Gates Tries To Tame Marines By Sinking Their Swimming Tank

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For decades the Marine Corps were proud of their stinginess. When the Navy ordered souped-up versions of its F-18 fighter, the corps kept flying the older model. When the Army grounded its UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra helicopters for flashier UH-60 Black Hawks and AH-64 Apaches, the corps stuck with the tried and true Vietnam-era choppers.

But in recent years, the corps has moved from Chevrolet to Cadillac, pushing ahead with gold-plated plans to attack beaches with swimming tanks, short-take-off-and-landing airplanes, and tilt-rotor aircraft. Unfortunately, its budget can’t keep up. That’s why on Thursday Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed its $16 billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and threatened to terminate its F-35B jump jet. Only its V-22 tilt-rotor emerged from this latest round of saber-wielding by the defense chief unbloodied.

The cuts are sparking outrage on Capitol Hill. “Cutting the EFV is absurd,” says Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee. “If the President and the Secretary of Defense want to get rid of the Marine Corps, they should come out and say that directly.”

Don’t think Marines aren’t feeling the heat. “During previous periods of austerity, as well as repeated threats to disband the corps, we could always fall back on the fact that the corps provided more combat power for less money than any service,” says T.X. Hammes, a retired colonel now at the National Defense University. “The decades-long focus on the V-22, the EFV and the F-35B has severely undercut that ethos.”

And there are no other good options. “Where the corps appears to have made a strategic error is in placing all its bets on the leap-ahead capability promised by a given platform — EFV, V-22 and F-35B — and refusing to develop in parallel a `Plan B’ should the chosen path come up short,” says Dakota Wood, a retired lieutenant colonel who now studies his old service at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, an independent think tank. “The Marine Corps finds itself in a corner of its own making.”

Of course, some Marines don’t see anything warranting criticism. “The best argument is to look at what Marines do, and have done, versus their cost,” argues Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star general who wore a Marine uniform for 35 years and served as chief of U.S. Central Command. “Six percent of the budget, 60 percent of the fight” he asserts in a typical Semper Fi stretch. The corps is going to have to limp along with older equipment for awhile, maybe produce newer versions of them and — horror for the corps — rely more on its sister services for help. All of this makes Marines, who perpetually fret over the future of their service, nervous.

The cuts are part of a $78 billion package of savings over the next five years unveiled by Gates Thursday. He’s also proposing trimming the size of the corps and Army by 47,000 troops starting in 2015, a modest 6 percent cut that will still leave each bigger than before 9/11. The military budget next year will be $553 billion, up from this year’s $549 billion. Gates cited the nation’s “extreme fiscal duress” and the winding down of the two wars to justify reduced spending. But he made clear the defense budget will not shrink under his plan. “What we are talking about, over the next five years, is a decline in the rate of growth,” he said. “So the reality is, every year for the next five years…the defense budget in absolute dollars will be bigger than the year before.”

The fate of the EFV is telling, because it reflects problems common in weapons development — promising too many capabilities at too low a cost that eventually lead to a program’s collapse. A replacement for its 1970s-era Amphibious Assault Vehicle, the EFV, built by General Dynamics, is a 38-ton water buffalo that has been in development for more than 20 years. Designed to ferry 17 troops over sea, shore and land to avoid facing enemy fire on bare coastline, its cost has doubled to more than $25 million a copy. Gates noted that the entire program, once fielded, could put only 4,000 Marines ashore — $4 million a head — and “would essentially swallow the entire Marine vehicle budget, and most of its total procurement budget, for the foreseeable future.”

While the existing assault vehicle can only carry Marines about two miles over water, the EFV can travel 25. While that’s well offshore, it’s also within range of increasingly cheap and accurate missiles. It can travel three times faster than the current model — up to 20 knots — but its flat bottom renders it vulnerable to the kinds of bombs that have been used so effectively against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Marines — the smallest of the nation’s four military services — has always focused on taking territory from the sea. That’s what made them famous in World War II and Korea. But as precision-guided weapons have proliferated, and air power has grown in power and scope, the amphibious assault mission has become, to some degree, less vital. The Marines haven’t done it since the battle for Inchon in 1950.

But they have kept buying gear needed to do it. And that gets costly, because Marines are deployed around the world by sea and take great pride in bringing their own war-fighting kit with them. But their ships’ relatively small size means they need aircraft that don’t require the Navy’s huge flattops. That, in turn, means the Marines need tilt-rotors and jump jets, which drive up the cost of each Marine aircraft dramatically, compared to the conventional planes flown by the Navy or helicopters flown by the Army.

Gates took pains to assure the Marines that the reason for their existence remains. “This decision does not call into question the Marines’ amphibious assault mission,” he said, promising to build cheaper vehicles “to ensure that the Marines will be able to conduct ship-to-shore missions until the next generation of systems is brought online.” He didn’t mention that 24 hours earlier, he had ordered 1,400 additional Marines to land-locked Afghanistan, where beach-storming won’t be necessary.