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Crossroads for Marines' $27 billion program 

The Pentagon spent more than $1 billion and 12 years developing a high-speed vehicle made to carry Marines from sea to shore only to have it fail miserably in 2006. It was overweight, sprung leaks and constantly broke down.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Pentagon spent more than $1 billion and 12 years developing a high-speed vehicle made to carry Marines from sea to shore only to have it fail miserably in 2006. It was overweight, sprung leaks and constantly broke down.

The Marine Corps and contractor General Dynamics Corp. now face another critical test. A failure this week for the vehicles designed to replace a Vietnam-era fleet could doom the $27 billion program.

Any "show stopper" problems discovered during the review will be weighed to determine if the service's so-called Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program moves forward to the next phase, Marine Corps spokesman Dave Branham said last week.

Lawmakers estimate the do-over will cost U.S. taxpayers an additional $1 billion, and the program already is deemed irrelevant by critics given the latest threats in countries like Afghanistan that have no access to water, and require more agile vehicles to navigate rocky terrain.

"Are we going to fight World War II again? Show me on the map where they are going to make an amphibious landing," said Col. G.I. Wilson, a retired Marine and contributing author to the new book, "America's Defense Meltdown," from the Center for Defense Information.

No recent large amphibious maneuvers
The Marines have not performed large amphibious maneuvers since the Korean War. But the service remains undeterred, contending that with most foreign nations owning shoulder-fired, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-ship missiles, it's critical to have a vehicle that can deploy Marines farther offshore, keeping them undetected and out of harm's way.

The EFV can be deployed 25 nautical miles offshore, allowing Marines to land anywhere along an 800-mile coastline and then start traveling at up to 45 mph.

"You try to never fight the last war when developing weapon systems ... (and you) can't afford to be surprised by the next," said Col. Keith Moore, EFV program manager.

That makes this week's test all the more important for the troubled program.

"They (are going to) have to show us all ... Here's exactly what it does. Here's exactly how much it weighs. (And) that they can meet the advertised cost of the vehicle," Moore said in a recent interview at his office in Woodbridge, Va.

Industry observers say even if the vehicle misses the mark, it's unlikely the Bush administration will terminate the program. Rather, such a decision, like many other multibillion-dollar defense programs left uncompleted this year, would be punted to President-elect Barack Obama.

Analysts believe another failure, coupled with cost overruns and the vehicle's damaged history, would leave the program even more vulnerable to the ax under Obama, who has promised to cut the fat from defense spending.

Anxious to show what vehicle can do
Still, Marines are anxious to show what the vehicle can do.

"This vehicle is a leap into what we need to stay on top," said Sgt. Christian Button, 23, of Camp Pendleton, Calif., who has been working on the vehicle for the past six months.

Coming around the bend at the military's testing site in Aberdeen, it's clear why the Marines are so enamored with the $14 million vehicles.

Clouds of dust circle around the vehicle's faux "hula skirt" — used to prevent the enemy from detecting its size — as Sgt. Robert Baxter of Camp Pendleton, Calif., 24, turns on the ignition with a push of a button.

With its custom designed 12-cylinder, 2,800 horsepower diesel engine made by Germany's MTU, it begins to roar like a jumbo-jet at takeoff. One cylinder is enough to power the Camaro's Super Sport 454 engine.

The EFV is more than 10 feet high, but inside it feels like a cramped U-Haul with a low ceiling, and seats for 17 infantry Marines.

Deployed from the sea at nearly 30 miles per hour, it can transform into an armored infantry vehicle as it moves ashore. Unlike its older version, it can travel as fast as its military cousin, the Abrams tank.

But even with all its added features and capabilities, the program has been repeatedly criticized for its failures and cost.

"While the project has been a fiasco for the taxpayer, there has been at least one beneficiary: General Dynamics," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee said in April. "The company got paid even though the vehicle flunked its tests."

General Dynamics referred all questions to the Marine Corps.

Unprecedented feat
The Marines have defended the program's past failures by explaining that the technological feat of getting a 76,000-pound vehicle moving at such a high-speed above the water was unprecedented.

"It was a little bit of a misnomer when it was reported that the vehicle couldn't move in water, couldn't move on land, couldn't shoot, couldn't do any of that," said Branham. "The vehicle works. It just didn't work well enough, long enough."

The vehicle can now go 51 hours before breaking down, up 7.5 hours from its prior threshold, which had been one source of criticism.

Even so, Moore concedes it's been "pretty disappointing" not to have successfully executed the program yet, and said a review last year led the service to slash the number of vehicles it planned to buy nearly in half to 573 because it needed a more diverse fleet to manage new threats.

Moore has taken several steps to help get the program back on track, including authorizing incentive fees under the $776.8 million contract that are paid only if General Dynamics meets goals like controlling costs or performance.

"It doesn't bother me to pay them for work that we can measure," he said, declining to specify how much the Falls Church, Va.-based company has received under the plan.

"The goal is to get the vehicle out there to the Marines," said Moore. "This is a vital capability for U.S."