Getting from ship-to-shore from over-the-horizon ranges places a premium on speed. With this in mind, several companies are reimagining the conventional landing craft so as to develop designs boasting high speeds and significant payload.
The United States’ Marine Corps’ (USMC) 2014 publication Expeditionary Force 21 – Forward and Ready: Now and in the Future: “provides guidance for how the Marine Corps Total Force, as an integral part of the larger naval and joint team, will be postured, organised, trained, and equipped to fulfil assigned public law and national policy responsibilities.” Specifically, the document defines an expeditionary operation as being: “conducted by an armed force to accomplish a specific objective in a foreign country,” adding that it is: “a strategically mobile force that is light enough to get to the crisis quickly, yet able to accomplish the mission or provide time and options prior to the arrival of additional forces.”
The USMC is arguably the world’s most recognised expeditionary force. Established in 1775, through a resolution drafted by a committee of the US Continental Congress, the governing body of the United States during the American Revolution (1765 to 1783), the force’s role was to fight: “for independence at sea and on shore,” as the USMC’s website indicates, it has since been providing forces and detachments to naval ships and shore operations around the world: “Expeditionary operations are at the core of the USMC’s reason for existence,” says Matthew Caris, a senior associate at Avascent, a consultancy based in Washington DC: “and their involvement (since the 1900s) in the Asia-Pacific means that no other country has a similar legacy in strategic operations in the area.” As an example, USMC assets, in the form of twelve Bell-Boeing MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from the VMM-262 Medium Tilt-rotor Squadron deployed from the USMC’s Futenma airbase in Okinawa, Japan were amongst the USMC units to support the international humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda which devastated the Philippines on 8 November 2013.
Thus, as the leading force in expeditionary operations, the USMC arguably plays a key role in continuously redefining expeditionary doctrine to adapt to the ever-changing nature of security threats facing nations around the world. For example, in the early 1990s, the USMC extended its mandate to peacekeeping, and in December 1992, 1800 USMC troops arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia, under Operation RESTORE HOPE, to stabilise the situation in the conflict-ridden capital to allow international aid workers to provide much needed food and humanitarian relief. In December 1995 the USMC joined NATO troops in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, to provide support in stabilising the country following the Bosnian War which had raged from 6 April 1992 until December 1995, laying ground for the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, which was signed by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia on 14 December 1995, ending the conflicts which had gripped the former Yugoslavia since 1991. The arrival of the 21st century, and the increasing incidence of environmental crises, such as Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, has brought yet another doctrinal shift for the USMC: relief operations, as detailed in the Expeditionary Force 21 publication.
As such, today, the crises expeditionary operations need to tackle are no longer confined to inter- or intra-state conflicts, but span over a wide-ranging spectrum. In a move to adapt, the US Marine Corps Concept and Programmes website defines the USMC role in maritime expeditionary operations as: “to maintain open and secure sea lines of communication for our maritime nation; manoeuvre across and project power from the sea; work with partner nations and allies to conduct humanitarian relief or non-combatant evacuation operations; and conduct persistent and sustained littoral operations along any coastline in the world.”
This importance placed by the USMC on power projection is arguably a reflection, in part, of the increasing number of traditional and non-traditional security threats witnessed since the start of the century in the Asia-Pacific: Chiefly amongst the former, is the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increasingly muscular strategic posture notably its maritime and territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. According to a 2014 policy paper written for the China Policy Institute, a think tank based at the University of Nottingham in central England, by Harry J. Kazianis entitled America’s Air-Sea Battle Concept: An Attempt to Weaken China’s A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) Strategy’, A2/AD consists of: “attempting to slow, limit, deny or deter a superior technologically advanced foe from conducting threatening military operations.”
The PRC’s A2/AD strategy has been a significant driving force behind the development of expeditionary forces in the Asia-Pacific region, argues Collin Koh Swee Lean in an article published in The Diplomat in October 2014 entitled Southeast Asia’s Emerging Amphibious Forces and has been accompanied by investment in the country’s amphibious capabilities to support these missions. Indeed, Japan is enlarging the size of its marines with media reports stating that the size of the force will increase in size to 3000 soldiers by 2019. The Malaysian government, meanwhile, took the decision to raise a marine force in October 2013, while the Vietnam People’s Navy’s has been enhancing its amphibious capabilities by performing training exercises in July 2016 which focused on recapturing an island. Vietnam, like Brunei-Darussalam, Malaysia and Taiwan all have existential disputes with the PRC over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Finally, while it is not a direct claimant in either the South or East China Seas disputes, the latter of which involves territorial and maritime claims contested by Japan, the PRC, the Republic of Korea and the Republic of China, the Indonesian Korps Marinir (KORMAR/Marine Corps) has been undergoing the modernisation of its amphibious fleet. This has included the procurement of 55 Kharkiv-Morozov BTR-4M eight-wheel drive armoured personnel carriers; the first five of which were delivered in September 2016, according to local media reports.
