High Flier

Gen. James Amos is the first fighter pilot to lead the Marine Corps.

James Amos is the first fighter pilot to lead the Marine Corps.

When new numbers charting the performance of the Pentagon's latest and most expensive warplane recently flashed across the special computer screen installed next to his desk, Marine Corps Gen. James Amos was relieved and delighted.

"The metrics," as Amos calls them, showed that the gap between the aircraft's weight and its engine thrust had nearly tripled. "The margin is growing, which is good. That's exactly where we want it to go," he said during an interview in July at his office in the Pentagon's E-Ring. It would be hard to overstate the importance of those numbers. In nonengineering terms, they indicate the plane might actually fly-literally. That a critical fighter jet program has struggled to get off the ground with enough capacity to carry a meaningful weapons payload speaks volumes about the F-35B, the troubled Marine Corps version of the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

Amos, who became the Corps' 35th commandant in October 2010, is the first fighter pilot ever to hold the job, and he promptly made saving the F-35B a top priority. "This is our future," he says.

But the future is fraught with other problems as well: scant budgets, expensive weapons, troop cuts and a grim new post-Afghanistan security environment that's already emerging. Amos has scarcely more than three years left as commandant to reshape the Marine Corps to meet these challenges.

So far, his approach has been pretty much head-on. On the F-35B, he says, "I didn't ask permission from anybody. What I did was I just reclaimed ownership of this program."

At Amos' insistence, new metrics-which include test results, assessments of vertical landings and other development data-are sent daily to his computer. "I track the program very, very carefully," he says. "I track it like a dog."

Faced with a long list of F-35B problems in January, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the plane on probation and said if the problems can't be fixed in two years, the plane should be canceled.

Weight was one of the most serious problems. Unlike the A and C variants designed for the Air Force and Navy, respectively, the F-35B is designed to land vertically on amphibious ships, which lack the comparatively huge deck space of the Navy's aircraft carriers or the long runways used by the Air Force. Vertical landings are trickier than conventional landings because the plane relies solely on the thrust from its engine, not lift from its wings, to make a controlled descent. The F-35B's maximum weight cannot exceed 32,490 pounds and its engine, obviously, must generate more than 32,490 pounds of thrust. "I track every pound that goes on that airplane," Amos says.

Until the July metrics arrived, the margin between weight and thrust was "pretty tight, [then] the margin increased dramatically, almost by 300 percent," thanks to a combination of reduced weight and increased thrust, he explains. But that doesn't end the F-35B's troubles.

There are other significant engineering challenges, including faulty auxiliary air inlet doors, fatigue cracks in structural bulkheads and poor parts reliability. According to Amos, these problems are being addressed. "I can tell you who's in charge and responsible for the engineering fixes and what the approximate dates of installation of the fixes are in the test airplanes," he says.

In addition, Amos instituted monthly meetings in his office with senior executives from F-35 maker Lockheed Martin Corp.; Vice Adm. David Venlet, the F-35 program executive; Ashton B. Carter, the Pentagon's acquisition chief; Vice Adm. David Architzel, head of the Naval Air Systems Command; and Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, the deputy commandant for Marine Corps aviation.

As Amos sees it, under his watchful eye, the F-35B "is really turning around."

Perhaps. But even the Marine Corps commandant can't change the laws of physics, says David Berteau, a former senior Pentagon official and now senior adviser and director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Unless the weight problem is solved and other defects fixed, the plane won't fly.

Looming Cuts

Even if the F-35B does fly, it could be brought down by cost. At $60 billion, the program simply might be too expensive, says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst and vice president of the Teal Group market analysis firm.

The aircraft is just one weapon on a Marine wish list populated with items that carry eye-popping price tags. The MV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft "will come to around $40 billion," he says. And the Marines want upgraded attack and utility helicopters that will cost $12 billion, and heavy lift helicopters that will cost $26 billion.

"The Marines still have grand plans," Aboulafia says, but future defense budgets look decidedly more modest. The August deal struck between the Obama White House and congressional leaders to raise the limit on federal borrowing will require $2.5 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years, and a good chunk of that will have to come from the Defense Department budget.

Amos is acutely aware of the budget pressures. Earlier this year he began calling for the Corps to return to its "frugal roots." He explains: "All of us have lived fairly well over the last eight to nine years. We've been able to get not only what we needed, but also get what we wanted." Very likely those days are over, he says.

Much as it wants new equipment, the service will have to re-examine what it already has and determine how much of it is "good enough that it can sustain us through this economic downturn. If it's good enough, we'll live with that," Amos says. "That allows us to focus on those things that we absolutely have to have."

Among the items likely to be deemed an unaffordable luxury is the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. Under development for nearly four years, the vehicle is intended to be a more survivable replacement for the 30-year-old Humvee. But there are problems.

"The early feedback is they will weigh 20,000 pounds and cost $500,000 apiece," Amos says.

That's nearly twice the weight and more than three times the cost of armored Humvees. The vehicle can be lifted only by the largest helicopters. "I just said we're not buying it," he says. "First of all, I can't have a vehicle that heavy. And I can't buy a vehicle to replace my utility fleet at $500,000 apiece. It's just too expensive." Instead, the Marines will re-examine the current fleet of Humvees to see how many are "good enough."

