Top Marine: ‘Perfect storm’ gave combat vehicle program new life

U.S. Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos is standing behind a big-ticket combat vehicle program that senators want to kill even as deeper Pentagon cuts get more likely by the day.

The Defense Department would be required to cut $500 billion more over a decade if the congressional supercommittee panel fails. When added to a $350 billion cut mandated under the August debt deal, Pentagon leaders said a “doomsday” scenario would unfold that would hinder U.S. national security.

Officials and lawmakers agree nearly $1 trillion in cuts from planned spending would force DOD to terminate some of its desired weapon programs. Amos agrees, telling The Hill on Monday that additional cuts would be made “across everything — manpower, programs, operations and maintenance funds.”

Still, he said, the Marines need to buy new combat equipment.

“There is a piece [of the force] that we’re going to have to modernize. That has bad connotations, because people think we’re going out and buying new slick, shiny objects. No,” Amos said. “There are some things [that must be replaced] because they’re just physically worn out.”

A prime example, he said, is the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), a joint effort with the Army to field a vehicle to replace most of the military’s existing Humvees.

For months, talk swirled in defense circles that the Marines were not on board with the program. Some insiders said the Corps’s lukewarm attitude about the direction the Army was pushing the envisioned combat truck could lead to its termination.

Amos confirmed Marine leaders’ past concerns, saying initial plans called for a vehicle that just was not going to work for the Corps. That’s because the vehicle was trending too heavy and expensive for his Leathernecks, who have a proud tradition of battlefield agility on a tight budget.

“I’m just not going to do it,” Amos said he told Army brass. “I’ll go out on my own,” he said, even though “I don’t want to go out on my own.”

So what kept the top Marine from walking away? “A perfect storm,” he said. 

The commandant’s tough talk about weight and cost, joined with the mounting threat of deeper Pentagon budget cuts, brought together the service’s vice chiefs of staff. They decided, “Let’s get this affordable,” Amos said.

The result is a lighter, cheaper JLTV. 

Marine and Army officials lowered the per-truck price goal to around $200,000 as it became apparent their annual acquisition budget was about to shrink. They have placed a $270,000 cost cap on the program.

Amos wants around 5,000 versions of the JLTV, and told The Hill he also plans to refurbish thousands of the Marines’ Humvees. The commandant signaled many would find their way to the Asia-Pacific region, where “they’ll probably work pretty well.”

But as the Marine Corps was finally all in on buying the revised JLTV, a key Senate panel struck what could prove a death knell for the program.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a 2012 Pentagon spending measure that would terminate the Army-Marine Corps’s JLTV program; the bill states that other platforms would meet the services’ needs. The plan originated in the panel’s powerful Defense subcommittee.

Army and Marine Corps leaders have launched a lobbying effort to save the program.

“We’re working that right now,” Amos said, noting he was on Capitol Hill as recently as last week trying to convince the panel to restore that funding.

“I want the [senators] to believe we have a really good plan and it’s affordable,” Amos said. 

The commandant said he “wasn’t one bit offended by the questions I was asked” during that meeting, saying the subcommittee is mostly concerned about the price of the JLTV effort and how soon it could be fielded.

The subcommittee is concerned that the program will lag in the often costly development phase, Amos said. 

“We need it now,” he said, noting the subcommittee’s leaders and staffers agree with the need, if not the plan, for getting the vehicles.

But even if Amos and other military officials win over the Senate panel, budgetary pressures could crush the program.

Analysts say the revised JLTV might prove too similar to simply fielding a new Humvee.

With the price of each new Humvee the Army desires expected to be about $180,000, that program is suddenly looking like a better value to some.

A showdown between the vehicle programs seems likely should the supercommittee fail and the automatic $500 billion cut be triggered.

And that carries big stakes for defense firms that make massive military vehicles. Several companies are hoping to win lucrative contracts for both programs.

Lockheed Martin and the teams of General Dynamics and AM General, as well as BAE Systems and Navistar, have all pursued the JLTV tender.

Most of the same players are looking to also grab the Humvee contract: AM General, BAE Systems and Oshkosh are leading teams, and Textron and Granite Tactical Vehicles have teamed up. AM General has long been the Army’s Humvee provider.

—Information in this article about the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle has been corrected.