First Marine Platoon of Operational ACVs Training with USS Anchorage for Deployment Later This Year

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – The nearly dozen amphibious combat vehicles swam toward the shore, their shuttered hatches providing long-slung silhouettes in the Pacific as USS Anchorage (LPD-23) lingered a mile offshore. Two Navy safety boats from the amphibious transport dock ship trailed in slight swells as the ACVs rolled onto the California sands. Last weekend’s […]

A Marine with 3d Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division onshore after training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., on March 13, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – The nearly dozen amphibious combat vehicles swam toward the shore, their shuttered hatches providing long-slung silhouettes in the Pacific as USS Anchorage (LPD-23) lingered a mile offshore. Two Navy safety boats from the amphibious transport dock ship trailed in slight swells as the ACVs rolled onto the California sands.

Last weekend’s beach landing was significant for two reasons: It marked another milestone in the Marine Corps’ ACV program, as the first operational platoon prepares for the inaugural deployment later this year. And the integrated Navy-Marine Corps training – with day and night, full-mission profile missions launching and recovering vehicles from Anchorage and the beach – was another step in resuming shipboard operations after a pause due to ACV tow-hitch problems and the 2020 fatal amphibious assault vehicle sinking during shore-to-ship training off the California coast.

The deployment will be historic. The Marine Corps is counting on the ACV to be more capable, more lethal and more survivable than the 1970s-era AAV and the new vehicles are key to the service’s ability to conduct amphibious operations, particularly in island-hopping campaigns and other operations in littoral environments. Apart from having wheels instead of tracks, differences between the vehicles – largely from more advanced communications, command-and-control systems and a remote weapon system – will drive changes in how Marines utilize the vehicles and how commanders employ them at sea and ashore.

The four-day, platoon-level training event built on section-level training the Marines did for the first tie at sea with Anchorage in February.

“We’re working through a lot of things, like who determines who is going to splash us, do I submit that I want to splash here, or do they tell me I’m going to splash you here,” 1st Lt. Turner Brown, 1st Platoon commander with Charlie Company, 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, said while taking a break in his command vehicle on the beach. “We’re definitely still at the ‘walk’ phase. We’re not yet running.”

Brown said time spent together at sea, as well as several days doing “dry runs” of ACVs aboard Anchorage staying pierside at Naval Base San Diego, Calif., helped build relationships with ship’s company, including key personnel such as the captain, first lieutenant and deck department. His section leaders are sergeants and staff sergeants with considerable experience operating ACVs and AAVs, the tracked amphibious assault vehicles that will be retired when the Marine Corps fully transitions to the new, eight-wheeled combat vehicle later this decade.

The platoon has logged about 53 days of waterborne operations so far, “so we are highly proficient in the water,” he said.

An ACV with 3d Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division onshore and USS Anchorage (LPD-23) and two Navy safety boats in the water. USNI News Photo

The ACV platoon, which falls under Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division, became the first certified to the Marine Corps’ training and readiness standards, officials said. Next month, they will return to sea with Anchorage and begin pre-deployment training integrated in Battalion Landing Team 2/4, formed around 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, providing the ground combat element of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“After every evolution, I’ve been capturing lessons-learned,” said Capt. Pete Reibe, the commander of Anchorage, which is part of San Diego-based Expeditionary Strike Group 3. “With the new vehicle comes new capabilities, and potentially some new limitations as well.”

“We see ourselves in the leading edge of the new vehicle implementation, and we want to make sure we don’t pass up any opportunity to advance the tactics, techniques and procedures of the blue-green team to take it to the fight,” Reibe told USNI News by phone last week. “That’s what it’s all about – delivering Marines to the fight and making sure we can do it efficiently and effectively. So we take that role very seriously.”

The training was the first time the full ACV platoon did both daytime and nighttime splashing off Anchorage, operating nearby as the ship maneuvered at sea, going ashore and recovering onto the ship’s well-deck. In February, ACV sections trained with the ship at anchor for several days of daytime launch-and-recovery operations. At every evolution “we’re thinking of tactical application. What are we doing? How are we doing this in a contested environment?” Reibe said. “If the ship can’t get that close (to shore), how far can they swim?”

“(We’re) thinking about the next level, to ensure … we can deploy battle-ready and ready for any action the team may see,” he said. While at sea, Anchorage also recovered and launched Navy landing craft and Marine combat rubber-raiding craft with a different infantry battalion.

“There’s certainly increased interest in our return-to-water operations,” added Reibe. He’s briefed Maj. Gen. Roger Turner, the division commander, and Rear Adm. Michael Baze, ESG-3 commander, “to ensure that our training objectives are clear and the plan is known by all and that everyone agrees upon the operations that we’re going to execute out at sea.”

The 1st Marine Division expects to have 100 ACVs by this summer and will transition two of its three AAV companies to the new vehicle by year’s end. “We’ve been on this crawl-walk-run approach as we try to integrate this new platform,” Turner said. The lifting of waterborne restrictions timed with the availability of Anchorage to give the first platoon invaluable time to get ready before it chops to the MEU and begins that busy workup period. “We’re just trying to maximize any time we can get a ship off the coast here, we’re going to get as many reps and sets as we can,” he said.

Col. Philip Laing, the assistant division commander, noted that the ACV Platoon’s waterborne training with Anchorage could have occurred later in the workup cycle but might have detracted from MEU-level training. “They’re setting the exercise framework and training progression on what right looks like, and they’re breaking ground,” Laing said. “We’re learning everyday. How do we integrate with the Navy? What’s the training requirement? What’s the progression? What resources are necessary. How do you organize, train and equip an ACV platoon to support a battalion landing team?”

