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Europe and ship-to-shore manoeuvres

© Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

Amphibious operations are a growing part of modern strategy, and the concept of sea-basing has added a further dimension to what was already a high value capability. The appreciation of the utility of amphibious warfare is most visibly demonstrated on a global scale by the amount of nations which are investing in it: some nations, such as Australia and Russia are seeking to enhance existing capabilities, whilst others like India are seeking to create the capability. The reasons for this acquisition are varied, as some nations are seeking strategic depth, whereas others are looking for an independent influence capability that is completely organic to them, and some are of course simply reacting to a change in threat, or national circumstance.

The level of capability procured is, however, often what reveals the thinking behind the acquisition; and the best indicator is not always the ships procured. Indeed, those particular national assets are sometimes a product of international competitiveness (i.e. our nation is bigger than yours) rather than necessity, rather than the methodology and units acquired for accomplishing the Ship-to-Shore manoeuvre. Now, there are of course also vehicles which can take themselves to shore (the United States Marine Corps’ (USMC) AAV-P7/A1 being a prime example), but those vehicles will tend to then become vital to the movement of the land forces they took ashore – so they are usually limited to a single use per-operation, albeit operations such as these often require more than one trip. The same goes for larger helicopters, especially when forces are worried about force security, as these could well be required to assist with land mobility/logistics rather than the Ship-To-Shore work. Brigade sized amphibious operations are rare, yet they are an important capability because – as operations such as Falklands and Al Faw demonstrate – when it has to be done, nothing else will do.

However, small-scale (Squadron/Battalion strength or smaller) amphibious operations are becoming more common. Of course Special Forces raids have never really been out of fashion, but in terms of getting from Ship-to-Shore, Special Forces (whilst requiring stealth) are not that heavy in terms of the movement of personnel and logistics, so are easily dealt with by small boats (i.e. Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs)) and helicopters. Unfortunately, larger operations require the addition of Ship-to-Shore connectors with significant heavy lift capability that helicopters and RHIBs cannot provide. At the moment that heavy lift capability can be divided into Landing Craft and Hovercraft. There is even, in reaction to the growth in defensive firepower, a return to the practice of World War Two (WWII) with specialist vessels being procured to defend landing craft/support the assault forces from close to shore; for example, the Stridsbåt 90 (Combat Boat 90 or CB90) of the Swedish Navy. Ship-to-Shore connectors are flexible assets which are very capable.

Even though the British only received the Landing Craft Utility (LCU) Mk10 with its RO-RO capability in 1998, it could not be called modern – as landing craft have not really changed on a practical level since WWII, and arguably not since their conception in the 1930s; they have just grown bigger. Hovercraft, when introduced, were, thanks to their speed and ability to take forces inland/cross boggy terrain, a significant addition to amphibious forces, even though they are very expensive to operate; both in cost, but more importantly logistically, as they guzzle fuel. Furthermore, the most commonly used hovercraft, the American Landing Craft air Cushion (LCAC) (as used by the United States, France and Japan), has been in service since 1986, and its nearest equivalent – the Russian Zubr class (used by Russia, China, Greece and Ukraine) – has been in service since 1988. Although, there is a more recent service entrant, the British built Griffon 8100TD which was introduced in 2006, which is used by Sweden. However, it is a more limited medium lift system, rather than a heavy lift system like the LCAC or Zubr.

The French, in an attempt to cut costs but retain speed (with the loss of terrain capabilities) introduced in 2011 the Engin de Débarquement Amphibie Rapide (EDA-R); a catamaran landing craft (L-CAT) which is operated from their Mistral class LHDs (the design they are selling to Russia). However, only four of this interesting design have been built, which can carry about the same load as the LCU Mk10. This represents an improvement in comparison to the British, who tested QinetiQ’s Partial Air Cushion Supported Catamaran (PACSCAT), in the late 2000s. This was an interesting idea which could have been (in theory at least) the basis for a replacement for the LCU Mk 10 – but which has since disappeared from sight.

So what is the future of Ship-to-Shore? Well, traditional landing craft do not appear to be going out of fashion or changing that much; especially with the upgraded designs such as the United States Navy’s (USN) proposed folding bow and stern LCU-F on the design board. As well as this, the US is starting a new large hovercraft, the Ship-to-Shore-Connector (continuing the Western practice of naming the system for what it is), to replace the LCAC – those do not appear to be going anywhere either. Going on from this it would be nothing new to say that craft used to bridge the distance between ship and shore are probably going to have to get faster, gain range and be better defended to operate effectively in the future. The biggest thing to consider though, and perhaps what is undermining new designs, and new possibilities of such craft, is maintenance. A consequence of smaller crews, tighter budgets and greater distances for many nations is a strong aversion to any system which is going to be a ‘jalopies’ – they want something which can be relied upon with comparatively minimalist maintenance.

This phenomenon could particularly explain one interesting design, which other nations would be advised to pay close attention to; the USMC’s Ultra Heavy-Lift Amphibious Connector (UHAC). At first glance the design, a tractor with giant tracks that enables it to float on the sea and cross obstacles once it gets to shore all while carrying tanks, would seem rather extraordinary. In fact though, it is a logical continuation of the Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVT) of WWII which used to carry Jeeps, as well as troops and supplies to shore; the UHAC even looks like a scaled up version of the LVT. Therefore, what the UHAC represents is the return of a proven concept, although in a scaled up and much modernised version, a return which has come about at the time the US has publicly proclaimed its intention to refocus its attention on the Pacific. This though makes the situation for European nations and navies even more complex; what option is right for them? What scale of amphibious capability do they need, if they decide they need one?

There are many reasons to develop such a capability, for example the Baltic States might be interested in it because of their lack of depth for manoeuvre if defending their countries – although the cost versus benefit analysis of such a procurement would be complex. It would also be subjective: what they would need and for what, would the Ship-To-Shore connectors perhaps represent enough of a capability on their own, or might a small ship designed to support and multiply the effect of those assets also be advantageous? For nations with more global aspirations who are tied into a world that is relatively stable, a larger capability might be needed, in which case the governments would have to ask the question: is this a capability which is needed at the ready, or is it something they can afford to wait for when they need it? The answer to that question of course stems from their level of exposure to global events.

The more exposed the country, the less amphibious capability is a beneficial capability, and the more it is an essential capability. The reality of this need is demonstrated by the fact that alongside America, Britain and France have been testing, and in the case of the latter making use of, new systems. These are countries with navies which have certainly not had the budgets of the USN and are taking cuts, yet still they are investing in trying to build this capability because it is useful and because they need it. The trouble for amphibious warfare is that just as with naval aviation and aircraft carriers/aircraft, amphibious ships/ship-to-shore manoeuvre assets and the amphibious forces that make use of them, and which all together provide the global reach nations seek, cannot exist in a vacuum. Amphibious warfare is a whole force capability and without investment in escorts (to provide protection for the shipping and Naval Gun Fire Support for operations), submarines, and indeed naval aviation, amphibious forces are not a practicable capability for conducting opposed operations – merely theoretical.

Balancing this need for investment is that a nation without amphibious warfare capability is a nation which is severely limited in its ability to influence events and will be stuck on the side-lines much of time. However, a nation which chooses to invest in an amphibious capability, but neglects (or does not carefully examine the options for) appropriately capable ship-to-shore manoeuvre assets is doing the equivalent of a person buying a fast car then skimping on the breaks and tires: it will probably work fine and still looks great until they take it around a sharp bend in winter.

Vol. 6, No. 81 (2014)

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