In recent decades, the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars trying, and failing, to solve a straightforward military problem. How to haul people and equipment between ships at sea … and beachheads on land.
The Defense Department’s “surface-connector” shortfall illuminates fundamental flaws in the political-industrial-military system. In theory, these institutions together are supposed to produce the weaponry American troops need at a cost taxpayers can afford and in time to be actually useful.
In fact, the military-industrial-political complex is a tangle of perverse incentives. The systems energetically produces multi-billion-dollar stealth drones, electric battleships and high-tech missile interceptors.
But something as simple as a powered barge—the most basic and useful of sea connectors—has proved too much, or too little, for the military, industry and politicians to handle.
In short, America just can’t make a decent landing craft. Not any more, at least. U.S. shipyards quickly churned out thousands of simple landing craft during World War II.
Sea-based forces and connectors are becoming more important. At the West 2014 military confab in February, Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos warned that U.S. forces will be spending more time on the world’s oceans. “Allies are going to want to train with us … but they’re not going to want us to build bases,” Amos said. “Those days are gone.”
Increasingly, American military ops will launch from ships. Helicopters can handle some of the transport duties. But for large-scale operations, surface connectors are way more efficient. The physics of surface travel are simply way more forgiving than those of flying.
U.S. troops are going to find it more difficult getting from the ships to shore.
The proliferation of guided missiles is forcing ships to sail farther from land. And that means the connectors have to travel greater distances and in more dangerous conditions. The Pentagon doesn’t believe its current connectors—including Navy landing craft and hovercraft and Marine Corps amphibious tractors—are up to the task.
“Simply put, our current and proposed surface connector inventory does not meet the current and future requirements and ability to maneuver from increased range beyond the threat,” Amos noted in Proceedings, the Navy’s main professional journal.
Many of the amphibious tractors, landing craft and hovercraft are older than their crews—and in some cases, their crews’ parents. The newest connectors, the Navy’s Landing Craft Air Cushion hovercraft, entered the fleet in the 1980s. Trusty and rusty LCU-1600 landing craft and AAV-7 amtracs are entering their second half-century of service.
Only the hovercraft have any chance of getting replaced any time soon. Other connectors will soldier on in an increasingly dangerous and demanding world.
All because the world’s leading military power can’t—or won’t—manufacture simple, affordable landing craft.
Efforts to replace the Marines’ nearly 400 Vietnam War-vintage AAV-7 amtracs have been particularly farcical. The AAV-7s, pictured here swimming into a Navy assault ship—are brute-simple vehicles. They’re basically aluminum boxes with mechanical treads and a gun turret.
Light enough to float, moderately protected against small arms, the amtracs are supposed to deliver squads of Marines onto defended beaches.
The no-frills AAV-7s reflect old-school Marine thinking. “Traditionally the Marine Corps got hand-me-down equipment and had to make it work,” said Craig Hooper, an independent naval analyst. “Especially back when they were inventing amphibious doctrine in the first part of the 20th century.”
Today’s Corps has broken with that tradition. Instead of making do with basic equipment, starting in the late 1980s and 1990s the Marines and their supporters in Congress pushed for a trio of brand-new, high-tech and costly systems—the V-22 tiltrotor, the F-35B stealth jump jet and a cutting-edge replacement for the AAV-7 called the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, built by General Dynamics.
All three new weapons were disasters. Early V-22s crashed so many times that Bell-Boeing had to totally redesign the hybrid plane. The F-35B has exceeded its expected price tag by nearly 100 percent and is years late.
But the EFV was the worst of all. The program consumed 20 years of effort and $3.5 billion in R&D before the Pentagon finally canceled it in 2011, forcing the Marines to keep using AAV-7s that are older than their operators—and sometimes twice as old.
The Marines wanted the EFV to do so much that it couldn’t do anything well. In order to cross 25 miles of open water fast enough to keep its embarked Marines battle-ready, the Corps wanted the EFV to swim at 25 miles per hour, three times faster than the AAV-7.
And to keep up with M-1 tanks on land, the EFV had to handle rough terrain at 40 miles per hour. To go that fast and stay afloat, it needed to be lightweight—but that meant less protection. To go that fast at all on water demanded a flat bottom and complicated folding parts.
The resulting design required calm seas to reach its speed and at least 12 feet of water depth to fold itself into its land-based configuration. The EFV’s 2,700-horsepower engine barely managed 10 hours between breakdowns. “It’s incredibly hard to turn a tank into a jet-ski,” Hooper explained.
But the EFV’s real killer was cost. At more than $22 million a pop, the EFV fleet was ready to eat the Corps’ entire vehicle budget, leaving nothing for tanks, Humvees or anything else. Ambitions drove technology resulting in a price that rendered the tech and its driving requirements irrelevant.
