War Experience Shapes Future Vehicle Design

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September 2003
War Experience Shapes Future Vehicle Design
 by Sandra I. Erwin

The Marine Corps’ combat experience in Iraq could prompt significant changes to the design and performance requirements of its future combat vehicles. Current plans for next-generation Marine expeditionary fighting vehicles may be revisited, in light of growing concerns that they may be too vulnerable and not lethal enough.

Under a program called the Marine Expeditionary Family of Fighting Vehicles, or MEFFV, the Corps intends to replace the M1 Abrams tank and the Light Armored Vehicle with much nimbler and technologically advanced platforms.

According to preliminary concepts, the new family of vehicles would include a 10-ton wheeled variant (the LAV replacement) and a 30-ton tracked version that would replace the tank. Like the Army’s Future Combat Systems, the MEFFV would rely on stealth, speed and digital communications links to overcome the smaller size and lack of protective armor.

The Defense Department’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council endorsed the MEFFV program in November 2001.

Senior Marine officials, however, may be reevaluating the rationale for the MEFFV, as feedback from operations in Iraq indicates that heavy armor still rules the battlefield.

The Iraq conflict will change the MEFFV program,” said Col. Dennis W. Beal, Marine Corps program manager for tanks.

During an April meeting of Marine general officers, the consensus was that if the Corps had been fighting in Iraq with a MEFFV-like force, “we probably would not have won,” Beal said at a Washington, D.C. conference, sponsored by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.

Survival based on “overwhelming net-fires and a lot of indirect stuff” is an iffy proposition, Beal said. Lighter vehicles simply don’t have the firepower needed to take over cities, for example.

Any tank replacement would have to be at least as survivable as the M1, Beal suggested. Reports from the field indicated that many of the Marine M1 tanks came back with lots of pockmarks from rocket-propelled grenade shots and some friendly-fire hits, but the crews survived.

“We may have to rethink some of the things we are thinking about,” said Beal. “We are still trying to continue to make this [MEFFV] happen. But survivability is going to be a real key factor.”

An obvious conclusion, Beal said, is that “we need a new gun” to supplant the current 120 mm tank weapon. “We don’t want a vehicle that only has 40 rounds when it crosses the line of departure. We don’t want a vehicle that only gets 8 gallons to the mile.”

It is not yet clear how many vehicles will comprise the MEFFV program. The Marines, said Beal, may not replace their 400 tanks and 800 LAVs with the exact same number of MEFFV vehicles.

Beal, who retired in mid-July, supports the notion that the Marine Corps’ future combat vehicles should take advantage of the latest technology, particularly the research and development work the Army is sponsoring in the FCS program. But he seemed dismissive of the idea that the MEFFV and the FCS should be 100-percent common.

The MEFFV has a “different timeline and different objective” than the FCS, Beal said. Both program offices, however, are collaborating and trying to maximize common components and subsystems.

“How that’s going to work out, we don’t know yet,” he added.

Much of the technology could be shared, he said. Power trains, weapon systems, sensor suites developed for the FCS would easily be transferable to MEFFV. “Early on, jointness with FCS will pay dividends.”

Beal said he does not expect the MEFFV vehicles to be helicopter transportable, because the MEU typically would not have enough birds to shuttle vehicles. A MEU only has four CH-53 heavy lift helicopters. “No MEU commander is going to waste his airlift assets to bring one stinking LAV or one MEFFV to drop it down. He’ll get it ashore some other way.”

As far as survivability goes, several research projects are under way. The Office of Naval Research is developing composite alloys materials that potentially could turn into lightweight armor. Another effort is on embedded sensors, which would make the vehicle less visible. Active protection could be considered, if the Army adopts it for FCS.

Unlike the FCS concept, the MEFFV will rely on armor for survivability. “My MEU won’t have the [FCS] net-fires capability.”

The primary constraint in the design of any MEFFV is the transportability aboard ships and landing craft. A Marine Expeditionary Unit (of about 2,000 Marines) deploys with all its equipment on three ships. “That is not going to change drastically in 30-40 years,” Beal said. “Everything has to be shoehorned into three vessels.”

An Army FCS brigade—with hundreds of manned and unmanned ground and air vehicles—would not fit in a three-ship amphibious ready group, said Beal. “I’m not disagreeing with the Army’s approach. It’s a sound and valid approach. It just doesn’t work” for the Marines.

