swim capability able to tackle inland waterways and shore-to-shore operations in the littorals and ship-to-shore capability with the aid of a secondary vehicle – as a kind of cost-effective stop-gap measure ahead of the full ACV acquisition; while the ACV 1.2 phase will be for the tracked, fully-amphibious vehicle.

The request for proposal for ACV 1.1 was released in March 2015, but as industry players began to work on their bids it became clear that the majority of them would be tailored to meet the full ACV 1.2 capability, leading top USMC officials to suggest that the two increments may be merged as the programme moves forward.

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Joe Dunford, said that as the 1.1 vehicle was being developed to operate 90% of the time ashore.”

At a US Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing on 10 March 2015, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Joe Dunford, said that as the 1.1 vehicle was being developed to operate 90% of the time ashore, it will be optimised for ground protection and mobility ashore with limited self-fording capability, with the second phase vehicle to offer a solution with a greater capability than the current AAV, able to self-deploy from an amphibious ship.

However, after actually viewing the prospective 1.1 phase vehicles at the Nevada Auto Test Centre, Dunford told the committee that, “quite frankly, I think in most cases, we have asked for a vehicle that just provides adequate ground mobility and not necessarily a self-deploying vehicle. All the individuals right now that are competitive in the process have a vehicle that actually I think may get pretty close to the second phase that we require.”

Line up, line up

Of the designs put forward, two were selected for the engineering, manufacturing and development phase of the 1.1 programme: one by a BAE Systems-led team, and one design from a team led by SAIC.

BAE Systems was awarded its $103.7m contract in November 2015 for the production of 16 prototypes for USMC testing. The first vehicle was rolled out in December 2016, revealing a fully amphibious, ship-launchable and ship-recoverable 8×8 wheeled combat vehicle. The vehicle leverages teammate Iveco Defence Vehicles’ SuperAV platform in a design that is geared toward superior land mobility and advanced systems survivability, with open-ocean ship launch and recovery capabilities.

The vehicle is powered by a 700HP engine, providing a significant power increase over the current AAV, with all-terrain mobility and a suspended interior seat structure for 13 embarked marines, blast protected positions for an additional crew of three, and improved survivability and force protection over currently fielded systems. It also offers payload and growth potential to accommodate evolving operational needs.

“SAIC was awarded a contract for $121.5m, for 16 prototypes.”

SAIC was awarded a contract for $121.5m, also for 16 prototypes. The team unveiled its prototype to the USMC in February 2017. The vehicle is an enhanced, customised variant of ST Kinetics’ Terrex vehicle fielded by the Singapore Armed Forces, tailored to meet USMC requirements. The 8×8 wheeled, armoured amphibious vehicle with improved survivability, mobility, lethality and C4ISR capability can transport fighting units from ship to shore, with engine and transmission providing 600 horsepower for advanced mobility.

In water, the vehicle’s hydraulically driven propulsion systems with full independent thrust control authority and innovative water mode cooling solution supports safe operation at Sea-State 3 for ship-to-shore operational employment and through six-foot plunging surf. Force protection measures for combat operations include blast protection seating and a V-over-V hull design for enhanced blast protection. The most recent company to join SAIC’s team, Morgan Advanced Materials, will supply composite armour systems consisting of appliqué armour and spall liners from its CAMAC line, along with lightweight composite flotation boxes, specifically designed to fit the vehicle’s geometry.

It is highly likely that the successful contender for the ACV 1.1 will go on to develop the 1.2 vehicle, with the USMC not expected to return to the drawing board for the second phase. Some 204 1.1 vehicles will be purchased by the USMC, and a further 400 increment 1.2 vehicles.

With both of the EMD contenders leaning toward the higher spectrum self-deploy capability of the expected 1.2 vehicle, and –although the test campaign will remain true to the 1.1 RFP requirement, it is likely that the USMC will be assessing which vehicle could be most easily developed to deliver the truer self-deploy from vessel and higher threshold swim capability.

That successful bidder will be announced in 2018 and the first 1.1 increment vehicles are set to enter service in 2020, with all deliveries complete by 2023 – a quick turnaround time for a big programme that leaves its contenders with everything to fight for.