The Pentagon really had no choice but to kill off the EFV. Today the Marines are refurbishing—again—the 40-year-old AAV-7s, and also planning to acquire swimming wheeled vehicles that the Corps leadership swears will be simple, affordable and effective even against improving enemy defenses.
The Navy’s LCAC hovercraft can carry more than 60 tons of people and vehicles across open ocean at 40 miles per hour—then travel right up a beach or mudflat to deposit the cargo.
During a beach assault, the amtracs would go first, disgorging Marine riflemen to secure a foothold. LCACs would follow, dropping off tanks and other armored vehicles to reinforce the infantry.
Like the ancient AAV-7s, the 30-year-old LCACs work. But they’re lightly armored and thus vulnerable to beach defenses. And since they entered service starting in the 1980s, the vehicles they’re meant to carry have grown heavier and heavier.
The hovercraft’s performance is “undermined by the gargantuan equipment procured over the last 30 years,” noted David Fuquea, a retired Marine officer who now teaches at the U.S. Naval War College. Today, an LCAC struggles to haul a single M-1 tank.
The Navy needs better hovercraft. And in stark contrast to the Marines’ experience with the EFV, the sailing branch just might get them. The first of 73 Ship-Shore Connectors—in essence, slightly larger and much more powerful LCACs—is due to enter service in 2017.
The Navy itself designed the SSC. Textron won the initial contract to build the new air-cushion craft for around $50 million per copy.
Despite engineering improvements, the new hovercraft still will be loud, maintenance-intensive beasts. Seven decades after World War II, the Pentagon continues to rely on simple, flat-bottom landing craft with hinging bow ramps to do much of the intensive heavy lifting in the hours following a beach attack.
The Navy last acquired new LCU-1600s, pictured below, in the 1970s. One hundred and thirty feet long and 30 feet wide, the LCUs each can shlepp up to 180 tons of troops, vehicles, fuel and supplies. They’re the most essential of America’s sea connectors. “A simple, flat-hull utility landing craft will never be obsolete,” Hooper said.
But rust and wear and tear take their tolls. No small boat lasts forever, and today the 32 LCUs are badly in need of replacement. But the military is nowhere close to getting new landing craft. Whereas the EFV failed because it was too complex and expensive, efforts to acquire new LCUs could fail because the boats are too simple and cheap.
A new and better landing craft
In his Proceedings article Amos listed several potential replacements for the aging LCUs. Each seems, well, rather exquisite. The most promising candidate is the L-CAT, a French-made fast catamaran with a central hull deck that can raise and lower for rolling cargo on and off.
Then there’s the huge and ungainly-looking Ultra-Heavylift Amphibious Connector. Churning along on ginormous clown-feet paddle-treads, a UHAC could move more than 200 tons of cargo from ship to shore at 20 knots and carry it inland over mudflats and seawalls up to 10 feet high.
While the UHAC’s 4/10-scale prototype undergoes sea trials, the LCU(F), a folding landing craft, presently exists only as a concept. Folded up inside an assault ship’s well deck or stacked atop container ships, the LCU(F) would unpack into a 21st-century landing craft capable of shuttling 200 tons.
All of Amos’ options are more complex—and will certainly cost more—than today’s LCUs. So why not just build more bare-bones landing craft, perhaps with slightly more powerful engines?
“These boats are simple enough to be made by a couple of welding-tool-wielding guys in a bayou someplace, and the fleet size small enough for a simple backwater yard to manage,” Hooper explained.
Nearly 90 small shipyards in America still build smaller vessels and would welcome a piece of the next-generation LCU business. But these companies lack influence in Washington.
The big defense firms that do possess influence also face internal limits on the sorts of projects they can afford to take on. Only gold-plated programs provide enough complexity to justify the billion-dollar billings that, say, Boeing and Lockheed Martin need in order to keep their lights on and their staffs paid.
“The larger, higher-overhead defense contractors, the ones with juice within the procurement process, are unlikely to touch the [LCU] project until it reaches a sufficient level of technical complexity—enough so that some of us low-overhead swamp people won’t be able to build it,” Hooper said.
Good sea connectors can be simple, cheap, even boring. But it’s exotic engineering that keeps America’s defense industry in business, even when that exotic engineering fails.
The follow-on amtrac was the epitome of exotic. A new LCU is so lacking in exoticism as to make it totally unsuitable for the defense industry and its boosters. Only the next-gen hovercraft occupies the blessed middle ground between hopelessly complex and repulsively simple.
But the Navy and Marines need all three. If the military is going to preserve—to say nothing of enhance—its ability to move people between ship and shore, it’s going to have to change the way it does business.