PARIS --- Three of the most troubled Pentagon weapon programs are being developed for the Marine Corps, whose missions have evolved over time so that massive amphibious operations are today its primary, if not only, focus.
The Marine Corps is set up to land a combat brigade on a beach while its mother ships remain well over the horizon, hopefully beyond the range of enemy defenses. To make these large-scale, long-distance landings possible, the Corps is developing the MV-22 Osprey, famously known as the “aircraft that takes off like a helicopter but flies like an airplane;” the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a 60-tonne, 20-knot sea-skimming armored vehicle that carries 17 Marine riflemen; and the F-35B STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the Harrier of the future.
The common thread linking these three programs is that they use complex, untried and expensive technologies to make the impossible, possible, which explains why they are so far behind schedule (development of the EFV began 23 years ago; that of the Osprey 24 years ago) and over budget.
The rationale for the F-35B is that the Corps (which also has its own helicopter gunships) doesn’t trust the US Navy to provide close air support; for the EFV, that it thinks a target moving at 20 knots (the EFV) will escape weapons that can destroy a target moving at 7 knots (today’s AAV); and for the MV-22, that the Corps wants a hybrid aircraft to carry a few soldiers or a small sling-load at high speeds.
The EFV is a prime example of the “exquisite technology” syndrome: the goal is to make a 60-tonne tank skim on the water as fast as a speedboat to carry 17 Marines to the beach. Is hardly comes as a surprise that it is so far from maturity, even after 23 years of development.
The most costly Marine-specific weapon is the F-35B, intended to replace the AV-8B Harrier Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft. The Harrier was designed to operate from dispersed, unprepared airfields in the face of a Soviet invasion of northern Germany, and its Sea Harrier naval variant, of Falklands War fame, to provide Royal Navy Invincible-class light aircraft carriers with fixed-wing fighters – albeit with a “ski-jump” ramp.
Unless there is an imperative need to take off from small decks, or without a runway, there is no longer any justification for V/STOL performance, especially as vertical and short takeoffs consume a lot of fuel and eat ferociously into payload and range.
Today, there is virtually no chance of a Marine Corps amphibious landing without US Navy air support; there is no chance that F-35Bs could be based on a beach, far from maintenance and logistic support and very vulnerable to enemy forces. The F-35’s “stealth” is of no use for close air support, for which it is anyway particularly ill-suited because of its short range and small weapon load. This is why the British government scrapped plans to buy the F-35B and instead opted for the standard “C” carrier version, which as Prime Minister David Cameron noted, has a longer range and greater payload while allowing savings of 25% over its life-cycle.
The EFV is not any more likely to evade precision-guided bombs or missiles than the AAV just because it is 13 knots faster on the water, as its backers claim. These same backers also stress that the EFV has better performance than any amphibious vehicle in history, but so what? The problem is that, even if it performed as intended, its flat-bottomed design makes crew and passengers particularly vulnerable to IEDs and mines.
Is the Marine Corps focus on massive amphibious landings justified, or indeed necessary?
The Corps remains focused on attacking and conquering heavily fortified coastlines, and its basic s.o.p. is to land a brigade-sized unit under heavy enemy fire. This worked well in the Pacific during World War II, but where are the heavily fortified or defended coastlines that it may be called on to invade in future? Where is today’s equivalent of Iwo Jima, or of Guadalcanal?
Despite the folklore, the Marine Corps never had a monopoly on hostile beach landings: the greatest amphibious operation in history, D-Day in Normandy, as well as other large-scale WWII landings such as Tunisia (1942), Anzio and the invasion of Sicily (1943), were mostly carried out by the US Army and Allied forces, with little no specialist equipment other than modified Sherman DD tanks.
Yet today’s Marines need a range of highly specific weapons to carry out their missions, as if they were preparing to operate in a vacuum from which other US and Allied armed services are excluded.
In fact, these three Marine Corps-specific weapons best illustrate what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls “exquisite technologies,” and on which he has declared war under the banner of acquisition reform.
These non-performing technological jewels also come with very considerable price tags.
Estimated Cost of USMC-specific major weapon systems
In million FY2010 dollars
(Source: GAO, SAR and Deficit Commission for data)
According to the GAO’s latest annual report (Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs, March 2010), more than $74.8 billion is needed to complete these three programs: $11.1 billion for 563 EFVs, $22.7 billion for the V-22 (admittedly, not all for the Marine Corps), and $199 billion for the Joint Strike Fighter of which, according to the Deficit Commission, $41 billion for 311 Marine Corps F-35B variants. These are not total program costs, but just the money needed to complete them: billions more have already been spent.
Other Marine-specific programs are also over budget and behind schedule (see the $32.6 billion program to upgrade 280 H-1 helicopters) or disproportionately costly (each CH-53K helicopter will cost $117 million, including development), while the estimated cost of the new LHA 6 Amphibious Assault Ship was already $3.1 billion in 2006 – four years ago.
If these two programs (H-1, CH-53K) are added to the previous three (EFV, MV-22 and F-35B STOVL), the amount of money needed to complete all five jumps to $100.6 billion.
Coincidentally, this figure is remarkably close to the $100 billion in savings that President Obama’s Deficit Commission wants to cut from the Pentagon budget, and to the $100 billion that Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to save by better management.
Perhaps it is time to reconsider whether the Marine Corps should spend huge amounts of money to develop “exquisite” but non-performing weapons to perform a mission which looks increasingly irrelevant to future military scenarios.