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West Coast Marines are first to try out new Amphibious Combat Vehicle to replace legacy AAV

The U.S. Marine Corps' amphibious vehicle replacement, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle 1.1, is under budget and on schedule for a June low-rate production run. (COURTESY BAE SYSTEMS)

Seeing the Marine Corps’ new Amphibious Combat Vehicle, Gunny Sgt. Christopher Sorrell said he thought to himself it looked a lot cooler than the legacy Amphibious Assault Vehicle that’s been around for decades and is now on its way out.

Then, he had the next four months to learn the ins and outs of the new armored, eight-wheeled seafaring vehicle before he and other Marines from Delta Company put it through its final testing paces across the harsh desert landscape and into the open ocean.

After all of that, he said he still thinks the ACV is cooler.

Sorrell, a platoon sergeant with the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion who deployed twice to Iraq with the AAVs, was among a company of Marines selected to evaluate and test the new vehicle at Marine Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms and then Camp Pendeleton.

The ACV, like the AAV it is replacing, will be the Marine Corps’ main transport for getting troops from ship to shore and even across varied terrain once it has landed.

“It’s a long time coming,” said Sorrell, an assistant operations chief. “The AAV is a Marine Corps legacy and I’m proud to be part of that and it will always be in my heart. But, there’s a need for the Marine Corps to have something new.

“It was an easy transition and it was user-friendly,” he said of his extended test drive with the new vehicle. “Within a month’s time, you could license a Marine to drive it.”

In September, following months of evaluation and testing with 18 ACVs, Delta Company reported back to Marine leaders they not only matched the abilities of the AAV, but far exceeded them, Sorrell said.

A re-dedication ceremony putting the vehicles into service was held in November at Twentynine Palms. In February, the Marines of Delta Company used the vehicles in a war-fighting exercise for the first time.

The ACV — billed as better protection for Marines against explosives — are built by BAE Systems. In 2018, the military signed a $198 million deal for 30 vehicles. The first vehicles arrived on the West Coast in late 2019.

Evaluations continued through April, with summer testing at Twentynine Palms and Camp Pendleton in August and September. Two more lots of 36 vehicles have been contracted.

Besides those at Camp Pendleton, vehicles will go to the 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion based at Courthouse Bay on Camp Lejeune and at the 3rd Marine Divison in Okinawa, Japan.

More than 200 vehicles are expected to be in service by 2028 and will cost more than $1 billion, Marine officials said.

The new amphibious vehicles — which military officials say are a much-needed modernization for the Marine Corps’ ground combat operation — will phase out the more than 40-year-old vehicles currently in use, many of which require 15 hours of maintenance for every hour of service. Often, parts are no longer manufactured, forcing crews to cannibalize older vehicles for parts.

Stronger and quicker vehicle

The 25-ton ACV can carry 13 Marines compared to its predecessor, which carries 18. Instead of crowded bench seating of the past, the ACV has bucket seats that can help absorb the shock of a bomb blast. In addition to the transport area, the ACV also carries a crew of three up front — typically a gunner, a driver and a crew chief.

The vehicle has 360-degree sensors and some of its weapons system can be controlled by crew members tucked away safely inside.

The vehicle is designed to swim up to 6 knots an hour in the open sea and can surf 10 foot waves.

Both of those abilities compare equally to the AAV, Sorrell said. But, on land, the ACV has greater advantages, Sorrell said.

Where the AAVs ride on tracks, the ACVs have wheels that allow the new vehicles to reach speeds up to 65 mph — more than 20 mph faster. It can travel a slope that is more than 30% and climb at a 60-degree angle.

The tires, the Marines say, will also be better when training in foreign countries. Some countries have been hesitant to allow the AAV on their roadways because of concern the tracks could cause damage.

The ACV has improved range, officials said. It can swim for 12 miles and then drive more than 250 miles after assaulting a beach on one fueling.

Sorrell said the Marines did notice during testing that the turning radius of the newer vehicle is not as tight as the AAV, which can pivot quickly by stopping one track while the other moves. The ACV does big swing turns that are more like a school bus, he said.

While tires provide greater mobility for the ACV, there is a risk of flats. During earlier evaluations Marines lost time when tires went flat during operations, said a Pentagon report published in January. The vehicle has centralized tire inflation, but sometimes the pressure was not maintained correctly, the report said.

The report recommends developing equipment to make tire changes more efficient — especially in remote areas — and maybe adding a spare tire.

“Even with a metal pole in it, it was still aired for three days,” said Major Brian Deiters, the company commander of Delta Company. “If the tire blows out, we can operate with any tire being fully down. If two are down on the same side, we can continue to go.”

Both Sorrell and Dieters said the vehicle rides more comfortably — even comparing it to a smooth car ride. In the AAV, they said, every bump is felt.

Deiters also praised the vehicle’s performance in the ocean, where it took on 4-foot-high surf. His Marines didn’t test to see if the vehicle can right itself in high surf like the AAV can, but he said, “I believe it’s supposed to flip back up.”

The heavy tracks on the AAV helped with righting the vehicle; similarly, Deiters said he believes the ACV has a lot of bottom armor that should give it the same ability.

At the end of the day, the two Marines agreed the ACV seems to be the better fighting machine for the future.

“If you’re going to give me a decision, I’ll take the ACV,” said Sorrell.

“The AAV wasn’t reliable,” Deiter said. “This is much better and easier to transition to. I won’t miss the old vehicle.”

Both Sorrell and Deiters were impressed with the vehicle’s warning systems.

“If something goes wrong, it pops up on the display module with a red or yellow light,” Deiters said. “It would tell you what’s wrong. Is the fuel low? Is a hatch open? It has so many advanced technical capabilities.”

More hatches on board

Getting into and out of the vehicle is critical — especially in light of a deadly AAV accident during training in July off San Clemente Island when nine of 16 service members died when their 26-ton vehicle sank. Seven made it out of the vehicle, but two were injured and one more died on scene.

It was the deadliest training accident in the history of AAV use. Two investigations — one by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit at Camp Pendleton and one by the Naval Safety Center — are expected to be finalized soon and should shed more light on what went wrong and what can be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The ACV has four personnel hatches — they are smaller but lighter than the three the AAV has.

“I think it would be much safer; for one because it has the extra hatch,” Deiters said.

In September, Marines did egress and evacuation drills specifically with an eye to the July accident.

“Crews got out in 16 seconds,” Sorrell said. “We practiced that on land and in water. The egress was pretty seamless.”

A key factor that distinguishes the new vehicle’s design, the Marines said, is that its engine is completely shut off from the troop compartment and has its own water pump.

“If you take on water in the engine, it doesn’t come back to the troop area,” Deiters said. “They shut that off. The AAV has four pumps and the ACV has one (more) that’s a back-up safety pump. If water gets into the troop compartment, the vehicle will keep running.”

Deiters said the standard protocol for evacuating out of a sinking ACV and AAV is the same. That is done when water reaches the deck plates.

“The difference in the AAV versus the ACV is that once they went into the water a (warning) light would have come on,” Deiters said. “Based on the same scenario, the ACV would have had lights on and it would have never left the beach.”

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