By Jim Wolf
QUANTICO, Virginia (Reuters) - Send in the Marines! -- the age-old U.S. battle cry -- is summoning a hulking, new General Dynamics Corp vehicle that must climb a tough hill in Washington for a projected $13.2 billion program.
The Marine Corps rolled out a prototype of its planned 21st century armored amphibious vehicle on Tuesday, a day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly questioned anew the need for such a means of storming beaches amid fast-developing high-tech coastal defenses.
The Marines parked the nearly 40-ton, 11-foot tall, desert-sand-colored prototype against a backdrop of a museum here whose design evokes the iconic shot of the U.S. flag-raising on Iwo Jima after a World War 2 landing.
It would send 17 combat-ready Marines and a three-strong crew from sea to shore in the tradition of amphibious battles the Corps has fought for more than 200 years.
Gates first called into question the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, or EFV, program last April, prompting speculation he might try to kill it or cap it. Since then, he has sealed the fate of other big-ticket programs such as Lockheed Martin Corp's F-22 fighter jet and an $87 billion Army ground vehicle effort led by Boeing Co.
Addressing a Navy League audience on Monday, Gates asked rhetorically again if it would be "necessary or sensible" to launch a major amphibious landing in the future, "especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore."
Marines Corps brass at a rollout ceremony adjacent to their Quantico base referred to the storied amphibious operations from Iwo Jima to Inchon to Desert Storm after the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait in August 1990.
They said the new vehicle was needed for a host of fresh challenges, including non-combat emergencies, partnering with allies and humanitarian relief operations conducted around the world.
"Now after eight years of conflict on land, it is important that we challenge conventional thought with regard to the utility of sea-based forces," Lieutenant General George Flynn, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, said at the unveiling ceremony.
The EFV program originated two decades ago to replace the 1970s-era Assault Amphibious Vehicle that would be more than 40 years old when the EFV is due to start initial operations in 2016.
Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway said last April the EFV is inextricably linked to the Marines' ability to storm enemy shores and is "an absolutely critical requirement for us."
The average EFV production unit cost is currently projected to be just over $16 million per copy, not including development costs, Colonel Keith Moore, program manager for advanced amphibious assault, told reporters at the rollout.
The Corps aims to buy a total of 573 EFVS. This would give it the capacity to amphibiously transport eight infantry battalions of about 970 Marines and sailors per battalion, the Congressional Research Service said in a report dated August 3, 2009.
The EFV is designed to hit up to 25 knots at sea, three times the existing amphibious speed using twin waterjets, and 42 miles on land using its tracks, a General Dynamics brochure said.
The craft would roll off a Navy amphibious assault ship, disperse across landing sites, cross the beach and punch inland. Typically, it would be launched 25 miles off shore, permitting the fleet to operate "over the horizon," where it theoretically would be less vulnerable to enemy fire, although some suggest the 25-mile stand-off will not be enough to escape cruise missiles in coming years.
(Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Richard Chang)