A Long Shot

What's clearly not good enough for Amos is the Corps' amphibious assault capability. Even though the U.S. military has not conducted a major amphibious assault in more than a half century, the Marines still consider the ability to launch an infantry attack from the sea to be indispensable.

And after a decade of serving essentially as a second land-based army in Afghanistan and Iraq, Amos is eager to return the Marines to their maritime roots.

But equipping a modern amphibious force won't be easy. In January, the Pentagon pulled the plug on the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the concept for which dates to the 1980s. The idea was to build a 38-ton armored vehicle that could skim across the water at high speed from ship to shore and then fight ably on land. But after spending 25 years and $3 billion on development, all the Marine Corps had to show for it was seven test vehicles.

Costs had risen from $4 million per vehicle to $17 million to $18 million a copy, Amos says.

"I asked myself, how did we get to this point?" His answer: "We service chiefs have abrogated our responsibility and given the program to the acquisition community." As with the F-35B, it was time to take back control of the amphibious assault program.

Amos says he wants a new amphibious assault vehicle ready for testing by the time his term as commandant is up in 2014. In his mind's eye he sees it clearly: "I want to be in it and driving it and steering it into the water."

It's an ambitious goal by any measure. Following standard Pentagon acquisition practices, Amos says he could expect to see a new amphibious vehicle in 2024. Instead, Amos wants to apply a new standard, one established by the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, more commonly known as the MRAP. Because Marines and soldiers were getting blown up at a politically unsustainable rate in Iraq as that war dragged on, the Pentagon found the wherewithal to design and field comparatively safer vehicles in about a year.

"I'm looking for something along the lines of the MRAP," he says. "It's going to take longer than the MRAP, but we ought to be able to have at least two prototypes by the time my term as commandant is over."

That's a long shot, says CSIS' Berteau. It was possible to field MRAPs in a year because the basic vehicles were already in production. Assembly plants existed, machine tools were in place, "it was just a matter of increasing through-put," he says. By contrast, nothing like the EFV or a plant to mass produce it exists today.

Building prototypes in three years might be possible if the Marine Corps opts for "something that's already almost commercially available," says Dakota Wood, a former Marine Corps officer and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

For now, the Pentagon plans to spend about $1 billion to upgrade existing amphibious assault vehicles.

Amos' vision of the future is fairly grim. He sees developing countries awash in poverty, unemployment, violence, criminality and extremism. Accelerated birth rates and migration to urban areas in the developing world will create overpopulated cities that become lawless havens for terrorists, insurgents and criminal gangs. In a world awash in weapons large and small, competition for scarce resources will spark conflict and fuel chaos.

Shaping the Corps

Most of this will occur where the Marines have traditionally operated-in the coastal areas where most of the world's population lives. Amos is fashioning a "middleweight force," light enough to arrive quickly from the sea, "yet heavy enough to accomplish the mission when we get there," he says.

The service must become more efficient, more lethal and more capable, he says. In the process, the Corps will become smaller. After the Marines leave Afghanistan, he expects the service to shrink from 202,000 troops to 186,800. To get more out of that smaller force, Amos plans to increase the five-year-old Marine Corps Special Operations Command from 2,500 to 3,600 troops. "I'm a believer in special operations," he says. "I think it's a real force multiplier. You can take a team of 12 or 13 Marine special operations folks and put them in someplace you otherwise might have to put an infantry company or larger. And because of their unique skill sets and training and equipment, they will begin to make a difference almost immediately.

"It's like having larger maneuver units available to you but at a much smaller cost," Amos says.

He's also planning to significantly increase the number of troops trained for cyber operations. "Cyberwarfare is probably the biggest growth industry in warfare that's out there," he says. "We're putting 600 more Marines into that effort over the next couple of years, and I predict at the end of that we're probably going to end up putting more." There are already almost 1,000 cyber specialists in the Corps.

Cyber operations now touch on almost everything the Marine Corps does, Amos says. Mainly, cyber-trained Marines would defend the service's networks against intrusions, but they also would be trained to exploit and attack enemy networks, he says.

Law enforcement as another specialty Amos intends to expand. Informed by experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Amos plans for new law enforcement battalions that take detective tactics to the battlefield, allowing troops to infiltrate bomb-making networks, for example.

For all Marines, he wants more education. In future operations, "we're probably going to be spread out more than we are today in Iraq and Afghanistan," Amos says. "There's a very good chance that a sergeant may be the most senior Marine in an area of 40 square kilometers. So we need to have sergeants who are better educated because they'll be making decisions that have international significance." Instruction in languages and cultural awareness will be important, but so will training in critical thinking, he says.

Growth in subject areas like special operations, cyber operations and law enforcement will inevitably come at the expense of other parts of the Corps. Amos projects that the infantry will shrink by 11 percent; cannon artillery by 20 percent; armor by 20 percent; fixed-wing aviation squadrons by 16 percent; logistics by 9 percent; nonoperational billets by 7 percent; and the civilian workforce by 13 percent. It's a calculus undoubtedly unsettling to many.

Amos says his goal for the Corps is twofold: Prepare Marines for the threats they are likely to face in the next decade or two, and ensure that the Corps remains "the nation's crisis response force of choice." Time will tell if he succeeds.

William Matthews is a freelance journalist who has been covering government and technology in Washington for two decades.

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