MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, California --
Unbeknownst to many in their field or across the Corps, a small contingent of Marines go to work every day putting future amphibious vehicles through their paces to improve the readiness and capability of the Corps.
These Marine amtrackers—a nickname for amphibious vehicle operators and maintainers—belong to the Amphibious Vehicle Test Branch, part of Marine Corps Systems Command, the acquisition command of the Marine Corps. Their mission: to drive, splash, pull and push prototype amphibious vehicles to their limits.
“AVTB is a different part of the Marine Corps than the fleet—it’s one of those things you don’t hear about when you’re in the operating forces,” said Capt. William Lambuth, operations officer for AVTB.
Most of the nearly 30 Marines at AVTB are amphibious vehicle operators and maintainers. They work side by side with more than 60 civilian engineers, contractors and vendors to test future Marine Corps amphibious vehicle platforms on land and in water. AVTB primarily supports the program manager for Advanced Amphibious Assault, the Marine Corps office that manages acquisition of the Amphibious Assault Vehicle, AAV Survivability Upgrade and the future Amphibious Combat Vehicle.
“Our engineers work with PM AAA engineers to develop a detailed test plan, commonly referred to as a DTP, that includes a list of test items they want to conduct,” Lambuth said. “The Marines’ job, as test directors and executors, is to figure out how to take that dream test and make it reality.”
While Lambuth’s main focus is safety and ensuring all AVTB testing stays on schedule, the Marine operators serve as drivers and crew members for test iterations that can be both dangerous and exhausting.
A typical AVTB test crew includes only three Marines—a crew chief, driver and rear crewman. To simulate a full combat load, including ammunition, food and other equipment, Marines use weighted seats called “water dummies” to push the vehicle to the maximum weight it may need to carry in combat.
Weight is key to characterizing a vehicle before operational testing can occur, Lambuth said. One part of characterization is determining its reserve buoyancy, which is the percentage of the vehicle that remains above the water’s surface versus below. Another characterization is the vehicle’s center of gravity, which AVTB engineers find by hanging it from a crane. This test helps determine whether a vehicle will tip or flip over in certain positions.
Once the vehicle’s reserve buoyancy and center of gravity are determined, the Marines can begin testing its maximum speed in the water, and ability to go through a surf zone and do long-distance tows.
“We basically launch a vehicle off the back of an amphibious ship at different speeds to see how well it performs,” Lambuth said. “One of the riskiest tests I’ve ever done was taking our current test vehicle at gross vehicle weight and splashing it off the back of a ship at the ship’s maximum speed. There are a lot of factors you can’t affect, and that increases risk substantially.”
Another test, called a Reliability Growth Test, evaluates how long a vehicle can run without an operational mission failure. The RGT typically means about a 13-hour work day for the Marines, and the test can run four to five days non-stop.
“The tempo goes up and down, and we don’t have the manpower here that we would over in the fleet, so there’s a lot more work to be done and a lot more responsibility for each individual,” said Sgt. James Welsch, an AAV operator at AVTB. “But I can say personally that I feel like I’ve learned a lot more over here than I would have over in the fleet. I know a lot more about the vehicle now.”
By the book
AVTB was established in the 1940s and has served as the test bed for all Marine Corps amphibious vehicles since. Currently, the Marines at AVTB are testing the AAV Survivability Upgrade and preparing to test the recently delivered Amphibious Combat Vehicle—responsibilities they take seriously.
“[At AVTB], it’s all about the safety and development [of the vehicle]—what capabilities it’s going to provide; what’s going to make the vehicle better,” said Staff Sgt. Travis Thomas, an AAV maintainer at AVTB. “Everything is done by the book, and double and triple checked to make sure we get the best information.”
The data AVTB provides helps the Corps decide what platforms will make it to Marines in the fleet.
“The big picture”
AVTB’s test directors and executors are seasoned Marines—typically sergeants and above who have served at least one operational assignment as an amtracker. While some AAV operators and mechanics elect to become drill sergeants or recruiters following operating tours, a few are selected for AVTB because of the need for experienced operators in those billets. The assignment is a unique opportunity to experience another side of amphibious vehicles.
“In the fleet, you never really understand why [the Marine Corps] is pushing some new gear, tool or equipment on you,” Thomas said. “Being here has opened my eyes to the fact that everything we get has been thoroughly tested and researched.
“Working closely with the engineers and technicians here, you see all the work and dedication that goes into what we get,” he continued. “As Marines, we rotate in and out, but the civilians here have dedicated their lives to this. They do it because they want a better future and a better product for the warfighter.”
Working at AVTB provides the big picture that drives home the responsibility these Marines have to the amtracker community, said Sgt. Jose R. Chavez, AAV SU crew chief at AVTB.
“We’re testing new vehicles that future Marines will use,” Chavez said. “Being the first ones to go on ship or come off ship in the new vehicles—that’s a big deal.”