US Marines’ Wonky Amphibious Vehicles: A Pacific Rush

The US Marine Corps (USMC) is set to deploy its advanced Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) to the Pacific in March to fill a looming amphibious warfare ship shortage amid rising tensions with China over Taiwan.

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit will deploy Amphibious Assault Vehicles (ACVs) on the US Navy’s Boxer Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) in phases. The ACVs replace the aging AAVs, which have been restricted for 18 months due to a rollover in training exercises. The USMC is recertifying operators and maintainers, but not yet authorized to transit the surf zone.

A July 2020 US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report highlights the challenges faced by the USMC’s Advanced Vehicles (AAVs) in operating, maintaining, and sustaining them. The report highlights the shortfalls in land and water mobility, protection, and network capability, as well as the two-mile ship-to-shore range of AAVs as a survivability issue. Amphibious operations are complex and require planning across multiple domains.

Stockholm-based anti-ship missiles, tactical aircraft, submarines, mines, air defenses, and opposing forces ashore pose significant challenges to modern amphibious operations. ARGs have several missile defense options, but potential adversaries can detect the force at over-the-horizon ranges. As the force gets closer to shore, adversaries can deploy more missiles and the reaction time against these threats decreases.

AAV connectors are susceptible to multiple threats and must be launched close to shore. A March 2023 CRS report raises concerns about the ACV’s survivability against anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), as seen in the ongoing Ukraine war. Additionally, the USMC’s lightly armed and armored vehicles, such as the ACV, AAV, and Light Armored Vehicle (LAV), could be vulnerable in potential operations against China’s People’s Liberation Army-Marine Corps (PLA-MC) in a conflict over Taiwan.

The US Marine Corps (USMC) faces challenges in maintaining its forces at sea due to an amphibious warfare ship shortage. The USMC is considering alternate deployments to address this issue, which Lieutenant General Karsten Heckl calls the “single biggest existential threat” to the service. The USMC is utilizing other ships like the Expeditionary Sea Base and Expeditionary Fast Transport to fill a gap, but these are not specifically designed for amphibious missions.

The US is also planning to acquire Light Amphibious Warships (LAW) to transport Marines from shore to shore, but they may not be survivable against anti-ship missiles, lack the capacity to resupply far-flung forces in remote islands, and be too slow and under-armed for combat. They are also costly.

China is making progress in modernizing the PLA-MC, expanding its force in quality and quantity. As of 2022, the PLA-MC has expanded from two to eight combined arms brigades, but it is still an enabler in potential invasions of Taiwan. The PLA-MC can contribute six battalions to support an invasion effort, but its small size and lack of experience in expeditionary operations hinder its ability to effectively support such operations.

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