The US Army Is Buying New Boats to Replace Vietnam-Era Landing Craft

The service's little known fleet is important to operations around the world, but is sorely in need of new watercraft.

US Army

The U.S. Army has signed a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars for its first new boat – yes, boat – in decades, the Maneuver Support Vessel (Light), or MSV(L), which will replace dozens of Vietnam War-era landing craft. The design will greatly improve the ability of the service’s substantial, but largely unknown watercraft fleet, to haul cargo and otherwise support combat operations and other emergencies, including responding to natural disasters.

Read all about the U.S. Army's largely unknown Navy of its own in this past feature. 

On Sept. 28, 2017, the Army announced it had hired Vigor Works to build up to 36 of the new craft, with actual low-rate production of the first four boats expected to begin in 2021. The contract for the MSV(L)s is valued at just shy of $980 million.

The Oregon-based boat maker is perhaps best known in defense circles for a series of stealthy special operations craft it built for the U.S. Navy. It also built DARPA's unmanned submarine hunter named Sea Hunter. The company's sprawling facility on Swan Island, in North Portland, supports a large mix of vessels, including many of those used for missile defense and those in Military Sealift Command's inventory. Vigor claims its new floating dry dock, The Vigorous, is the largest in North America and it already has opened up its business portfolio to a whole new set of clients.  

“The range of operating environments our soldiers face today – and will face in the future –continues to grow more diverse,” U.S. Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Drushal, the service’s Transportation Chief, said in a statement after the announcement. “Our mariners need modern, capable vessels that can carry today's Soldiers and equipment. Our commanders need the flexibility to maneuver in many different environments – including maneuvering from the sea.”

Though Drushal’s comments might make this seem like a new and perhaps unusual capability for the Army, the service has operated a significant number of watercraft since the Second World War, during which it actually conducted more amphibious landings than the U.S. Marine Corps. Unfortunately, many of these craft are becoming increasingly old and unable to handle the growing size of Army ground vehicles and other equipment. They’ve also become increasingly vulnerable, even in the low-threat environments in which they would typically operate.

US Army

An artist's rendering of Vigor Works' MSV(L) unloading an M1 Abrams tank on a beach.

Of the approximately 116 watercraft the Army had on hand in April 2016, 36 were dated Landing Craft Mechanized Mk 8s, also known as LCM-8s. The first of these boats entered service in 1967 as replacements for World War II and Korean War-era designs.

They retained the basic configuration that many people are probably familiar with from watching movies and documentaries about the D Day Landings or the fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. The boats have a long open main cargo hold with a ramp in the front that drops down when it hits the beach. At the rear, the crew pilots the vessel from inside a small cabin.

It’s a crude, but functional configuration that has served the world over for years. The LCM-8s capabilities have become increasingly limited, though, able to carry a maximum of 53 tons of cargo at a speed of around 10 miles per hour.

This was fine at a time when the U.S. Army’s main tank, the M60A1 Patton, weighed around 52 and a half tons. The latest version of M1 Abrams main battle tank, the M1A2 SEPv3 version, is over 70 tons. The service’s other vehicles, including the Stryker and its up-coming Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), have also grown steadily heavier, primarily under the weight of additional armor and other protective gear.

USN

Two US Navy LCM-8s, identical to the Army's versions, carry vehicles back to amphibious ship during relief efforts in Haiti in 2010.

“Army transportation investments over the last decade rightly prioritized vehicle capabilities, especially in the area of protection,” U.S. Army Colonel Dan Furber, the project manager for Transportation Systems, including watercraft, told the service’s reporters. “While that was the right thing to do, it also deferred investment in the watercraft fleet and created a mismatch between the size and weight of ground systems and the watercraft designed to carry them.”

While Vigor – together with design firm BMT, shipbuilder Gladding-Hearn, and Northrop Grumman – will spend the next four years finalizing the MSV(L)’s shape and configuration, the boats will be able to carry one M1A2 SEPv3, two Stryker wheeled armored vehicles fitted with additional armor, or four JLTVs. The LCM-8s, which they are expected to replace one for one, cannot carry any of those loads.

The goal is for the new vessels to be twice as fast and have nearly 100 miles of additional range over the older landing craft.  Most notably, the boats will have a so-called roll-through configuration with a typical ramp at the front along with a loading gate at the rear.

US Army

US Army reservists and members of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard load a contain onto an LCM-8.

This is important because it gives the crew additional options for loading and unloading. With the rear loading gate, troops can just drive straight on rather than having to back up into position, which can be especially tricky with a tank or other large vehicle. In addition, the arrangement means Army mariners can take on cargo in the well deck of one of the Navy’s larger amphibious ships or sea bases and then depart without having to turn the entire boat around once they get out onto open water.

Combined with the flat rear end of the craft, it could be easier to back up to an actual dock to unload instead of having to maneuver the angled front end into the proper position. The boat can still unload as normal on any open beach, sufficiently low dock, or other appropriate floating platform.

"Watercraft are not something we buy very often, but they are essential to meeting Army-unique maneuver requirements,” Scott Davis, the Army's program executive officer for combat support and combat service support systems, added to the service’s reporters. “Industry's steadfast participation in our industry days and other engagements absolutely made our requirements clearer and set this program on the path to success.”

It may seem like an odd requirement for the U.S. military’s main ground force to have in the first place, but the Army’s watercraft fleet makes a lot of sense. The service has troops forward deployed around the world, including in areas with large bodies of water that both provide an easy route to move personnel and supplies, as well as a potential impediment during a contingency.

US Army

The Logistics Support Vessel USAV Major General Robert Smalls sits in port in Kuwait in front of two floating cranes with a similar in design to the LCM-8.

Having its own fleet means the Army doesn’t have to rely on the Navy for support or burden that service’s much larger amphibious ships and their landing craft with its routine needs. It can also speed up the loading and unloading of chartered commercial ships in permissive or non-combat scenarios. The U.S. military relies heavily on commercial shipping for moving heavy equipment around the world for both training and operational purposes. The MSV(L) "is the lynchpin to the Army's watercraft strategy," Colonel Michel Russell, chief for focused logistics within the Army's Resource Management directorate's Force Development division, said in 2016.

For this exact reason, the Army, as well as the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard, has LCM-8s, along with larger, seagoing Logistics Support Vessels and other types, situated at various strategic locations, including in the Pacific and the Persian gulf. In the Pacific region especially, the ability for the Army to move on water with a certain degree of independence from other services gives it much more flexibility to maneuver and redeploy to respond to rapidly changing situations.

Watercraft could support the evacuation of American citizens from a war torn country or move aid around after a natural disaster, as well. For this reason, they’re important tools to have within the United States and its outlying territories, as well. The Puerto Rico Army National Guard has a detachment of the older landing craft, though we don’t know how well they weathered Hurricane Maria or whether they’ve been in use in the recovery efforts.

As of 2016, more than 50 percent of the service’s entire watercraft fleet, 116 craft in total at the time, was in forward deployed preposition stocks, ready to go if necessary. Vigor’s new boats will only improve the capability and readiness of existing units, as well as the utility of the assets in storage, making sure the Army can still call upon this unique capability in the future.