CHARLESTON, S.C — Marine Corps and industry officials on Jan. 28 unveiled an upgraded Assault Amphibious Vehicle that promises to add 20 years of service to the aging AAVs. The Corps will put the upgraded hog to the test throughout 2016.

The upgrades represent "substantial enhancements in both capability and survivability, aimed at ensuring the viability and relevance of the AAV fleet until they can ultimately be replaced," said Bill Taylor, program executive officer for lands systems.

The AAV upgrade is centered on survivability. It replaces the angled Enhanced Applique Armor Kit with 49 buoyant, flat ceramic panels: 23 on the front and sides, and 26 thinner panels on the top. Each panel has four attach points and can be lifted by two Marines. Full assembly takes about 90 minutes. In addition, an aluminum armor underbelly provides MRAP-equivalent blast protection, while a bonded spall liner and armor-protected external fuel tanks allowed designers to install 18 blast mitigating seats in a carousel pattern (alternating high and low).

The need for better blast protection was evident in Iraq, where the AAV was unable to overcome the IED threat. This became painfully evident in August 2005, when 14 Marines were killed when their AAV struck a roadside bomb in the Euphrates River valley.

The addition of ceramic panels will add roughly 10,000 pounds, so each vehicle will get a VT903 engine that boosts horsepower from 525 to 675, as well as a new power take-off unit and KDS transmission.

"The old transmission is so bad that it is translucent. It has been built over and over again," said Maj. Paul Rivera, AAV Survivability Upgrade project team leader. "If I threw on all that new armament, transmissions would have been blowing left and right and the engines would have been struggling."

That's good news for the crews who work tirelessly to keep these aging hogs up and running. Most AAVs are around 40 years old, and many parts are increasingly obsolete. In addition to more power and protection, crews will find a smoother ride. Shocks have been tossed in favor of a new suspension system that uses rotary dampers and upgraded torsion bars, and raised the hull by 3 inches.

SAIC is handling the upgrades, which run $1.65 million per vehicle. The Corps looks to beef up 392 personnel variants, which would provide lift for four infantry battalions (lift for another two battalions is expected by the Advanced Combat Vehicle). As it stands, low-rate initial production of upgraded AAVs is expected in 2017, initial operational capability in 2019, and full operational capability in 2023.

Many details, such as top speeds on land and water, will not be known until the upgraded AAV is run though myriad tests, officials said. Water and ground mobility tests were supposed to kick off in May, but officials are looking to get an early start since the program in on budget and two months ahead of schedule. Tests will be at a number of locations that span from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, to Camp Pendleton, California.

Brig. Gen. (select) Roger Turner, capabilities development director at Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said he was encouraged by what he saw. He lived out of an AAV for seven months during Operation Desert Shield, and has watched them age in the decade since. He was "impressed" with the integration of the new engine and transmission, and was "really excited" about getting the fuel tanks out of the crew compartment. Though initially unsure about carousel seating, he was a fan after a short ride around the SAIC facility. But a final thumbs-up will have to wait on developmental and operational tests.

"We want to shake it out good and make sure we are getting what we pay for," he said. "At the end of the day, it is about looking those young Marines in the eye and making sure that what we're buying for them and what we're delivering is going to give them that crew capability."

Ironically, the AAV survivability upgrade was unveiled almost five years to the day after the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was canceled. That vehicle relied heavily on undeveloped or unproven technologies. The approach consumed billions of dollars, and the AAV fleet suffered as a result.

No more.

"We're getting life back into our old hog," said Rivera, who has been with the upgrade project since it started in fall 2014, and has been a part of the AAV family for 14 years. "All commanders know what our limitations are with our current platform. We're now answering a lot of those shortfalls."

Lance M. Bacon is senior reporter for Marine Corps Times. He covers Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Marine Corps Forces Command, personnel/career issues, Marine Corps Logistics Command, East Coast Marines and Marine Forces North. He can be reached at lance.bacon@hotmail.com.