Amid struggle with budget cuts, lawmakers oppose plan to drop Marine vehicle

House Republicans are vowing to make sharp cuts in government spending, but are struggling to decide which programs to ax.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 9:51 PM

The backroom congressional battle over Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's plan to eliminate the Marine Corps' multibillion-dollar amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle will be fought out at the same time as the Corps wrestles with how to shrink its forces.

Rep. W. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), new chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and expeditionary forces, said Thursday that he and others "are going to be opposing the secretary and his decision." He added, "The need for the core capability of the Marines'' - to attack on land from the sea - "has not gone away . . . but how many we buy may be negotiated."

The armored 39-ton vehicle, which is operated by a three-person crew and can carry 17 combat-ready Marines, is intended to travel at 20 knots from 25 miles out at sea to the shore and run at speeds of up to 45 mph on land. Designed to replace a slower, 30-year-old amphibious assault vehicle that carries 21 Marines and a crew of three, the EFV has cost $3.3 billion to develop. As costs have skyrocketed, the Marines have reduced the number they expect to order from 1,025 to 573.

Tests of original prototypes in 2006 saw repeated failures and critical breakdowns with vehicles, requiring 3.4 hours of corrective maintenance for every one hour of operation. The program was restructured in 2007, and five new redesigned EFV prototypes are being tested at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

In his statement announcing that the program would end, Gates said that it would cost $13 billion more for the planned 573 to be built and that they could bring ashore only 4,000 troops at any one time, because not all of the EFVs could be used in a single operation.

Since August, a study group has been carrying out Gates's order to review what expeditionary forces should look like in the 21st century. The group's charter acknowledges that budgets cuts will require "reductions in Marine Corps end strength, equipment and modernization."

Marine Commandant Gen. James F. Amos is going over a draft of the force structure review and says it will be released in early spring. Gates has said that beginning in 2015, about 20,000 Marines will be cut from the Corps' current size of 202,000.

Gates said his decision to cut the EFV "does not call into question the Marines' amphibious assault mission. We will budget the funds necessary to develop a more affordable and sustainable amphibious tractor to provide the Marines a ship-to-shore capability into the future."

But Gates does not have the final word. And although Amos, the Marines' new commandant, has publicly called the EFV procurement and maintenance costs "onerous" and "simply not affordable," some key legislators want the program kept alive.

Akin said trying to upgrade the older amphibious vehicle would be "totally unacceptable." Its lack of speed and need to stay over the horizon in any combat situation mean that it needs three hours to get to shore, and after "bobbing in the ocean moving at 4 knots, the Marines would not want to do any fighting."

"My position is if we can't afford 500, we can scale the number back but our objective would be to purchase EFVs," Akin said. With Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on his side, Akin said, "I don't see the House doing anything other than resisting Gates's position."

Other members of Congress, many of whom have companies in their states or districts with EFV contracts or subcontracts, have also criticized the planned elimination of the EFV and its effect on the Marine Corps.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who serves on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, and Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sent a letter to President Obama on the day Gates announced the cancellation, urging the president to hold up any decision until after the testing program is concluded.

"Doing anything else will deny our Marines a much needed war-fighting capability, will unnecessarily cost taxpayers billions of dollars, and will endanger the key ground combat vehicle industrial base in this country," they wrote. They pointed out that EFVs will be coming off a "tank production and modification line at Lima, Ohio. . . . Without the EFV, these facilities will be severely downgraded, hurting the local economies and eliminating hundreds of high-paying, high-skilled manufacturing jobs."

Brown, Kaptur and Jordan also suggested "purchasing 200 vehicles" as a viable option, saying it would equip two Marine Expeditionary Brigades with modern amphibious lift and save up to $5 billion from the cost of the current program.

Peter Keating, vice president of communications with General Dynamics Land Systems, the lead contractor, said the purchase of 200 EFVs would also allow Gates to have enough funds from the original program to upgrade existing amphibious vehicles. He called that "a win-win situation."

The testing of prototypes at Camp Pendleton has lasted 400 of a planned 500 hours and is scheduled to be completed by month's end. Scoring of the results is expected in February. "Whatever data we get from there will influence what we do in the near future," said Emanuel Pacheco, a Marine Corps spokesman.

He added that there have been lessons learned from the program, "and despite all the detractors, this" - amphibious landing in a contested area - "is not a capability that is going to go away."

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