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3 years after deadly accident, Marines make progress in new amphibious vehicle training

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U.S. Marines with Co. A, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (1st MARDIV), and Co. B, 3d Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st MARDIV, prepare to evacuate a P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicle (AAV) during a surf qualification at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, June 30, 2021. The qualification training included a 1,000-meter swim to shore from an AAV. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Cameron Hermanet/TNS)

Erika I. Ritchie

The Orange County Register

In the last few months, Marines at Camp Pendleton in Southern California have been retraining in the use of the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle, a troop carrier that’s expected to be the service’s most valuable asset in the amphibious fight and critical to the nation’s crisis response.

The new training program’s top amphibious combat leaders announced in a media roundtable that 59 Marines have now been certified in the revamped program. Another group will start training in mid-August, with more in September and October.

By the fall of 2024, 250 vehicle operators and 50 vehicle maintainers will have been re-certified, officials said.

The Marines retooled the training after several vehicles flipped in the surf as the crews got familiar with the new transport. There have been no reported injuries.

Marines are now first learning in the classroom, ensuring they have sound fundamentals of the vehicles, officials said. Building on that, they move to “highly controlled practical evaluations” in the motor pool before transitioning into ground-based training. The new training program ends with the water and in the surf zone.

“This is not just pass/fail,” said Col. Howard Hall, who headed designing the new training program earlier this year. “This is a consequential outcome-based approach where we can measure proficiency for safe operations of the vehicle. It is the most comprehensive effort the (amphibious assault) community has undertaken.

“It’s a blank slate,” he said, “to define what right looks like.”

The Amphibious Combat Vehicle is replacing the Amphibious Assault Vehicle the Marines have used for more than 50 years to transport troops between ships and the shore. The vehicles were introduced at Camp Pendleton in 2019 so Marines could put them through their paces and then begin broader training with them before taking the new transports on deployment.

The vehicle developed by BAE Systems – the same manufacturer of the legacy AAV – was moved from initial testing into the fleet after a training accident on July 30, 2020, in which nine men, including three from Southern California, died when an AAV they rode in sank to the ocean floor off San Clemente Island. It was the worst of the Marines’ amphibious accidents in the service’s history.

Multiple Marine and Navy investigations deemed the accident “preventable” and outlined a confluence of causes, including a lack of following standard protocols, lapses in training and leadership and the poor conditions of the aging fleet of AAVs.

Shortly after Camp Pendleton Marines started training with the replacement ACVs, four of the vehicles flipped in the surf zone – in one training event, two had accidents on the same day. There have also been reports of mechanical issues, including with the vehicle’s tow mechanism, delays in water steering and water intrusion in the engine and the transmission.

The vehicles were quickly pulled from water training for a while in 2021 and then later restricted to only training in the base’s protected Del Mar harbor. The vehicles also missed their debut deployment with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which recently returned from seven months in the Indo-Pacific.

Hall, a 29-year veteran of the amphibious community who was once the commanding officer of Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, said that part of the stumble in training stemmed from the Marines’ long-time reliance on the AAV.

“Fifty years of experience with the legacy vehicle created muscle memory,” he said. “It led us to focus on similarities rather than differences. There were hundreds of changes to the technical manuals, faster than the schools could keep up with. It became clear we needed a mindset shift on how we focus on the advanced capability.”

Externally, the older AAVs are flat-bottomed and run on tracks, like a tank, while the new ACV has a V-shaped hull and eight wheels. The two vehicles’ steering and propeller systems are completely different; at 36 tons, the ACV is also about 10 tons heavier. Because of the differences in their design, it has been reported that the vehicles behave differently in the surf zone.

As of April, the Marines had 139 ACVs in the fleet, with each vehicle costing $5.9 million. More are on order. Military leaders say the ACV is significantly better “in mobility, lethality, protection and safety” than the AAVs.

As part of the training preparation, Hall said he and his team – which also included experts from the infantry and aircraft community – started from scratch.

“We took an A-to-Z scrub of all technical manuals and all previous mishaps with the ACVs and the AAV,” Hall said, adding that the information gleaned was used to find “trends and blindspots.”

Then new training protocols, testing plans and standards were built, he said.

“In 29 years, I’ve never seen a small handful of mostly sergeants define an entire (specialty) for an entire community,” he said, calling the newly certified Marines “the first black belt instructors.”

“I’m very proud of them for that,” he said.

So far, the Marines who’ve been certified in water operations have made 100 loops – meaning splashing out from the beach and back in – through the surf zones with no incidents, said Lt. Col. Frederick Monday, who took over from Hall and now heads up the training unit.

“The surf zone is the most dangerous and we want them to be proficient there,” he said, adding that detailed feedback from Marines who are being certified is being taken back to the teachers and other students going through both the operating and maintenance courses for the vehicle.

“We report on what Marines did well, but also where they need support,” Monday said. “Marines are benefiting from guided discussions and hands-on operations and the program will continue to evolve.

“When anyone graduates,” he added, “everybody is on the same standard.”

Some veterans from the AAV community have questioned whether the ACV will ever be safe through the surf zone, which is critical to any war-fighting plans of the future.

The AAV was able to right itself if it tipped over, but because the ACVs have eight rubber tires instead of the heavier tracks, critics of the ACV program have wondered if the ACV can avoid the flips.

“We believe the approach we’ve taken will lessen the likelihood of rollover incidents,” said Col. Benjamin Venning, who heads up the amphibious school. “As this training continues, we lessen the rate.”

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