The Marine Corps is training Marines on differences between the amphibious combat vehicle and its predecessor, following a series of training mishaps that the top Marine attributed to “training shortfalls.”
At least three amphibious combat vehicles have flipped in the surf in training mishaps that left no reported injuries but prompted temporary restrictions on vehicle operations during rough wave conditions.
Gen. David Berger, the Marine commandant, told senators in March that vehicle operators required updated training for the “new and more sophisticated vehicle,” which replaced the aging amphibious assault vehicle.
A new transition training unit within the school that mints amphibious vehicle operators has been tasked with revamping training, the Marine Corps announced via a news release Wednesday.
“The transition training unit is comprised of Marines of various (military occupational specialties), to include aviators, light armored vehicle crewmen, AAV crewmen and others, to ensure that our new amphibious combat vehicle Marines receive the best possible targeted training for their new vehicle,” Gen. Eric Smith, the assistant commandant, told Marine Corps Times on Wednesday.
The amphibious combat vehicle, made by BAE Systems, was designed to replace the amphibious assault vehicle, which had been in service since the 1970s.
Like its predecessor, the amphibious combat vehicle is a ship-to-shore connector that can carry Marines across water and move them around on land. Unlike its predecessor, the new, heavier vehicle is wheeled rather than tracked and has a V-shaped hull to insulate crew members from underbody blasts.
The two vehicles also have different internal steering and propeller systems, according to Marine spokesman Capt. Ryan Bruce. Because of the many design differences, “the vehicles behave differently in the surf zone,” he said in an emailed statement to Marine Corps Times.
“The AAV and ACV are fundamentally dissimilar from one another,” Bruce said.
“As with the fielding of any new system, it’s going to take time to build experience and expertise with the platform,” he said. “Amphibious operations are inherently complex, and as we operate and train with the platform we are always learning and refining best practices and procedures.”
The transition training unit, made up of Marines with amphibious combat vehicle experience as well as subject-matter experts, is developing a program that will make sure Marines who work with the vehicle are properly trained to do so, according to the news release. The unit will be platoon-sized, according to Bruce, meaning it will have around a few dozen Marines.
Once the program is approved, Marines who already have been certified to operate and maintain the amphibious combat vehicle will have to get certified again under the new standards, according to the release.
Berger told Congress that BAE Systems and safety investigations determined the rollovers “were caused by a lever effect generated when the vehicle becomes parallel to the surf-line and is struck by a large wave.”
“The shape of the ACV is such that the operator has to be very aware of the orientation of the vehicle relative to the onsetting waves,” Retired Marine Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, a defense expert at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, told Marine Corps Times on Wednesday.
When the long edge of the “big steel box,” as Wood put it, is perpendicular to the waves, flips can ensue.
In general, Wood said, it takes troops a while to learn how to handle new platforms, and the amphibious combat vehicle is no exception.
“The ACV is just a different vehicle, so it’s going to handle differently,” Wood said.
Smith said, “What you should never assume is that the replacement for one aircraft or vehicle is the same as the previous vehicle.”
“Even though the operators of that previous aircraft or vehicle are highly skilled, motivated Marines, they do not necessarily have the exact skills to train those entering into a new vehicle or a new aircraft.”
Leadership at the Assault Amphibian School, which houses the new unit, came under scrutiny earlier in 2023 following the incidents where vehicles flipped in the surf.
In January, Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan, commander of the Corps’ Training Command, relieved Col. John Medeiros of command of the school “after receiving information obtained during the course of the ongoing investigation” into an October 2022 rollover.
Marine spokesman Capt. Phil Parker told Marine Corps Times at the time that Medeiros wasn’t accused of misconduct or criminal negligence.
In his March testimony, Berger also disclosed mechanical issues with the vehicle’s shock absorbers and central tire inflation system, as well as “issues related to possible water incursion into the power train,” the system of internal components that includes the engine.
The Marine Corps is working with BAE Systems to resolve those issues, Berger said.
Safety concerns also surrounded the amphibious assault vehicle, especially after July 2020, when an amphibious assault vehicle sank off the coast of California, killing eight Marines and one sailor. A command investigation later attributed the tragedy in large part to leadership failures.
In December 2021, the Corps permanently halted deploying the amphibious assault vehicle.
The Marine Corps has fielded 139 of the amphibious combat vehicles, mostly to the Assault Amphibian School and I Marine Expeditionary Force in California, Bruce said in a statement to reporters, but also some to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Following the most recent reported mishap, the rollover in the surf in October 2022, the Marine Corps banned use of the amphibious combat vehicle for moving to or from surf zones, except for testing purposes. The surf zone is the area where waves break as they move toward the shore.
For now, Marines are authorized to use the vehicle for operations in protected waters like the Del Mar Boat Basin at Camp Pendleton, California, or on land, according to Bruce.
“The Marine Corps is taking a deliberate and phased approach to authorizing the ACV to transit the surf zone,” Bruce stated, adding that the plan will likely begin this summer.
First, staff from the new training unit will be authorized to use the vehicle in the surf zone as they firm up the new certification program, according to Bruce. Then operators participating in the certification can move into the surf zone.
Only after that will the Marine Corps allow the amphibious combat vehicle into the surf zone with Marines embarked on it, according to Bruce. At the moment, the vehicle isn’t scheduled for deployments.
“It’s important for us to get the training right before we speculate on future deployments,” he stated.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.