Mr. Caris states that: “Many navies have also acquired amphibious capabilities to respond to the complexities of their maritime environment and for their significant added value during Humanitarian Assitance/Disaster Relief (HADR) operations.” This significantly resonates in the Asia-Pacific, which has witnessed recent, devastating natural disasters, such as Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, and the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami which occurred off the eastern coast of Japan’s Honshu Island.
Benoist Bihan, head of defence products at CNIM, states that: “Today, a large number of countries are exploring the benefits of increasing their amphibious capabilities … they are key capabilities in connecting expeditionary operations, whether based out at sea or elsewhere on land, with the area of operation.” In the context of today’s Asia-Pacific security threats, amphibious capabilities provide a more reliable mean for transporting heavy materiel than other capabilities such as helicopters or planes: “The materiel can often be too heavy for aerial transportation, which itself may not be accessible 100 percent of the time due to weather constraints or the presence of Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) capabilities deployed by the enemy force on shore,” continues Mr. Bihan. Comparatively, amphibious capabilities such as hovercraft or conventional landing craft are easier and safer to deploy from farther distances, and do not need port or harbour facilities to aid disembarkation, he continues.
Moreover, expeditionary forces are often forward-deployed to ensure the security of army, navy and air force units participating in larger operational-level action: “clearing a land area, preventing enemy forces from operating there, and employing anti-ship and AAW weapons,” indicates an article by Grant Newsham, a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, a Tokyo-based think tank, published in the Asia Times on 1 June 2016 entitled Exploiting Amphibious Operations to Counter Chinese A2/AD Capabilities. The article continues that amphibious craft can assist these operations by facilitating landing on different types of shores, such as sand, shingle and swamp, meaning that: “defence personnel are not left exposed to observation or attack whilst wading slowly through surf or soft ground with wet heavy clothing,” says Mike Glanville, global sales and marketing manager for Hov Pod, a hovercraft manufacturer based on England’s south coast. From a tactical viewpoint, this is a key consideration.
In the context of non-traditional security threats, such as the environmental disasters the Asia-Pacific region has witnessed, amphibious capabilities are an essential asset. Their ability to operate in environments as diverse as tidal regions, marshlands, sandbars, swamps, riverbeds, mud or sand, makes them indispensable for quickly and efficiently delivering aid or evacuating people in disaster areas: “Every conventional ships needs a harbour,” says Klaus Blum, chairman of ABS Hovercraft, also based on the south coast of England: “approximately 70 percent of the world’s shoreline is accessible by hovercraft, against less than five percent by conventional vessels.”
An article published by Vice News in September 2014 entitled The Uncertain Future of Amphibious Warfare stated that: “while land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the primary focus in recent years, the US military is dialling up its naval and amphibious presence in (the Asia-Pacific).” The article argued that amphibious warfare will undeniably gain centre-stage in meeting the security threats of the region, a la the East and South China Seas. Yet the design of amphibious craft to support expeditionary operations necessitates a compromise between speed, payload and range.
Mr. Blum concedes that hovercraft have been notoriously: “too complex, too expensive to buy, operate and maintain, and finally too heavy.” However, he indicates that companies such as ABS Hovercraft have been working to address these issues by introducing new advanced composite materials such as carbon and Kevlar, which succeed in significantly reducing the weight of the vehicles while increasing their life-cycle. He argues that thus far hovercraft designs were plighted by the so-called ‘hump-speed phenomenon’: “hump-speed is the speed (around ten to twelve knots/18.5 to 22.2 kilometres-per-hour) at which the craft’s friction with the water reaches its maximum and then subsequently reduces. This allows the hovercraft to accelerate quickly up to top speeds beyond 40 knots (74 km/h).” Some hovercraft designers, Mr. Blum explains, added increased engine power to be able to overcome the hump-speed phenomenon, however increasing the weight of the craft in the process. New lighter composites, such as Kevlar and carbon used for ABS’ M10 Hovercraft, have resolved this issue, allowing the craft to reach speed of 40 knots; they are also much less prone to salt-water corrosion than craft designed with aluminium hulls, therefore reducing maintenance costs.