New Safety Measures

Marines and Sailors offload an amphibious combat vehicle (ACV) with 3d Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division, from amphibious dock landing ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) at Naval Base San Diego, Oct. 21, 2021. US Navy Photo

Three separate investigations into the 2020 sinking that led to the loss of eight Marines and one sailor revealed significant problems and failures at nearly every level of command during that ill-fated shore-to-ship training event. They also highlighted problems from Marines’ and sailors’ inexperience with shipboard amphibious operations, most recently due to the suspension of waterborne shipboard operations and to limited integrated exercises or operations involving Marines and amphibious ships, aside from Marine expeditionary units that deployed with Navy amphibious ready groups.

Since 2020, the Marine Corps and the Navy have revamped training requirements, safety protocols, emergency egress procedures, and both have codified many actions that, in the past, were considered “best practices” but inconsistently applied. Many of these were put into place during the February and March drills with Anchorage, which last year wrapped up a shipyard maintenance period and was able to do the ACV training before the ship begins its pre-deployment training program ahead of its ARG/MEU deployment.

Reibe said he and his leaders “have studied the tragedy very closely and understand how and where things broke down.”

Several key changes are now in place.

As ship’s captain, and per clarified Navy and Marine Corps policies, Reibe makes the call to launch the ACVs and green-lighted their return from shore back to Anchorage. “It’s crystal clear,” he said. “They are required to get permission from me to launch from the beach before commencing a swim out to the ship. There’s been no question on that requirement, and the team has had no problem following that requirement.”

A sailor served as an additional lookout when ACVs were in the water. “We have a lookout that’s posted on the ship, and his or her sole responsibility is to maintain a watchful eye on the ACVs,” he said. “We’ve conducted training with the bridge team and our combat operations center team on monitoring their location, and we tracked them on our ship’s radar system the whole while they’re in the water.”

An Amphibious Combat Vehicle with the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division disembarks the well deck of amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) during waterborne training in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 12, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

Two of his safety boats deployed ahead of the ACVs and remained at sea while the vehicles were in the water, something that wasn’t done in the 2020 mishap. “I launched safety boats from the ship to support the ACVs while they’re swimming, and we’ve increased the comms capabilities of those safety boats so they can maintain communications with the ACVs on their tactical radios,” Reibe said. At least one search-and-rescue swimmer joins the boat crews, who have radios to monitor and communicate on Boat Alpha and Boat Bravo, and can respond if there’s an issues with the vehicles.

Sailors and Marines reviewed safety measures and signals in the event of an emergency. The whole operation, said Reibe, is “controlled. I’m generally on the bridge of the ship for the evolution, where we’re paying close attention to all the details, ensuring we know the status of the crafts and that our safety boats are there.”

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Vickers, 1st Platoon’s third section leader, has spent his his 10-year career around amphibious tractors, operating AAVs and then the ACV with the Amphibious Vehicle Test Branch at Camp Pendleton and deploying to Japan and on ship with the 11th MEU.

“Our platoon has done an extensive amount of training in the water,” Vickers said, with seven iterations at Camp Pendleton’s boat basin before they did shore-to-shore operations along the beach and then the at-sea, integrated operations with Anchorage. “I think their well-deck crew and our Marines are on a really good baseline right now. Everyone understands what has to happen, and that’s enabled us to execute incredibly seamlessly,” he said.

“The more reps we get at it, the better they’re going to be,” he added.

Vickers said he and his section, with their five ACVs, worked “hand in hand” with the ship’s well-deck crew and bosun, boatswain’s mate, talking through procedures and doing debriefs after each mission. “ I think all the future operations with the Anchorage are going to be smoother,” he said, adding “the more time we spend with these guys, the more seamless it’s going to be.”

At-sea Familiarity

Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACVs) with the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division return to the well deck of amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) during waterborne training in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 13, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

The at-sea training gave Anchorage and the ACV platoon more time, compared with the usual integrated, at-sea workups done during the pre-deployment training phase, to get familiar with each other’s capabilities, work through the training plan more closely, and even sort through differences in lingo and procedures like maneuvering the ACVs through the ship’s ramps and stowage decks. The ACVs are heavier and wider than the AAVs.

“It’s been great and just amazing watching the sailors and Marines just integrate and working side-by-side as one unit,” said Lt. Danny Muniz, the ship’s first lieutenant, adding that the at-sea training provided “additional reps and sets helping our well-deck team’s proficiency.”

At a pre-sail brief with ship’s captain days before the at-sea training, Brown went over procedures and no-go criteria, reviewed projected surf conditions and identified possible timeline delays due to weather or conditions. Then they did rehearsals that included scenarios of an ACV losing generator power and got Marines and sailors working through communication procedures, “like what emergency signals do we use?” he said. In an after-action briefing they sorted out how to report the downed vehicle’s location so the ship crew can properly mark which ACV it was in the water. Working through emergency scenarios that could happen, he added, “is preparing us to work together in the future.”

Marine with 3d Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., on March 13, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

The day before the morning launch from Anchorage, Brown met with the captain, ship’s bosun, deck department and combat information center personnel to review the planned operation.

With both services revamping ACV standard operating procedures and manuals on well-deck operations and amphibious operations, the Marines and sailors have worked hard to memorize the changes and “ensure everyone’s on the same page when it comes to operating the ACVs and communications with vehicles and ships. We’re learning a lot together,” said Brown.

