USNI News polled its writers, naval analysts and service members on what they consider the most important military and maritime stories in 2018. This story is part of USNI News year-end series.
2018 brought the Marine Corps such rapid advances in its next ground vehicle that the service canceled an interim upgrade program, new details on a large Group 5 unmanned aerial vehicle and a plan to upgrade amphibious warships over time to better support future Marine operations.
The Marine Corps picked BAE Systems to produce its Amphibious Combat Vehicle, awarding the York, Pa.-based manufacturer a contract in June for 30 low-rate initial production units of its eight-wheeled ACV. BAE beat SAIC in the competition based on what the Marines determined to be best value, with Program Executive Officer for Land Systems John Garner saying, “we did what was called the best-value determination between the technical performance based on the two different competitors within all the developmental testing and … the total price.”
The Marine Corps on Dec. 6 awarded BAE Systems a second contract for 30 more vehicles.
The June contract was initially meant to cover an ACV 1.1 capability that would get the program into production but wouldn’t necessarily include all the technological capability the Marines needed to fully replace the Vietnam War-era Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs) – chiefly, ACV 1.1 was not meant to include a full ship-to-shore swimming capability that the AAVs have. However, BAE Systems paired with Italian defense contractor Iveco, which had already outfitted Italian Marines with the SuperAV personnel carrier that can swim in the water. Ultimately, BAE’s winning ACV has many of the ACV 1.2 capabilities, which will bring more capability to the amphibious fleet sooner and ease the transition into the eventual ACV 1.2.
Largely due to the high technological maturity and the advanced capabilities in the ACV 1.1, the Marines decided to cancel a planned AAV Survivability Upgrade (AAV-SU) program with SAIC in late September.
“The Marine Corps did make a decision to focus investment on modernization rather than legacy systems,” PEO Land Systems spokesman Manny Pacheco told USNI News then. “The key there really is, ACV performed a lot better than expected.”
Due to delays in the AAV-SU program and ACV running ahead of plans, a batch of upgraded legacy AAVs were only going to deliver six months ahead of the brand-new ACVs, so the Marines decided to focus their money on the new program.
To further aid in the ship to shore movement of Marines, the Navy awarded Louisiana-based Swiftships, LLC an $18-million contract for the detail design and construction of the first Landing Craft Utility (LCU-1700) surface connector, and the first of Textron Marine and Land Systems’ Ship-to-Shore Connectors (SSCs) hit the water in April for at-sea testing.
With the future of the AAV replacement now determined, the Marine Corps in 2018 had the opportunity to look at what the Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) replacement might look like. Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, then-deputy commandant for combat development and integration who retired earlier this year, said in February that the new program would be called the Advanced Reconnaissance Vehicle (ARV). After years of being dissatisfied with potential replacements that industry had to offer, the Marines in January reached out beyond the prime contractors and held an industry day with the larger industrial base to discuss what new technologies could contribute to a fifth-generation ARV that would revolutionize how the Marines conduct the reconnaissance mission rather than just sell the service a new LAV – akin to the MV-22B Osprey replacing the CH-46 or the F-35B replacing three types of Marine fixed-wing planes.
Keeping ground units in these new vehicles safe will be the AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar, along with the Ground-Based Air Defense (GBAD) Future Weapon System that was pulled into its own program office this year. G/ATOR Block 1, which covers air defense and air surveillance, is in initial operational test and evaluation, and G/ATOR Block 2, with a counter-battery capability, was set to begin its IOT&E late in 2018. The first iteration of GBAD FWS, called Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS) Increment 1, went into engineering and manufacturing development in 2018.
The Marine Corps accepted the delivery of the first CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter in May. The King Stallion then began a Supportability Test Plan to assess the logistics needed to keep the new aircraft operational. Additionally, manufacturer Sikorsky began pitching the CH-53E replacement to potential international customers.
Another Sikorsky program, the VH-92A Presidential Helicopter replacement program, landed on the White House lawn in September for the first time, ahead of the program reaching initial operational capability in 2020.
On the unmanned aviation side, the Marine Corps trimmed down the requirements for its Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) UAS Expeditionary (MUX) program after realizing the original requirements to cover seven mission areas would lead to the airframe being too large and the program becoming unaffordable. The service ultimately honed in on four of the mission sets to prioritize – early warning; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); electronic warfare; and communications relay – while acknowledging that offensive air support could serve as a second-tier requirement and aerial escort and cargo missions would likely be covered by the Future Vertical Lift program the Army is spearheading and the Marines will eventually buy into.
With the MUX essentially serving the role of an unmanned E-2D Advanced Hawkeye for the Amphibious Ready Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit, the amphibious forces would be freed from needing protection from an aircraft carrier and can begin planning their future concepts accordingly.
The service is looking at a final MUX solution that would cost $20-something million apiece, be runway-independent and shipboard compatible with mid-sized amphibious transport docks (LPDs) or even a future frigate or destroyer, and be sufficiently upgradeable that another military service or the U.S. Special Operations Command could buy a scaled-up or –down variant of the system.
To get the Marines used to operating a large unmanned system, the Marine Corps is working with the U.S. Air Force to put its Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) crews through Group 5 UAV training to be qualified to operate MQ-9 Reapers. The MUX will ultimately be a similar size as the Reaper, and the training will “build that base to have folks that eventually will be into MUX, so they’re used to having a Group 5 type things, so we’re not pulling everybody from fixed-wing and rotary-wing platforms,” Col. James Frey, headquarters Marine Corps aviation expeditionary enablers branch head, told USNI News.