Army Sets Out to Replace Vietnam War Era Watercraft

By Stew Magnuson
The Army's Landing Craft Mechanized-8, first fielded in 1967.

While many Army modernization programs remain in a state of limbo because of tight budgets, the service is proceeding with a program to replace a fleet of aging logistics boats.  

“Watercraft, because of the fiscal challenges, and where the priorities were, have been neglected,” said Zina Kozak-Zachary, the Army’s product director of watercraft.

The service in July is expected to release a request for proposals for the maneuver support vessel-light, a 100-foot boat designed for intra-theater lift.

“Prior to taking this job, I was one of those people who said, ‘The Army has boats? Really?’ You still hear that. But you don’t hear that as often,” Kozak-Zachary said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Tactical Wheeled Vehicles conference in Reston, Virginia.

The National Commission on the Future of the Army in its report released in March singled out watercraft as one of several categories that were suffering “unacceptable modernization shortfalls.”

“Those shortfalls cause major concerns across a wide range of potential contingencies, particularly for the homeland, in Europe and on the Korean peninsula,” the report said, while leaving details for its classified version.

The strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific and the anti-access/area denial scenarios the Army may find itself in have rendered the Landing Craft Mechanized-8 logistics watercraft all but obsolete, Kozak-Zachary and other Army officials said.

Kozak-Zachary, in explaining how the Army’s watercraft became so outdated, noted that 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. The remaining 29 percent is land. Of that, one-third is desert. “Where has the conflict been for the past two decades? It has been on that 10 percent of the land’s surface,” she said.

The old landing craft have simply become neglected, she said. The Army has 36 LCM-8s, which are 70 feet long, travel at 9 knots and have a range of 271 miles. They were first fielded in 1967 and have an average age of 44 years.

James MacStravic, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, said the new boats must be more survivable.

“As we think about the fact that we are planning on going places where people don’t want us to be — anti-access/area denial environments — we are going to need a different mix of capabilities for those watercraft if we are going to make them relevant in the war fight,” he said.

The maneuver support vessel-light, along with being 30 feet longer and nine feet wider than its predecessor, will travel at 15 knots and have a range of 360 miles. It will be able to carry a wider range of payloads including either an M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams tank, or two Strykers, or up to four joint light tactical vehicles. With a five-foot draft or slightly less, it is designed to operate in littorals, rivers and near shorelines.

The new watercraft was expected to complete an Army requirements oversight council review by the end of June, said Col. Steven M. George, Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager for transportation. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel B. Allyn will then review its findings before the request for proposals is issued sometime in July, he said.

The hulls, by law, must be manufactured in the United States, George said.

As for the other components, the Army will be interested in materials and technology than can make the watercraft lighter. “This is a boat. We want it to carry heavy loads but we want it to have a low draft,” he said.

With a longer range, it will need a suite of command-and-control electronics that allows it to operate at greater distances, he said.

He would like industry to respond with new ideas for armor and weapons, “especially now that we are going to maneuver with this. Do I have to look at weapon systems that I can integrate that reach out farther?”

It is intended to operate in a tactical environment “so I need to talk tactically potentially long distances, but then I also have to operate under civil rules and talk with the non-military vessels that are out there.”

“We have to balance affordability,” he added.

George said the Army requirement is to replace all 36 LCM-8s one for one with the maneuver support vessels, however, there is currently only funding planned for about 28.

“We want 36. And that is what we are going to stick with. However, our acquisition financial team, G-8 folks, have said you may only get so much. But 36 is our target number. … If the magic all comes together and they are cheaper than what we are planning, then maybe we’ll get 36,” George said.

The LCM-8, while the oldest, is just one of several watercraft the Army operates. There is also a logistics support vessel, average age 21 years, the landing craft utility 2000, average age 25 years, two classes of tug boats and a barge derrick. In addition, there are four types of floating causeways and discharge facilities to aid with unloading.

“Our movement from ship to shore isn’t necessarily what you think about in the Marine type category where they have their amphibious assault force and … what they call connectors. We can assist them with that, but it is a different capability,” he said. The floating causeways help transfer equipment to shore.

The new vessel will support the waterborne delivery of combat configured forces, he said. Historically, Army watercraft were seen as simply logistics platforms. “Let’s put some trucks and cargo on it and get it to shore, at which point they will get configured to get to the fight.”

To survive contested environments, the Army wants the “marrying up and configuring” of equipment done before they are placed on the boats “so they can roll right off that vessel and fight,” George said.

The shift to the Pacific has heightened the importance of the portfolio, Kozak-Zachary said. “We can’t fix it all. We have to put band-aids in places before we get that portfolio to where it needs to be,” she said.

Col. Daniel L. Furber, product manager for transportation systems, said, “We are trying to balance a lot in this portfolio. It’s an aging fleet. It’s old. We do have declining budgets.”
Army watercraft in the transportation portfolio is about 7 to 8 percent of the budget. It’s a low density fleet, but expensive to maintain, Furber noted.

There are other Army watercraft opportunities for industry in the near future, Furber said. The Landing Craft Utility boats, first fielded in 1990, are slated for major electronic upgrades as part of a service life extension program. A competition for that contract is expected to kick off at the end of fiscal year 2017. The PEO is also short two tugboats and it is currently studying whether it will need to buy two more, or put the fleet through a service life extension program, Furber said.

Long term, “We are potentially going to be replacing the [logistics support vessel] and [landing craft utility]. That is on the back of the success of MSVL. So we have to get the maneuver support vessel-light right. … We can’t botch this thing,” he warned.

There are long-term plans to add a maneuver support vessel-heavy in the fiscal year 2025 timeframe and a maneuver support vehicle-medium around 2031, according to presentations at the conference. They would replace the LSV and LCU, respectively.

The PEO is also studying the creation of a performance-based logistics contract for the logistics support vessel in late fiscal year 2018 or 2019, Furber said.

MacStravic cautioned that the maneuver support vessel-light may face delays as a “new start” program. Kicking off the acquisition will depend on Congress passing a budget for fiscal year 2017.

He predicted that Congress will put a continuing resolution in place, which means those funds would be put on hold. “I strongly expect that we are going to get a continuing resolution for FY 2017, more than the traditional three months. We could have a year-long CR based on the results of this election,” he added.

A panel of congressional staffers at the conference also sounded a pessimistic note on the prospects of a budget being passed by the end of the fiscal year. While none mentioned a continuing resolution lasting as long as a year, two out of three said the impasse may last until April. The staffers declined to be named.

Meanwhile, the aging portfolio of Army watercraft continue to perform, Thurber said.
“Be assured that the soldier-mariners out there today manning these [platforms] are accomplishing the mission and doing what needs to be done to keep them operational,” he said.

Kozak-Zachary was more blunt about the service’s watercraft: “Operationally irrelevant. That’s what our watercraft fleet is. They still run. They still function. They do still what they can do, but in the case of the LCM-8, they can’t carry today’s Army.”

Photo: Defense Dept.

Topics: Homeland Security, MaritimePort Security, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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