The injured Marines were taken to area hospitals for treatment. The incident took place during what the Marine Corps described as a “combat readiness evaluation.”
“The accident is under investigation,” 1st Lt. Paul Gainey, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, told The Daily Beast. “The facts haven’t been confirmed.”
But the incident has cast a spotlight on a controversial but, to the general public, little-known Marine weapon system. The Marines at Pendleton were traveling in a four-decade-old Amphibious Assault Vehicle when the fire broke out. The Marines call the AAV an “amphibious tractor”—“amtrac” for short.
The Marines have been trying, without success, to replace the AAV for 20 years. With every year that passes, the waterborne armored vehicle becomes more vulnerable, less reliable, and potentially more accident-prone.
Since the 1970s, the AAV has been the Marines’ main method of traveling sea to land. Twenty-four feet long and weighing nearly 30 tons, the tracked AAV looks like a tall, nose-heavy tank, minus the large gun turret.
Unlike a tank, the AAV is thinly armored and mostly empty on the inside. Its main role is amphibious assault. As many as 21 Marine troops, plus three crew, can pack into a single AAV. Transported to within 20 miles of an enemy shore aboard Navy ships, swarms of AAVs can “swim” like boats at speeds up to eight miles per hour on water.
On land, their tracks can propel them as fast at 40 miles per hour. The idea is that an AAV will get its Marine squads safely to shore and over the beach, then drop them off. But it’s unclear whether the AAV is still up to the job. Forty years, after all, is a long time for a combat vehicle to perform a front-line role.
While enemy defenses have grown more sophisticated over the decades, the AAV—with a few caveats—has not done so. “The AAV is viewed as having limitations in water speed, land mobility, lethality, protection and network capability,” the Government Accountability Office reported in 2015.
The Marines learned that the hard way during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In March 2003, a convoy of AAVs was transporting Marines into the city of Nasiriya when a Marine captain mistakenly ordered an airstrike on the convoy.
U.S. Air Force jets strafed the amtracs, quickly destroying seven of the vehicles and killing 18 Marines. The Corps determined that Iraqi fire might have been responsible for some of the deaths.
Two years later in August 2005, an insurgent IED destroyed an AAV near Haditha Dam in Iraq, killing 14 Marines.
The Marines began developing a replacement for the AAV in the 1990s. Compared to the AAV, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was high-tech, heavily armored, and upgunned. But it was also staggeringly expensive, costing no less than $14 billion for just a few hundred vehicles. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the new vehicle in 2011.
Today the Corps is considering several much less sophisticated vehicles as partial replacements for the AAV. But hundreds of the ancient amtracs will probably soldier on into the 2030s, by which time they’ll be no less than 60 years old.
The Marines have upgraded the AAVs’ engines, armor and suspensions, but the vehicles are still old, vulnerable, and unreliable. Asked about the worst aspects of his job on the social-media platform Reddit, one Marine AAV technician described performing “8ish hours [of] maintenance for 1 hour operating.”
The AAV has been involved in a disturbing number of accidents in recent years. A Marine died when his amtrac sank in the Pacific Ocean near Camp Pendleton in 2011. Two years later, an AAV crew member died when an explosive mine-clearing device malfunctioned inside the vehicle. In 2015, 22 Marines were hurt when a fire-suppression system inside an AAV accidentally went off.
Not all of the accidents are the AAV’s fault. Nor is it clear the Sept. 13 amtrac fire can be blamed on the aged vehicle. “I would be very surprised if this has anything to do with the age of the vehicle or any maintenance issues inside the Marine Corps,” Dan Grazier, a former Marine officer who is now an analyst with the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C., told The Daily Beast. “These vehicles run on a form of diesel fuel which does not generally just go up in flames.”
Grazier said he suspected a munition misfire was to blame for the fire. “This is really just speculation on my part,” he stressed.
But the GAO left no room for doubt when it declared the AAV “increasingly difficult to maintain and sustain.” In that regard, the vehicle has plenty of company. In 2017, the Marines have suffered a spate of air crashes that are at least partially attributable to old and worn-out planes.
It’s possible that an old, unsafe vehicle is at fault in the Sept. 13 accident. It’s also possible that a Marine made a mistake with some munition. Bad luck might also be to blame. “The investigation should answer all of these questions,” Grazier said.