When at sea or ashore, he maintained communication with Anchorage. “The ship’s been really good about reaching out to me and being on comm when they say they are going to be,” he said. “So even if they’re 12 nautical miles out to sea, they’ll still be able to hear me. We’ll get in touch with each other early on, and we’ll pass all my personnel counts, what status are my vehicles in … and they’ll know what the modified surf index is at the beach that enables us to splash.”

Integrating with Infantry

Marines with 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) soldiers with 2nd Amphibious Rapid Deployment Regiment receive a safety brief prior to executing amphibious operations during Exercise Iron Fist 2022 at the Del Mar Boat Basin, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 11, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

Another milestone comes in several weeks, when the ACV platoon is integrated and begins waterborne and ship-to-shore operations with embarked infantry Marines from Golf Company, 2/4. The ACV crews had completed their Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation, but Brown said poor sea-state conditions prompted him to call off the amphibious portion of the evaluation, so that will occur at some point during the MEU workups.

Each ACV is crewed by three Marines: the vehicle commander, driver and gunner. The embarked infantry squads won’t just be sitting in the back. Instead of a rear crewman like in the AAV, one infantry Marine in each vehicle will serve as the “rear egress operator” – a new billet in an ACV. Guided by performance evaluation checklists Brown created, the Marines will be “looking at the water trigger lines. They’re the ones informing us what’s going on in the back, and helping folks out of the vehicle if we are in an emergency,” he said. “They have to learn how to do a myriad of things across the vehicle, and they have to learn how to lead folks through the evac egress training as well.”

Every troop commander will be familiar with the ACV’s remote weapons system, cameras and communications equipment that provide better situational awareness than the AAV, Brown said, so they can “look through the screens and see what our weapons are looking at, see where our vehicle is pointing at, and also know how to communicate via the radios and how to egress and lead egress, as well.”

“My biggest goal out of the upcoming training is to have the infantry gain comfortability seeing us do this,” Brown said. “We are trained. I’m fully confident in my crews and my sections and the platoon to execute what we’ve done. Where we’re going to make our money is the infantry knowing that we are capable of doing this, and seeing how the communication is and how we navigate ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship.”

Vickers said the infantry platoons will become more capable from the greater situational awareness while embarked on ACVs that “allows real-time updates” while still in the water during a mission. “The more that we work together, the better we’re going to get,” he said. “They could see what the gun sees, what the driver sees, what the vehicle commander sees,” and be able to listen to the radios in the back and what other vehicles are doing.

Marines Look to Redefine Naval Warfighting as ACV Testing Continues

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – The Marine Corps’ plan to resume waterborne operations with Navy ships takes a big step when assault combat vehicle crews and infantry Marines team up for the next stage of return-to-water training. Marines operated ACVs at sea last month with amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) for two days in […]

Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACVs) with the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division return to the well deck of amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) during waterborne training in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 13, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – The Marine Corps’ plan to resume waterborne operations with Navy ships takes a big step when assault combat vehicle crews and infantry Marines team up for the next stage of return-to-water training.

Marines operated ACVs at sea last month with amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) for two days in what was the first full waterborne and well-deck operation since problems with the vehicle’s tow-rope system prompted an operational pause in August.

This time, Marines in a full platoon of 18 vehicles will put their vehicles through a wide range of training in “daytime, nighttime, in various and different mission profiles. This is all part of our progression to get back to full operational capability of the ACV,” Maj. Gen. Roger Turner told USNI News.

The 1st Marine Division – the West Coast-based infantry command under I Marine Expeditionary Force – has fielded 75 new vehicles so far. The 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, one of the service’s two such battalions, provides platoons of ACV crews and vehicles to Fleet Marine Force units, including battalion landing teams that deploy with sea-going Marine expeditionary units.

“We’ve been building capacity and capability. We’re exercising a very deliberate approach between us and the Navy, because we didn’t do it for so long,” Turner said this week in an interview at his office, referring to the two decades of land-based combat and insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It is a new platform, and we’re learning lessons about the new platform. It’s a very capable platform, but … it’s really the first operational use.“

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Roger Turner in 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

As Marines now focus on operations with the Navy, last month’s training also enabled certification of Anchorage well-deck crews to conduct ACV operations, an important step to ensure smooth and safe launch-and-recovery operations. This week’s training drills will build on that ship-to-shore training and mark a key step to integrate the ship with a full ACV platoon, both of which will train and deploy together with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit for the ACV’s inaugural deployment, Turner said.

As Anchorage’s deck crew gets familiar with ACV operations on ship and at sea, the training let Marines work through their own familiarity with the vehicle, which is replacing older amphibious assault vehicles, and sort through differences compared to the aging AAVs. The tracked AAV maneuvers easily around corners and in turns on an amphibious ship, compared to the ACV. “Since the ACV is wheeled, it can’t do neutral steer,” Turner said. AAVs can quickly pivot by stopping one track and using the other, “and they can just spin inside their own diameter. With a wheeled vehicle, you’ve got to do a three-point turn, at least.”

Turner said he’s excited at the ACV’s capabilities compared to the AAV, with “significant enhancements with mobility, the range it can go, the protection it provides. You’ve got a stabilized weapons platform, amazing comms capabilities.”

The vehicle’s command-and-control system “is amazing. It’s got really good reliability. It’s got really good mobility. It’s got really good protection. It’s got really good lethality, so it’s going to employ differently than the AAV,” he said. “As we build out this first platoon, it’ll really be up to the first MEU to figure out how they’re going to employ it, what they’re going to do with it.”

