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Why Ancient Equipment Led to Nine Servicemember Deaths

Featured Image: An Assault Amphibious Vehicle of the U.S. Marines, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Convoy, conduct a simulated amphibious assault during exercise BALTOPS 2017, Latvia. DoD Photo Released.

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In Military, InCyberDefense and In Space News. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.

After the tragic deaths of eight Marines and one sailor in a training accident, it’s time to take a hard look at the 50-year-old vehicle they were riding in.

Doing more with less has always been a time-honored tradition in the military. Sure, the United States military is the best-fed, best-equipped fighting force on the planet. Still, a $686 billion military budget doesn’t always guarantee that the right equipment will get to the troops who need it.

Serving in the Army infantry at the start of the Global War on Terror, we would often ride around in the Kennedy-era M113 armored personnel carrier. The M113 first came into service in 1960!

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However, one key difference between the Army and the Marine Corps, land-based versus amphibious-based operations, guaranteed that my M113 would never sink if it broke down.

US Marines Are the World’s Preeminent Amphibious Attack Force

Working closely with the U.S. Navy, the Marine Corps has been bringing the fight to America’s enemies since 1775. Some of the Marines’ most brutal fighting occurred in the World War II island-hopping campaigns of the Pacific theater.

Their central role against the Imperial Japanese Army sharpened both their amphibious skills and their resolve to always be the most lethal expeditionary weapon in America’s holster.

So What Happened During This Training Accident?

On July 30, 2020, a total of 15 Marines and one sailor were involved in a training accident. It occurred inside an amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) during a 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group routine training exercise near San Clemente Island in California.

A week later, the Marine Corps identified the servicemembers who were killed in the accident. All of them were between the ages of 18 and 23 years old.

The vehicle they were riding in, the Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV), has been in service since 1972 and is continually refurbished. This accident marks the third time in recent years that Camp Pendleton Marines have been injured or died in amphibious assault vehicles during training exercises.

At sea aboard USS Juneau (LPD 10) Sep. 12, 2002 — An Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) attached to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is launched from the well deck of the Juneau and makes its way to the beach during Blue-Green Workups. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist Seaman J.J. Hewitt. (RELEASED)

In this case, survivors reported that the AAV began taking on water. Other AAVs close by attempted to help but were unable to stop the craft from sinking.

Today, the craft rests under hundreds of feet of water too deep for divers. The Navy and the Coast Guard are working on ways to access the interior of the vehicle.

Ancient Equipment for the Marine Corps Is Still Being Replaced

The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) was designed to replace the aging AAV. The EFV is able to transport a full Marine rifle squad from an amphibious assault ship beyond the horizon to shore, with three times the AAV’s speed in water and about twice the AAV’s armor.

The EFV was intended for deployment in 2015. However, United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans to cancel the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle in January 2011. In 2012, the USMC dropped the EFV and canceled the program.

In June 2018, the Marine Corps announced they had selected the BAE Systems/Iveco wheeled SuperAV for the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) program to supplement and ultimately replace the AAV. However, it will take years before all the aging AAVs are replaced.

Marine Corps Has Suspended AAV Waterborne Use Until the Accident’s Cause Is Determined

For the time being, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said the search was continuing while he was suspending waterborne operations of all of its more than 800 amphibious assault vehicles across the branch until the cause of the accident is determined. He said the move was out of “an abundance of caution.”

We owe it to the men and women who volunteer to defend the nation, in good faith that the military will take care of them, to provide them with weapons and vehicles that can be depended upon in combat.

There is a lesson in every tragedy. The lesson here is to keep our men and women equipped with the best gear that a democracy can provide.

They make an oath to defend us and sacrifice their lives if need be. Our oath to them should be one that guarantees that they and their families will never have to worry about riding into battle in ancient vehicles or outdated weapon systems.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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