The Marine Corps' light armored vehicles qualify for antique license plates in most states, but the service is planning to upgrade half the fleet and keep them in service until 2035 while it searches for a next-generation replacement.
It's not a best-case scenario, officials said, but it is the best option as the Corps tries to find money to replace old vehicles and implement new technologies.
The Corps is in a zero-sum game, according to Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command. Because there is no new money coming in, leaders must get rid of one or more things to bring in something new. As the Corps develops new technologies to meet emerging threats, trade-offs will be necessary.
"You're going to have to take away some of the current readiness, and take a little bit of risk to take some of that money to invest in future modernization and readiness," Walsh told Marine Corps Times.
Budget and time constraints mean the Corps will use part of its money to upgrade only half of its 800-vehicle fleet, doubling their service lives, and use the rest to develop a replacement. The hope is that upgrades will enable the aging fleet to meet all missions until that replacement comes online. Units that deploy will do so with upgraded vehicles, said Kurt Koch, the combat vehicle capabilities integration officer for Fires and Maneuvers Integration Division.
The Corps is taking a similar approach with the amphibious assault vehicle. A portion of the AAV fleet is receiving major upgrades as two companies, BAE Systems and SAIC, compete to build the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle.
The total number of AAVs and LAVs could change as service officials determine the size and shape of its future force, Walsh said. In the meantime, it must make the most of an aging LAV fleet that was supposed to retire in 2003. Repeated engine rebuilds and heavier armor have weakened the vehicle, but the Corps is not ready to put the pig out to pasture.
Current A2s carry many upgrades such as better blast protection, an electronic LAV-25 turret, and an improved thermal sight system. The anti-tank variant will see the obsolete Emerson 901, an Army turret based on 1960s technology, replaced with the M220E3 TOW beginning next year. In coming years, a mobility and obsolescence kit will tackle the top three readiness drivers by providing a modern powertrain (new engine and transmission), drivetrain improvements to the transfer case and drive shafts, and an upgraded steering system. The kit will also replace the driver’s analog information panel with a digital board, and put a larger slip ring in the LAV-25 so it can pump more power to the turret.
"The Marine Corps is taking adequate actions to keep the vehicle relevant and operational to 2035," said Steve Myers, deputy program manager for Light Armored Vehicles. Recognizing he has no maneuver room in the budget, Myers said he would like to keep the cost at $525,000 per kit, but those decisions are still in the making. Specific vehicles to be upgraded has not been determined, but he expects that to be known within the year.
The upgraded kits are in the engineering, manufacturing, development phase; production is expected in fiscal 2019. The first vehicles will roll out in 2021, and all planned upgrades will wrap up five years later.
That’s good news for Maj. Christopher Ferguson, operations officer for 2
Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He has three LAV deployments under his belt, to include a combat tour in Iraq. While upgrades and service life extension "have absolutely helped," there is no doubt his vehicles are getting older. He said upgrades to suspension must be a priority. With a salute to the Marines who keep them running, he said parts obsolescence is an increasing challenge. The need for maintainers to fabricate parts and tools is "a little above negligible," he said. While there has been an increase in man hours, it has not been significant.
"We are annunciating a gap in capability," Koch affirmed. "We are laying down where we are falling short and we will compete for resourcing for the next-generation armored reconnaissance acquisition effort. We are anticipating a program in the late 20s."
Koch doesn’t expect any leap-ahead vehicle technology in the coming decades. That means the next-generation vehicle may closely resemble the upgraded LAV. What he is looking for is "a good base vehicle with plenty of growth margin" that has sufficient maneuverability, protection, and lethality. The key is the ability to easily and incrementally add new technologies as they mature.
"This is not merely a reconnaissance and surveillance asset. It possesses the organic ability to grab the enemy by the collar and punch them in the face in order to get information," Koch said. "We’re going to have to improve the organic lethality, both direct and indirect fires. We think we will be doing that in a broader and more complex battle space. The ranges and capabilities and capacities will be stretched beyond what we currently treat as normal."
Koch spoke of expanded network capability, the need for more effective sensors, and the ability to counter unmanned air and ground systems. Topping Walsh’s list was more signals intelligence and longer range fires. Both spoke of organic electronic warfare, and a greater use of unmanned assets to extend the battlespace.
"What we see in the future is these scouts launching an unmanned system off their vehicle," the three-star said. "That UAS is out there scouting, and could be scouting autonomously to search a designated area for specific silhouettes. It may be programmed to report such findings, or pre-approved to attack."
Ferguson understands the need to evolve, but voiced concern that changes not become too complex, but instead "maintain a brilliance in the basics."
"Something that is survivable and reliable is good enough," he said. "We’ve benefitted from not requiring contractor support to run and operate this system. I generally agree with a modular platform, as long as it doesn’t require extensive contractor support and crazy training."
While his Marines have used the Raven UAS with great results, he said such benefits should never come at the expense of having eyes on the objective.
The major said a new LAV should maintain the ability to maneuver water obstacles, commonly called its swim capability. If possible, he would like to see lighter and scalable armor. Increased weight has not been a problem, but is a consideration in amphibious delivery and combat maneuver. Simply put, "mobility is central to our platform."
Koch concurred. The LAV cannot remain mobile and effective if the Corps keeps piling on passive armor, he said. Developers are looking to lighten the load with scalable as well as active protection — soft- and hard-kill technologies to include directed energy.
It is too early to know what that vehicle may cost, Koch said. Marine Corps officials in the coming year will start looking at an "analysis of alternatives," which allows industry to make initial recommendations on what it can provide and how much it will cost.