The ACV “is a pretty significant change from what we’re using, so we’re keen to learn those lessons and all that. Right now, we’re working the mechanics of ship-to-shore and communications, and how do you get it embarked, how does it fit?” he added. Slight differences between the vehicles require different placement of well-deck sailors who use flags to signal ACV crews.

As the ACV platoon begins pre-deployment training and deployment, Marines will have real situations to fine-tune the logistics of operating at sea and aboard ship.

“We’ll really see how to work the supply chain if they end up on a far-flung port,” Turner said. “Can we get the parts to them, can they get the parts to the ship? Can they fix it on the ship? That’ll be the lessons we learn during the initial deployment,” he said, adding, “We want to really get the training piece right first.”

All About ‘Naval Warfighting’

An ACV aboard USS Anchorage on Feb. 12, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

The integrated, return-to-water training came to be following the fatal 2020 sinking of an AAV, which resulted in the deaths of one sailor and eight Marines while returning to ship after a mechanized amphibious raid on San Clemente Island. That mishap halted most blue-green waterborne operations and three separate investigations revealed significant failures and missteps, in addition to gaps in training and standard operating procedures. Investigators and senior commanders noted more and improved integrated training operating at sea are needed to ensure safe waterborne operations.

That’s critical as both services press on with integrated training, in line with the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, the chief of naval operations’ Distributed Maritime Operations concept, the National Defense Strategy and other concepts. Marine Corps commanders have been renewing relationships with gray-hull captains and ship crews, focused on future missions for the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations in the maritime environment, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.

“We really talk about naval integration, but we’ve kind of advanced that concept a little bit. It’s really about naval warfighting,” said Turner. “Integration almost denotes that you’re still separate but you work together, as opposed to being seamlessly tied.”

The two-star general sees the relationship with Expeditionary Strike Group 3, U.S. 3rd Fleet and ships as “really just the naval war fight. Integration is the requirement, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to be good at naval warfighting.”

“It’s really just a mindset shift between us and our Navy counterparts. This is a combined Navy force that is going to work together to accomplish objectives of the fleet commander. Some of that is land-ward, some of that is sea-ward,” Turner said. “But we’re kind of agnostic as to who does what part. How do you do naval warfighting against a peer-level adversary that has the ability to contest some of the domains so effectively?”

“It’s really how do you do naval warfighting against a peer adversary in a multi-domain fight. I think the answers to that are what we’re developing everywhere – not just here and at 3rd Fleet but across the naval services – to be more effective as we re-envision the fight that we could encounter,” he added.

The Division’s Role

U.S. Marines with Golf Co., 2d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (2/5), 1st Marine Division, run on-off drills aboard USS Tripoli (LHA-7), Feb. 22, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

“The first imperative is being able to fight a peer adversary,” Turner said of the 1st Marine Division, whose infantry, artillery and fire control units give I MEF its ground combat power.

That’s a different problem set than what Marines encountered in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Global War on Terror. “That’s what the nation needed us to do, and we went and did it. The Marines performed brilliantly at that stuff over the last 25 years and folks take a lot of pride in what we’ve done over that time,” he said.

Today’s big threat comes from the return to great power competition, with “a resurgence of multiple peer adversaries in the world… who have the capability and capacity to challenge us,” he said. That requires the Division adjust its capabilities to fight a peer-level adversary in the multi-domain fight – “that’s space, cyber, land, air and maritime. Can you compete and win at all echelons against a peer-level adversary?”

“Can we create a competitive advantage against a peer adversary in a multi-domain fight? A couple of years ago, I don’t think we had fully embraced what that would be like. So it’s forced us to change tactics, techniques and procedures, because there’s things you can get away with when you’re fighting” in insurgency and stability operations “that you can’t get away with in a peer fight. You don’t throw out all the experience you’ve gained from Iraq and Afghanistan, but you have to re-image what’s going to be successful in fighting a peer adversary.”

Eventually, “you continue to improve yourself, peer versus peer in a multi-domain fight. Then you start to think about how you might compete with in that sort of a conflict with our naval counterparts,” he added. “How do this as a combined naval force against a peer adversary in a multi-domain fight?”

The Marine Corps’ vision for fighting in the future calls for smaller units operating on the move hopping from island to island. Refining the concepts been a big goal in 1st Marine Division’s annual Steel Knight exercises.

Training in Mind

Marine Corps Cpl. Mason Partlow, a mortarman with 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division (1st MARDIV), observes a mortar impact zone during Exercise Steel Knight 22 (SK-22) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec. 9, 2021. US Marine Corps Photo

Steel Knight is the Division’s annual large-scale exercise that replicates the large, distributed operational environment envisioned in regional war plans. While the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in the Mojave desert has hosted much of the training, in recent years officials have expanded training to include more integrated naval operations in contested space scenarios.

In December 2020, the Division incorporated more naval elements into Steel Knight with San Diego-based Expeditionary Strike Group 3 in a parallel exercise, Dawn Blitz. “We learned a lot of good lessons in Steel Knight ’21,” Turner said. Officials realized “we’re still not where we need to be… so we totally turned all of our focus to the naval warfighting piece” as they planned for Steel Knight ’22, held in December 2021.

During that month-long exercise, Marine Corps and Navy leaders came together at Expeditionary Training Group Pacific in Coronado, Calif., in a simulation of a major operational war plan. “That was really good for us,” he said. It provided a framework for the thousands of Marines and sailors training at multiple locations, including San Clemente Island, Fort Hunter Liggett, Twentynine Palms and aboard ship.

