POOR RELIABILITY PUTS EXPEDITIONARY FIGHTING VEHICLE IN JEOPARDY

October 2, 2006

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The Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle failed to meet reliability requirements in recent operational tests, putting the $12.6 billion program in jeopardy, according to government and industry sources tracking the issue.

The vehicle's initial operational capability, now scheduled for fiscal year 2010, could be delayed by two years or longer, provided officials extend the development phase to improve the reliability, the sources told Inside the Navy. The EFV is built by General Dynamics.

Defense Department acquisition executive Kenneth Krieg is slated to meet this week with other officials to discuss the fate of the program in the fiscal year 2008 budget. Killing the program might be discussed as an option, but termination is an unlikely outcome, said a Pentagon source.

Rising costs will probably make the program run further afoul of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, sources said. Depending on the magnitude of the cost increase, DOD may be legally required to decide between terminating the program and officially justifying its continuation.

Earlier this year, DOD was required to notify Congress when the EFV program cost rose more than 30 percent compared to the original baseline estimate.

Any new delay would be on top of a recent decision to dramatically reduce the number of Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles slated for purchase. In their FY-08 budget proposal to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Navy and Marine Corps officials slashed the program's production goal by 43 percent, from a total of 1,013 amphibious assault vehicles to as few as 578. ITN first reported plans for this cut in June. The proposed budget would buy no EFVs in FY-08, sources said.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon resisted calls from the Government Accountability Office to extend the development phase of the program. But the latest revelations about the vehicle's poor reliability have shown the vehicle is too immature to graduate on schedule to the next phase, known as low-rate production.

The last test for the operational assessment was conducted in August; officials are in the process of assembling a report.

The vehicle has a key performance parameter of 43.5 hours for its mean time between operational mission failures, but during the tests this figure was only in the "single digits," said a Pentagon source. In addition, groups of vehicles proved largely unable to perform 12.5-hour mission profiles, the source said.

Such problems led the Marine Corps last month to contact lawmakers who were wrapping up the conference agreement for the FY-07 defense appropriations bill. The Marine Corps made a last-minute entreaty to appropriators asking them to shift the program's funding to the research and development account, said government and industry sources. In return, the Marine Corps offered to give up $111 million of the funding requested for the program, the sources said.

Jenny Manley, a spokeswoman for Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, confirmed the adjustments were made at the Marine Corps' request. Of the total $266 million in the budget request for EFV procurement, conferees moved $155 million into EFV R&D and applied the remaining $111 million to other priorities, "specifically at request of the Marine Corps," she said. This is why the summary of the bill issued by the committee says conferees fully funded the program, she explained.

The $155 million may be used to buy seven new vehicles that would be outfitted with numerous changes intended to improve reliability, sources said. These vehicles would go through more testing. Officials may also consider rehabilitating a few of the existing vehicles, which have suffered heavy wear in testing.

But previous plans to enter low-rate production as soon as December will likely be postponed, sources said.

In the meantime, the Pentagon is expected to assemble a panel of some sort to review the program. This would be different from the initial group of stakeholders that is slated to discuss the program with Krieg.

In February, at a breakfast with reporters, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee described the capabilities envisioned for the vehicle.

"Yes, it's going to be able to come from 30 miles at sea at speeds that are unbelievable," he said. "But it's a tremendous vehicle ashore also. Today, right now, except with a couple of minor exceptions, we don't have a good vehicle that can operate on a contaminated battlefield. . . . The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle can in fact do that."

Without such a vehicle, the service would have to buy more bridging equipment to traverse rivers, he said.

At press time (Sept. 29), a spokesman for General Dynamics did not return a reporter's phone calls. -- Christopher J. Castelli