Marines Look for Breakthroughs
While Developing New Vehicles

By Donna Miles

The Marine Corps, like the Army, is “still waiting for that technological breakthrough” needed to build a combat vehicle that’s light and agile but also protects crewmembers inside, the Marine Corps commandant said yesterday.

“So we continue to wait,” while exploring best options available now, Marine Gen. James T. Conway told reporters during a Pentagon news briefing.

Both the Army and Marine Corps have sent mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, with their V-shaped hull that deflects underbelly blasts away from the crew compartment, into Iraq and Afghanistan. The 10,000th MRAP rolled off the assembly line in early July, marking a milestone for the joint MRAP program that began as a Marine Corps initiative.

But the Marines have opted to buy fewer MRAPs than initially planned, and have dedicated them largely to specialized missions such as explosive ordnance disposal and engineering missions.

“In the past, our engineers have ridden to war in the back of a dump truck,” Conway said. “We owe them something better than that.” The small versions of the MRAPs, known as the Category 1 variants, are a good vehicle for that, the general added.

Ultimately, the Marines likely will need hundreds, not thousands, of MRAPs, he said.

Conway said the MRAP’s bulk — which he called too heavy for its suspension and axle systems — and its top-heavy design make it less-than-optimal for many Marine Corps missions. Those problems are exacerbated in Afghanistan, where sloped roads, mountain trails and switchbacks make driving the vehicles particularly challenging. Although more MRAPs have been deployed to Iraq than Afghanistan, Conway said, the Marines have experienced more rollovers in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps is looking beyond current operations toward developing its next-generation fighting vehicles. The challenge, Conway said, is “Where do we want the Marine Corps to be in 2020 with its vehicle complement based on what we think the threat will be at that point?”

The expeditionary fighting vehicle, or EFV, “seems to be making some good progress,” Conway said, but he conceded it’s still a long way from production. The 17-passenger armored vehicle — able to run on the ground as well as in the water — hit some low points during operational testing in 2006, but is now moving forward. “We’ve got some good reports in recent weeks and months on the progress of EFV,” Conway said.

The Marines also have their sights on a new joint light tactical vehicle to replace the aging Humvee fleet. The Army, U.S. Special Operations Command and the Marine Corps have teamed up to develop vehicles designed from the drawing board stage to operate in combat. Humvees were adapted after the fact for combat conditions.

“We certainly want to mate with the Army on any program for the joint light tactical vehicle, but I think it’s fair to say both services are still waiting for that technological breakthrough that’s going to give us the amount of soldier and Marine protection in a vehicle that is lighter than what’s on the market right now,” Conway said.

The Marines are encountering the same problem as they attempt to develop a lighter, better productive helmet, he said.

“There is just not an apparent technological breakthrough in ceramics or in carbon fiber that’s going to give us that lightweight technology that gives equal protection,” he said.

Another program on the drawing board is the Marine personnel carrier, a medium-weight vehicle able to carry nine Marines and their gear. “We’re going to try to sort out just what that vehicle needs to look like,” Conway said.