Turner said a key lesson was identifying at what level and where a single, Marine-Navy staff is needed, rather than having separate staffs working nearby with service liaisons. “We found that at certain levels, you just had to be one unit,” he said. “It’s not effective to be adjacent. You really need to actually combine together.”

Division Takes Aussie Lead

Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Evan Blaskowski, an infantry officer with Kilo Company, 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division (1st MARDIV), observes a target during Exercise Steel Knight 22 (SK-22) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec. 8, 2021. US Marine Corps Photo

Steel Knight ’22 also enabled 1st Marine Division to certify units deploying this month as part of Marine Rotational Forces-Darwin.

While I MEF units had deployed to support those rotations overseen by a command element from III MEF, now I MEF is in charge of the mission and MRF-Darwin rotations, taking over that mission from Japan-based III MEF. This month, 5th Marine Regiment will deploy a command element to lead the air-ground force.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a colonel-level warfighting headquarters” deploying to Australia, Turner said, noting it includes staffing capabilities in logistics, intelligence and maneuver fires.

“Along with the regimental headquarters, the Division this year will send engineers and artillery crews to join III MEF units to round out the roughly 2,500-member force. I think the vision is for it to be an increasingly a I MEF show,” he said.

The Division picks up the Australia rotation just after completing support to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force rotations in U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command. The Marine Corps quietly ended those units last August.

Marine units rotate into Australia for six months, to avoid the monsoonal weather. “The actual composition of the force is going to vary. It’s a similar purpose-built capability we will deploy there,” with a focus on bilateral and multilateral training “that allows us to get closer with our Australian counterparts and work with them in any sort of a multilateral environment,” Turner said. “We are super excited about this.”

During Steel Knight, 5th Marines was certified to deploy as MRF-Darwin, and “we trained in a lot of the emerging concepts” of EABO and other goals of Force Design 2030, he said. “Now that we are starting to see Force Design capabilities actually arrive, we have a pretty clear sight picture” of what those will add for the next iterations of Steel Knight and Darwin rotations. “We want to have the command-and-control figured out before the new equipment arrives,” he added.

Pride at Abbey Gate

U.S. service members killed in the Aug. 26, 2021 attack outside the Kabul Airport in Afghanistan as identified by their family members. USNI News Photo Graphic

Turner, who commanded Regimental Combat Team 5 during an Afghanistan deployment, took command of the 22,000-member 1st Marine Division in September 2020. Last month, during 1st Marine Division’s Colors Ceremony at Camp Pendleton, he reflected on the unit’s storied history and thought about the actions of Division members including, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, in the chaotic, final days of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.

Drone footage from the Aug. 26, 2021, deadly attack shows Marines running at full-speed toward the gate, right after a huge explosion happened at Abbey Gate leading into Kabul International Airport. A suicide bomber in the packed crowd trying to reach the airfield detonated explosives that killed 13 U.S. troops – 11 Marines, a Navy corpsman and a soldier – a recent Defense Department investigation determined. Initial reports had indicated the suicide attack was part of a complex attack, with additional bombers or gunmen attacking quick-reaction forces and first-responders, but the investigation found it was a lone bomber.

“It’s a really amazing contrast to see thousands of people running away from the blast and you see 50 Marines running as fast as they could in full kit in August to get to the blast scene,” Turner told USNI News. “I’ve been involved in suicide bombings before. Everybody knows now there was only one bomber. But those Marines didn’t know that. Normally bombers come in multiples. So they’re running at full speed to the blast scene not knowing what’s next.”

“What they showed was just incredible,” he said. “We’re just incredibly proud of them. I think it represents the type of units that we produce.”

Marines’ ACV Resume Water Operations from USS Anchorage After Operational Pause

Marines put their amphibious combat vehicles out to sea over the weekend in a resumption of waterborne and well-deck operations with Navy ships, ending a five-month pause after problems arose with the ACV’s tow-rope system. The two-day training operation in the open ocean with transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) off Camp Pendleton, Calif., marked […]

Marines assigned to the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division, conduct waterborne training with an Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) from shore to loading amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 12, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

Marines put their amphibious combat vehicles out to sea over the weekend in a resumption of waterborne and well-deck operations with Navy ships, ending a five-month pause after problems arose with the ACV’s tow-rope system.

The two-day training operation in the open ocean with transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) off Camp Pendleton, Calif., marked the services’ return to full, joint, waterborne operations with the Marine Corps’ newest amphibious craft. That halt came after several instances last summer where tow ropes broke as Marines were towing vehicles through the surf.

“The ACV demonstrated its survivability, maneuverability and robust swim capabilities by participating in a series of open-ocean swims” between the ship and Camp Pendleton’s training beaches, Marine Corps officials said in a news release Tuesday. Crews with 3rd Assault Amphibious Battalion, 1st Marine Division, and Anchorage sailors launched and recovered vehicles from the ship’s well deck.

“The priority now for the ACV program is to get these vehicles into the hands of Marine Corps units so we can train and become proficient with their capabilities,” the commandant, Gen. David Berger, said in the release.

The Marine Corps is counting on the advanced capabilities of the ACV to replace the existing, aging fleet of tracked, amphibious assault vehicles and bolster the service’s warfighting ability in future conflicts.