Material innovation is also at the heart of Hov Pod’s Infinity 750 hovercraft, which will be introduced in 2017 and which offers similar advantages through the use of carbon Kevlar composite and High-Density Polyethylene: “This ensures that the (hovercraft) is lightweight, extremely buoyant, yet far stronger and more impact resistant than brittle glass fibre, which cracks and breaks on impact,” says Mr. Glanville. Hov Pod has sought to address another issue it identified with hovercraft; a natural tendency to nose dive into water. As such, the Infinity 750 has: “a low centre of gravity, combined with a simple single engine design … ensures great manoeuvrability and very simple operation,” Mr. Glanville continues. Finally, the craft’s skirt, “comprising 65 anti plough design segments fed from the air management feed system, improves stability and enables continued operation (of the hovercraft) even if damaged.” Currently, Hov Pod has ongoing discussions with agencies from various countries in the Asia-Pacific, the identity of which are confidential.
Moving away from traditional hovercraft the Marine Nationale (French Navy) uses CNIM’s L-CAT, a high-speed catamaran design to increase the stability and capacity of the conventional landing craft. Four L-CATs entered service with the force from 2011, with the Egyptian Navy acquiring two examples which entered service in February 2015. The L-CAT is 30 metres/m (98.4 feet/ft) long and 12.6m (41.3ft) wide, and reaches speeds of 30 knots (55.5km/h) when lightly loaded or 18 knots (33.3km/h) when carrying a full payload of 80 tons, according to the manufacturer’s literature. One of the key innovations is the movable landing platform in the catamaran which can be raised up or down, and which facilitates the unloading of personnel, vehicles and equipment in the absence of port facilities and in shallow waters. Similar to the Infinity 750 and M10 hovercraft discussed above, the L-CAT has a reduced maintenance burden compared to conventional landing craft. During the Euronaval exhibition held in Paris in October 2016, CNIM introduced the L-CAT shore-to-shore variant, which the company states has an increased range of 800 nautical miles/nm (1481.6 kilometres/km), compared to the maximum range of 700nm (1296.4km) range of the original L-CAT design. It has not revealed whether the French Navy also plans to acquire the L-CAT shore-to-shore version.
Mr. Bihan argues that: “It is common nowadays to read in the press that tomorrow’s expeditionary operations will essentially rely on helicopters … however, in reality the sea remains (the key domain) to move around heavy material, which is key to expeditionary operations.” The progress made by the shipbuilding industry in the past few years shows that amphibious craft have a long life ahead of them in the complex maritime environment of the Asia-Pacific. The improved stability of hovercraft, and designs such as the L-CAT compared to conventional landing craft: “provides a far more stable weapons and observation platform than conventional boats or ground vehicles, especially whilst manoeuvring,” says Mr. Glanville. Their design also make them ideal for disembarking expeditionary forces close to shore, where other conventional landing craft: “have to stop in shallow water where the soldiers need to walk or run the last distance fully exposed to fire,” adds Mr. Blum. Finally, when faced with the dilemma of having to carry heavy loads, whether in support of military operations on the ground or for HADR, in shallow, tidal or muddy waters, hovercraft or catamaran designs strike the right balance: “Storage room can often be a more significant factor than weight,” argues Mr. Bihan: “the L-CAT provides a large space that can fit a large yet relatively light load.”
Regarding the health of the landing craft market in the Asia-Pacific, Mr. Caris states that: “These programmes are not ‘high visibility’ like those for larger ships … but while we may not be aware of all of them, amphibious craft are certainly in high demand in the Asia-Pacific region.” As such, Textron Systems is currently building the US Navy’s replacement for its current Textron LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion) vehicle of which the force operates circa 90 examples having entered service in 1986. The LCAC will be replaced by Textron’s LCAC-100 design. According to the US Department of Defence (DOD), a total of 73 of these vehicles are planned for the US Navy, with the DOD expecting the first deliveries of the LCAC-100 to commence this year. Both the LCAC and LCAC-100 designs have a similar payload of circa 75 tons, however, the LCAC-100 can reach speeds of 35 knots (64.8km/h), as opposed to the LCAC’s circa 30 knots (55.5km/h), according to DOD official figures. Regarding the Asia-Pacific, Japan could emerge as a potential customer for the LCAC-100, given that the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force currently operates six LCAC examples.