No matter how “far thinking” Pentagon planners may be, “the bottom line is the box we have to live in,” said Beal. Marine vehicles cannot be taller than 74 inches, for example, because they need to be able to operate below the threshold of line-of-sight anti-tank missiles.

Having the two programs co-located makes sense as a way to encourage “technology synergy,” he said. The first version of MEFFV is not even scheduled to be fielded until 2024, possibly more than a decade after FCS enters service.

“We have different transportation requirements, direct and indirect fire requirements. Timeframes are different. Even if we had the perfect solution for the Marine Corps in 2008 or 2010, it wouldn’t really matter,” said Beal. “Our procurement profile would not allow us to buy anything during that time anyway.”

In the MEFFV program, unlike the FCS, “we don’t have the money,” said Beal. “I envy their program significantly.”

It is unlikely that any procurement dollars for MEFFV would be available until after 2015, mostly because the Marine Corps will be spending a large portion of its acquisition funds on the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle.

The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, said that, even though the AAAV is at the top of the list, it will not necessarily drain every other program’s accounts.

“Our number one ground priority is in fact the AAAV,” he said in an interview with Washington D.C. reporters. “But it’s a misstatement to say that after 2006, all our money is going to the AAAV.”

In general, said Hagee, “I feel good about the funding as far as vehicles are concerned. There is always balancing.”

Electric Gun

According to Beal, the most “exciting” technology that may emerge from the MEFFV program is the electromagnetic gun.

After evaluating more conventional weapons, such as kinetic-energy missiles and directed-energy systems, “we came to the conclusion that the EM gun shows the greatest potential.”

It is fair to predict, said Beal, that even today’s most advanced explosive reactive armor will not be able to defeat many anti-tank munitions. “Every five years, we spend $80 million to $100 million to develop a new bullet, which [as new threats emerge], becomes ineffective before the production runs out.” Preferably, a weapon system should “give me considerable overmatch over a considerable period of time.”

The EM gun also would be a welcome addition to the Abrams fleet, he said. The M1A1 will be in the Marine Corps until 2030. “We’ve reached the limits of the 120 mm gun. So we wanted a weapon system that we could transition to the M1A1.”

It would be very difficult for any future enemy to defend against EM guns, said Beal. In a recent test, a 9-megajoule simple projectile fired with EM energy went right through explosive reactive armor. “We want a 12-megajoule capability. ... A 12-megajoule shot is what you need to defeat at T-90 type vehicle.”

Inert tungsten rounds are one-fifth the weight of the Abrams bullets. The logistics implications are huge, said Beal. “Your round count goes from 40 to about 95 to 120.” Further, inert rounds do not require propellant, “so you don’t have to worry about the heat or sensitivity to the environment.” The Navy, said Beal, “is going to be giddy about this. They won’t have live ordnance on ships.”

Another benefit of the EM gun is the low cost of the ammunition. The potential savings are substantial, said Beal. In the Marine Corps, ammunition is the second largest expense, after personnel costs. Current tank rounds cost nearly $6,000 each. The EM rounds would cost about $400-$500.

The lighter rounds also would translate into fewer trucks needed to haul the ammo. “We can save nine trucks off a MEU,” he said.

The Pentagon allocated funds for the Marines to demonstrate a direct-fire EM gun by 2008. If it works, it would be integrated in a tank by 2015, Beal said. “The M1A1 is the perfect transition platform. If I can’t engineer and scale this down to a tank, I’ll never get to a platform half that size.”

Despite his optimistic outlook on the EM gun technology, Beal acknowledged that there are many “unknowns” in the program and that much could go wrong.

The Army has a similar program to develop an EM gun. “We’ll work together,” said Beal. “But the Army has no plans at all to retrofit or upgrade their Abrams vehicles. That’s a big difference in our program. They think FCS will be done by then.”

The Navy is sponsoring a large-scale EM gun development program, but there is little commonality with the Marine effort, said Beal. “They don’t have the real-estate problem I have. They can get big capacitors on a ship.”

If the EM weapon ever comes to fruition, it would mean bad news for contractors in the ammunition sector, he said. “This puts the bullet guys ... and the missile mafia ... out of business,” he said. “Life is tough.”

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