“As we strengthen naval warfighting as a force and pivot to operating in a contested littoral environment, conducting safe, realistic training on this platform advances our ability to respond swiftly to global threats in austere maritime conditions,” Maj. Gen. Roger Turner, who commands the 1st Marine Division, said in the statement. “The Amphibious Combat Vehicle is purpose-built to provide expeditionary lethality for Marines on the move.”

The ACV, “combined with L-class ships and the light amphibious warship are critical programs that afford us the ability to move forces around. The Marine Corps’ role is a forward force. This organic mobility is crucial to operate as a forward-deployed, stand-in force,” Berger added.

The eight-wheeled armored vehicles’ return to ocean and shipboard operations came after the pause due to the towing glitch that temporarily shelved training and well-deck operations with the Navy’s amphibious ships. That blue-green integration had degraded further after the Marine Corps’ separate decision to suspend most waterborne operations involving the AAV following the fatal July 2020 sinking of an AAV off San Clemente Island, Calif. In December 2021, the service issued a ban on AAV water operations.

Marines assigned to the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division conduct waterborne training with Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACV) aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) in the Pacific Ocean, on Feb. 13, 2022. US Navy Photo

That mishap happened as AAVs with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were returning to transport dock USS Somerset (LPD-25) following an amphibious mechanized raid at the start of PHIBRON-MEU Integration Training, a critical, “blue-green” predeployment event with the three ships of the USS Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group led by San Diego-based Amphibious Squadron 3.

The weekend training “focused on the safety and ship-to-shore capabilities for both the Marine Corps and Navy, as part of a larger training plan to refine tactics and doctrine for amphibious operations,” Expeditionary Strike Group 3 officials said in a news release. For the Feb. 12-13 training, “Anchorage and designated safety boats remained in close proximity of the ACVs throughout the entirety of the amphibious operations, ensuring safety in all aspects of training.”

“The safety of our Marines and sailors is a top priority, especially as we continue to test the capabilities of the newest Marine Corps platform,” Rear Adm. Wayne Baze, ESG-3’s commander, said in the statement. “The sailors and Marines involved have received extensive training on operation of the craft, providing the Navy and Marine Corps team the opportunity to rehearse together for real-world events.”

“This underway period is a true testament of the rigorous training our Sailors and Marines are doing to prepare for ACV waterborne operations,” said Baze. “They spend countless hours preparing, which is evident in the professional manner in which they conducted themselves throughout this evolution. I could not be more proud of each and every one of them.”
Berger noted that the ACV, “combined with L-class ships and the light amphibious warship are critical programs that afford us the ability to move forces around. The Marine Corps’ role is a forward force. This organic mobility is crucial to operate as a forward-deployed, stand-in force.”

To date, the Marine Corps has fielded 90 ACVs, with 72 vehicles operating with Fleet Marine Force units and 18 at Assault Amphibian School at Camp Pendleton, Maj. James Stenger, a service spokesman, told USNI News.

Report to Congress on Marines’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle

The following is the Dec. 13, 2021, Congressional Research Service In Focus report, The Marine Corps’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV). From the report There are currently four ACV variants planned: (1) a Personnel Variant, which can carry three crew members with 13 Marines and two days of combat equipment and supplies; (2) a Command and […]

The following is the Dec. 13, 2021, Congressional Research Service In Focus report, The Marine Corps’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV).

From the report

There are currently four ACV variants planned:

  • (1) a Personnel Variant, which can carry three crew members with 13 Marines and two days of combat equipment and supplies;
  • (2) a Command and Control Variant;
  • (3) a Recovery Variant; and
  • (4) a 30-mm Gun Variant. The Marines intend for the ACV to provide effective land and tactical water mobility (ship-to-shore and shore-to-shore), precise supporting fires, and high levels of force protection intended to protect against blasts, fragmentation, and kinetic energy threats.

Current Program Status 

In June 2018, the ACV entered Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) with BAE Systems selected for the first 30 vehicles to be delivered in fall 2019. In November 2020, the ACV achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC). In December 2020, a Full-Rate Production (FRP) decision was reportedly made by the Marine Corps after having been delayed from September 2020 due to issues related to Coronavirus Disease 2019. The current planned acquisition objective of 632 ACVs would replace AAVs in Assault Amphibian battalions. The previous acquisition objective of 1,122 ACVs was reduced in accordance with Marine Corps Force Design 2030 modernization efforts (see CRS Insight IN11281, New U.S. Marine Corps Force Design Initiatives, by Andrew Feickert). Reportedly, ACV production is to take place at BAE Systems facilities in Virginia, California, Michigan, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Initial Operational Testing Observations 

During Marine Corps initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) conducted from June to September 2020, the Department of Defense Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) noted the following:

The ACV demonstrated water mobility and the ability to self-deploy from the beach, cross the surf zone, enter the ocean, and embark aboard amphibious shipping. The infantry rifle company equipped with the ACV was able to deploy from amphibious shipping, maneuver on the beach, and conduct subsequent offensive and defensive operations ashore.

While the ACV demonstrated good operational availability and maintainability during IOT&E, it did not meet its 69-hour mean time between operational mission failures (MTBOMF) threshold. The government-furnished Remote Weapons System (RWS)—an internally controlled, exterior-mounted MK 19 automatic grenade launcher or M2 .50 caliber heavy machine gun was the source of the largest number of operational mission failures (OMFs). The government-furnished RWS reliability issue was reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2019.

The ACV accommodated three crew and 13 embarked infantry. Due to the placement and number of blast mitigating seats, interior space within the ACV is limited, making rapid ingress and egress difficult.

