CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- A faster, high-tech seafaring tank for U.S. Marines has hit countless setbacks and cost overruns during the past two decades, and now it is one of the pricier items on the Defense Department's budget-cutting list.
Even the Marine Corps' top brass agrees the estimated $12 billion program has to go. But that doesn't mean the debate is over.
A group of Republican lawmakers is questioning the Marine Corps leadership's sudden change of heart over the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Generals have long said the amphibious tank under development had come to symbolize the force's very identity and represented the future of the Marine Corps, which has been relegated largely to landlocked wars over the past decade.
The legislators want Marine Corps leaders to explain the new position they took last month in backing Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he announced that the EFV should be cut.
Republicans fighting to save the EFV say they want to know why generals spent 20 years pushing for the amphibious war machine only to turn around over a span of months and say it has become too costly.
"If this program was going well three months ago, and according to all reports to Congress it was, and according to the U.S. Marine Corps it was, why all the sudden are we finding it's over budget and unsustainable? What did the Marine Corps miss?" asked California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a retired Marine who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.
The tank's apparent demise also highlights a breakdown in congressional oversight of military programs, Hunter said. More than $3 billion was spent on the EFV since the 1990s, and Hunter said he wants to know why it took so long for the Defense Department and the Marine Corps to realize it was not viable.
"The fact that these cuts went from Secretary Gates to a few hours afterward the Marine Corps saying `we second that opinion' without giving any basis at all to Congress, which controls the funding for everybody, I think that caused a lot of problems," Hunter said.
What's at stake, lawmakers say, is not just an expensive weapons program but the future of the Marine Corps.
No one disputes the EFV stands out even in the defense industry for the extreme amount of time and money it has taken. After nearly two decades, $3 billion, numerous glitches and cost hikes, it still is in the test phase. Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant Marine commandant, told the new GOP-controlled House Armed Services Committee the cost of each EFV had tripled, from $5 million apiece in 1995 to $17 million now.
EFV supporters worry if it is scrapped, it will inadvertently threaten the Marine Corps' large-scale amphibious assault capabilities, which sets them apart from the Army.
The Marines Corps is at a critical crossroads with plans to drastically reduce the elite force now leading the war in Afghanistan by 2015. Gates' decision to cut the EFV comes only months after he asked the new commandant, Gen. James Amos, to define the future role of the military's smallest branch.
Gates has acknowledged Marine amphibious assault skills were an asset during the first Gulf war, and that the capabilities have been key to humanitarian missions when people needed to be evacuated quickly. But he has questioned whether Marines will ever storm beaches again, when potential U.S. adversaries are developing sophisticated missiles that can easily attack ships cruising close to shore.
"On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios and then how much?" Gates asked sailors and Marines months before making his decision.
For the Marines, the EFV had become a tangible guarantee that they would return to their roots as "soldiers of the sea," as the only force capable of debarking from a Navy ship in floating tanks to make a beach landing.
Gates has vowed to budget money to develop a more affordable option for troops to use their ship-to-shore capability but critics say his actions in axing the EFV indicate he still has doubts.
"I think that the civilian leadership in the Department of Defense is struggling with the future of the Marine Corps," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a research fellow for the conservative Heritage Foundation.
That's reflected, she said, in the mixed message Gates has sent.
She said the Marine Corps has solidified its vision as a Naval force in the future, "but the cancellation of this program indicates two things -- one the defense budget is too tight to support the current operations and funding for the next generation of equipment, and secondly that Secretary Gates is not convinced amphibious operations are a cornerstone of the Marine Corps, much less the Defense Department," she said.
The service's top leader, Gen. Amos, says national security requires Marines' ship-to-shore capabilities but he agrees with the Pentagon that the EFV is too costly to do the job. He wants an alternative option quickly and says the Corps is already working on sending out a notice to the defense industry for new ideas.
Amos, in a Feb. 8 speech to the Marines' Memorial Club in San Francisco, said Gates assured him "the cancellation of the EFV is by no means a rejection of the Marine Corps' amphibious assault mission."
The nearly $3 billion that will be saved by eliminating the EFV will be poured into finding a cheaper vehicle. It also will help the Corps retrofit the Nixon-era Amphibious Assault Vehicles, or AAV, with new engines, electronics and armaments for now, but generals say there is no doubt they need to be replaced soon. The EFV prototypes traveled 25 knots or 29mph -- three times as fast as the AAVs.
"At the end of the day, Congress and the American people know that the Marine Corps is a value and that we only ask for what we truly need," said Amos, saying that the Corps' expenses account for 8.5 percent of the defense budget while it provides 31 percent of the ground operating forces, 12 percent of fighter-attack aircraft and 19 percent of attack helicopters.
EFV proponents say starting from scratch is cost-prohibitive for taxpayers and building a cheaper version of the EFV could take up to 10 years, and possibly even more money in the long run.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary who oversaw military manpower and reserve affairs during the Reagan era, said the Marines are the last military branch to get caught in the cross-hairs of the Pentagon's budget cutters. The Air Force and Army have already lost key equipment and have had to learn to adapt.
"The Air Force has had to switch to unmanned places, which undermines its whole mandate. People had this image of a guy up in a cockpit with a scarf around his neck as opposed to some kid working on computers," said Korb, now a senior fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress.
"You've got to make choices in terms of the probability of how a military force will be used in the future."