Top U.S. Marine defends $13 billion amphibious tank

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Marines must be able to storm enemy shores in amphibious vehicles such as those being built by General Dynamics Corp, the top Marine said, defending a $13.2 billion program called into question by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

General Dynamics’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, or EFV, “is inextricably linked to that capability and an absolutely critical requirement for us,” General James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday.

“And, by the way, China has already fielded a similar vehicle and is building more,” he said.

As conceived by the Marine Corps, the EFV is to be able to transport up to 18 combat-ready Marines at high speeds on both land and sea. It would have advanced communications capabilities, provide increased armored protection against rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices, and deliver lethal firepower up to 2,000 meters (2,200 yards).

But Gates, in an April 17 speech to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, said he had directed Pentagon planners to take a “realistic” view of the need for landing large numbers of troops “so we can better gauge our requirements.”

Questions about this need would be part of a once-every-four-year review of the U.S. Defense Department’s strategies, capabilities and forces to address today’s conflicts and tomorrow’s threats, Gates said.

It had been strategically valuable to have put a flotilla of Marines off Kuwait City during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, forcing then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to tie up divisions on the Saudi border and on the coast.

“But we have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious action again,” Gates had said on the last stop of a weeklong tour of the armed services’ war colleges to promote revamped budget priorities. “In the 21st century, how much amphibious capability do we need?”

Conway took pains to say he did not want to “contrast” Gates, whom he described as a “great man and doing a magnificent job.”

“But there have been a number of amphibious operations that have not involved hitting the beach that have nevertheless saved lives and preformed functions for this great country,” he said. Probably the most recent was the July 2006 evacuation of U.S. citizens and others from Lebanon as a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah intensified, Conway said.

Amphibious warfare is a Marine Corps specialty, notably in World War Two battles in the Pacific stretching from Guadalcanal to Okinawa.

Conway said today’s amphibious operations could include everything from noncombatant evacuations to disaster relief to forcible entry. “And we think that that’s what the nation really needs.”

The original EFV development contract saw the Marine Corps buying 1,025 vehicles at a total cost of $8.5 billion. A revised estimate in December 2007 predicted the cost would rise to $13.2 billion and that at this price, the Corps would be able to afford only 593 EFVs, according to an April 2008 study by the majority staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

On another big-ticket weapon, Conway said the Marine Corps would deploy its V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor troop carrier in Afghanistan by the end of this year after what he deemed its successful service in Iraq. Built by Boeing Co and Textron, it combines the vertical agility of a helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft.

If Gates ultimately seeks to scale back or end the EFV program, it would join a growing list of costly systems he says are ill-suited to deal with fights such as the United States faces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On April 6, Gates announced plans for a significant reshaping of U.S. military arms purchases, including ending production of Lockheed Martin Corp’s premier F-22 fighter jet, terminating an $87 billion Army ground vehicle effort led by Boeing and cutting missile-defense spending $1.4 billion, or about 15 percent.

The first round of these proposed changes is to be part of a detailed fiscal 2010 Pentagon budget request to be sent to Congress by President Barack Obama, most likely on May 6.

Reporting by Jim Wolf, additional reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Tim Dobbyn