Infantry Marines noted that the troop seats were not contoured to fit body armor configurations, leading to discomfort during long range ship-to-objective missions.

Reportedly, the Marines initiated corrective actions after the DOT&E report was published. In September 2021, the Marines suspended amphibious use of the ACV due to towing mechanism problems. In November 2021, the Marines began testing modifications to the towing mechanism in order to resume amphibious operations once the problem is repaired.

Download document here.

Top Stories 2020: Marine Corps Operations

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes […]

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Austin McBain, a fire support specialist with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) Information Group, monitors a radio during exercise Summer Fury 20 in Yuma, Ariz., on July 14, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes in how the service would operate and equip itself. No longer would the Marine Corps be a service schlepping around tanks for sustained ground operations; rather, it would be light and mobile, using small ships to maneuver around islands and shorelines to attack an adversary from all angles and challenge their ability to track and target the small and on-the-move units.

And Berger didn’t stop at just releasing the plan: divestments are starting, new units are forming, wargames and exercises are reflecting new concepts of operations.

“In my professional opinion, we have to change. We have to move out now,” Berger told lawmakers recently.

Force Design 2030

U.S. Marines with Charlie Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, fire an M98A2 Javelin guided missile system during a field-fire demonstration as part of the Anti-Tank Missileman Course at Range 204B on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 22, 2020. ITB trains, develops and certifies Marines as riflemen, as well as their primary military occupational specialty within the infantry field, before sending them to join the Fleet Marine Force. US Marine Corps photo.

Berger released Force Design 2030 in March, laying out the first iteration of his vision of what the Marines needed to morph into to be successful in the future: a focus on maritime campaigning; close integration with the Navy, especially in sea control and sea denial missions; an emphasis on small units that could maneuver around islands and shorelines and bring with them logistics, anti-ship missiles, surveillance equipment, or whatever else the joint force needed dispersed throughout the battlespace.

In some ways, this vision was a culmination of everything the Marines had been working towards: many of the concepts relied on using the KC-130J on expeditionary runways and using the F-35B’s vertical takeoff and landing capabilities to get into remote areas. But in some ways it was wholly new: no longer would the Marines conducting these island-hopping missions start out aggregated on an amphibious warship, drop out the back of the well deck in a connector and then move ashore for operations; instead, the concept would rely on Marines on small ships that don’t exist today, such as a Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) that is habitable for the crew for longer durations of time but can also directly beach themselves to put Marines ashore.

The release of Force Design 2030 wasn’t the end of the effort, but rather the beginning of a massive wargaming, modeling and simulation, and live exercise bonanza that will stretch into next year.

U.S. Marines with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, traverse through water during an amphibious assault exercise, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, May 28, 2020. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, and Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, conducted an amphibious assault exercise and military operations in urban terrain to increase littoral mobility proficiency in 3d Marine Regiment and advance the goals of the Commandant of the Marine Corps 2030 Force Design. US Marine Corps photo.

So far, the first Marine Littoral Regiment was stood up in Hawaii to start experimenting with things like long-range ground-based anti-ship missiles, as well as either LAW prototypes or surrogates to start understanding what operations might look like with these new units and new capabilities. The service also entered into Phase III of the Force Design effort, described as a “campaign of learning approach” where teams will basically stress test the plan as it exists today by asking difficult questions of it and seeking answers through wargaming and experimentation. Much of this learning will culminate in a massive 2021 Large Scale Exercise that will involve multiple carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups and will focus on the new operating concepts: Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO).

Though much is still to be learned through the ongoing campaign of learning, Berger is sure enough that they’re heading in the right direction to call for a restructure of Marine forces in the Pacific, to spread out beyond hubs in Japan and South Korea. While deterring China in the Pacific is his main focus now, later experimentation may look at creating alternate unit formations better tailored to challenging Russia in the North Atlantic, for example.

Of course, this is all coming at a time when defense budgets are expected to be flat or declining, so Berger said all along that he’d create a plan that the Marine Corps could pay for within its current topline. To do so, the service has taken a “divest to invest” strategy, announcing that “by the year 2030, the Marine Corps will see complete divestments of Law Enforcement Battalions, Tank Battalions and associated Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), and all Bridging Companies. Additionally, the Corps will reduce the number of infantry battalions from 24 to 21; artillery cannon batteries from 21 to 5; amphibious vehicle companies from 6 to 4; and reduce tilt rotor, attack, and heavy lift squadrons.” A further review would be conducted to see if the aviation reductions – specifically, limiting F-35 squadrons to just 10 aircraft each instead of 16 – should lead to a reduction in the planned buy from contractor Lockheed Martin.

F-35 Operations

F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and the 617 Squadron sit on the flight deck aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on Oct. 6. 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was among the best examples this year of the Marines pivoting in stride and refocusing towards Berger’s vision. Though fielding the F-35B and C jets has been decades in the making for the Marine Corps, ongoing F-35B and nascent F-35C activities this year nested well into the priorities of Force Design.

After spending 2019 learning how to incorporate the vertical takeoff and landing F-35B into the Marines’ island-hopping EABO concept, they took it a step further this year: incorporating the carrier-based F-35C into those plans.

The Marines’ first F-35Cs began flowing into Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., in late January to support Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, the first squadron to transition to the next generation of carrier-based Marine aviation. In March the squadron was certified “safe for flight,” meaning they could train on their own without the supervision of the fleet replacement squadron, and earlier this month the squadron reached initial operational capability. Among the first things the squadron did after achieving IOC: demonstrating the ability to quickly rearm and refuel at expeditionary land bases, a centerpiece of EABO that will allow the Marines to stray far from their aircraft carriers and conduct stealthy missions on behalf of the joint force.

U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 and Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conduct a new expeditionary landing demonstration with M-31 arresting gear Interim Flight Clearance (IFC), on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Noting an expected deployment in late 2021 aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Maj. Robert Ahern, a pilot with VMFA-314, explained the urgency of the expeditionary landing and refueling, saying that as early as next year “we may be called upon to execute expeditionary advanced base operations. We need to be able to do this. This is something that hasn’t been done yet with the F-35C.”

A second tenet of future military concepts that the Marines’ F-35 community has focused on this year is interoperability and close collaboration with allies. In September, the “Wake Island Avengers” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 flew to the United Kingdom to begin training ahead of a joint deployment aboard aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). The U.S. Marines and their U.K. counterparts conducted a group exercise and participated in NATO exercise Joint Warrior off Scotland.

“With a total of 14 jets and eight Merlin helicopters, it’s the largest concentration of fighter jets to operate at sea from a Royal Navy carrier since HMS Hermes in 1983, and the largest air group of fifth generation fighters at sea anywhere in the world,” the Royal Navy said at the time.

VMFA-211 will deploy with Queen Elizabeth in the spring.

Major Events

Recruits with Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, wait in line at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, Sept. 22, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic – and the relative ease of blue-water navy exercises compared to the greater precautions needed for amphibious warfare and other ashore training drills – the Marines kept busy this year around the world.

Perhaps most challenging was the rotational deployment to Darwin, Australia, which was put on hold in March due to the growing pandemic.

In May, the service announced it would resume its annual rotational deployment after Australia agreed to grant an exemption to its COVID-19 travel restrictions. The Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) would involve about 1,200 Marines – just half the originally planned 2,500, due to COVID – who would train in the Northern Australia region. All were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Australia, with COVID tests being given at the beginning and at the end of the quarantine period.

Though a smaller group than originally planned, with no manned aviation assets deploying this year – but some unmanned aircraft for intelligence-gathering – the group worked with their Australian counterparts on increased interoperability in command-and-control, fire support coordination and aviation planning.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. David Reece, a joint terminal attack controller with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, looks over his notes during Exercise Iron Fist 2020 on San Clemente Island, California on Feb. 6, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Prior to the pandemic, the annual bilateral Iron Fist exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., took place in January and February to help improve the capability of Japan’s first Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which stood up in 2019 and will reach full capability next spring. About 310 Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers came to California to operate off USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52) and USS Portland (LPD-27), with an emphasis on infantry, amphibious assault vehicle, reconnaissance and medical training.

Japan established the ARDB to better position its self-defense forces to thwart off and defend incursions into its 3,000-plus islands — particularly in the southwest, including the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Later in the year, Marines out of California were involved in fighting historic wildfires up and down the West Coast. In September Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 deployed to support the aerial firefighting mission on the Slink Fire, which spread onto training areas of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Yosemite National Park. Later in the month, 7th Engineer Support Battalion under 1st Marine Logistics Group at Camp Pendleton was trained for ground firefighting and divided into strike teams that would be paired with a corpsman and an experienced professional firefighter. The Marines ended up at the August Complex Fire, where they were given extra responsibilities such as protecting a helicopter landing pad from the encroaching fire.

Accidents and Safety

Marine Corps AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicle driver with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, drives an AAV-P7/A1 up the well deck ramp of the amphibious landing dock USS Somerset (LPD 25) during training to increase Navy-Marine Corps interoperability in the eastern Pacific on July 27, 2020. US Navy Photo

Eight Marines and a sailor died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank off the coast of California on July 31.

Fifteen Marines and a sailor from 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were aboard the AAV that had been training on San Clemente Island and then swam into the water to return to USS Somerset (LPD-25). They reported taking on water, and while eight Marines were recovered immediately – one of whom was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly afterwards – seven Marines and the sailor were still missing.

Submarine support ship HOS Dominator was brought in the next day to assist in the search and rescue, and the Marine Corps paused all AAV operations. By Aug. 2, the Marine Corps declared the missing men presumed dead and transitioned to a recovery operation.

The sunken AAV and human remains were located on Aug. 4 and recovered Aug. 8.

Two investigations were launched – a Naval Safety Center Investigation and a Command/Line of Duty Investigation – and Commandant Berger said at a recent hearing that the command investigation was nearing its conclusion but that it hadn’t reached his desk yet. Still, in October the commander of the battalion landing team was relieved of command.

A Marine KC-130 crash lands in California Sept. 29, 2020.

In Marine Corps aviation, a KC-130 and a F-35B collided in air on Sept. 29 during a mid-air refueling. The F-35B pilot safely ejected. In a feat of fantastic flying, the KC-130 pilot from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 352 lost two engines, had a potential fire onboard, had just partial control of the aircraft, and yet landed safely in a farm field and saved all Marines onboard.

An MV-22B Osprey belonging to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, was extensively damaged while parked at a general aviation airfield near the U.S.-Mexico border. While the aircraft was unattended, a skydiving plane rolled into it, damaging the left engine compartment, wing and landing gear and both propellers.

Marine MV-22B Osprey after being struck by a Twin Otter skydiving plane on May 30, 2020. City of San Diego Photo

In March, two Marine Raiders were killed in northern Iraq while supporting Iraqi Security Forces in the fight against ISIS.

In July, an early morning shooting at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., temporarily locked down the training grounds. After investigating, police determined a Marine died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.