The U.S. Army May Cut Nearly Half Of Its Already Underappreciated Naval Fleet

These watercraft have become more important, not less, in an era of 'great power competition,' especially when looking toward the Pacific.

US Army

The U.S. Army has confirmed that it is reassessing the size and composition of its often forgotten fleet of logistics ships, landing craft, and other watercraft as part of its over-arching modernization plans. At least one possible course of action the service is considering appears to involve doing away entirely with all of these craft in the Army Reserve and National Guard, which amount to almost half all of all these assets within the Army as a whole. This would eliminate a significant portion the Army maritime capability at a time when it is only becoming more important, especially with regards to potential combat operations in the Pacific region.

gCaptain was first to report on the existence of the review of the Army Watercraft Systems program on Jan. 14, 2019, after obtaining a memo titled “Army Watercraft Transformation Through Divestment of Capability and Force Structure by Inactivation of Units.” While most people wouldn't think of the Army having a Navy of its own, they do. The largest of these vessels are eight Logistics Support Vessels, also known as the General Frank S. Besson-class which we at The War Zone have profiled in depth the past. As of November 2018, the service also had 34 Landing Craft Utility 2000s (LCU-2000) and 36 Landing Craft Mechanized Mk 8s (LCM-8), along with a variety of tugs, small ferries, and unpowered barges.

“The Army is assessing its watercraft program to improve readiness, modernize the force and reallocate resources. This is an ongoing formal analysis between OSD [the Office of the Secretary of Defense], the Joint Staff, Army Headquarters and the combatant commands,” Cheryle Rivas, an Army spokesperson, told The War Zone by Email. “This will be a long-term process as we review all aspects of Army watercraft employment. The Army watercraft force that emerges will be more ready and capable of meeting the National Defense Strategy and combatant commander requirements.”

Though obscure, the Army’s organic fleets allow the service to avoid necessarily having to rely on the U.S. Navy or contracted ships to move personnel and materiel by sea. It also means the service doesn’t have to add to the existing burden on the Navy’s amphibious ships and landing craft, which are often stretched thin, to begin with.  

US Army

An overview of all of the Army Watercraft Systems as of November 2018. "AC" refers to the "Active Component," or regular Army units, while "RC" refers to the "Reserve Component," which includes Army Reserve and National Guard Units. APS are Army Prepositioned Stocks, caches of stored vehicles, other equipment, and supplies in strategic locations in case of contingencies.

The Army’s watercraft can help unload cargo from commercial ships in permissive and non-combat environments, as well, which could ease logistical requirements during distributed and expeditionary operations. These same capabilities have proven valuable during humanitarian relief operations after natural disasters at home and abroad.

It is for these exact reasons that the Army has watercraft units spread across 10 locations on the East and West coasts of the contiguous United States, as well as in Hawaii. Army mariners also run operations from facilities in Kuwait and Japan and can deploy worldwide, as required.

US Army

A map showing the locations of Army watercraft units and assets as of November 2018. The "zones" refer to how the service breaks up purchases of contract maintenance support for these elements at home and abroad.

But the memo that gCaptain obtained reportedly included plans to sell off or otherwise divest up to 18 LCU-2000s and shutter eight Reserve and National Guard watercraft units over an unspecified timeframe. The Army’s end goal was to “eliminate all United States Army Reserve and National Guard Bureau AWS [Army Watercraft Systems] capabilities and/or supporting structure,” according to the document.

Rivas would not confirm or deny the specific details that gCaptain has previously reported or say whether they were just one of many proposed courses of action. We do not know what units specifically might be on the chopping block.

US Army

A pair of Army LCU-2000s during an exercise in California in 2015.

Eliminating all watercraft capabilities in Reserve and National Guard units would automatically require moving three LSVs, seven LCU-2000s, nine LCM-8s, eight tugs, and two floating crane barges into so-called “Active Component” units or risking losing those capabilities altogether. This is around a third of the LSVs and roughly half of the landing craft the Army has in total outside of prepositioned stockpiles of equipment around the world.  

The loss of the three LSVs would be especially pronounced. These ships displace 4,200 tons and have loading ramps fore and aft for the rapid loading and unloading of tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as trucks carrying personnel and cargo. They can also accommodate oversized cargo.  

DOD

Works load a Boeing C-17A Globemaster III's fuselage onto an Army General Frank S. Besson-class Logistics Support Vessel.

Capability-wise, these ships sit between large amphibious assault ships and smaller landing craft, an intermediate tier of vessels the Navy no longer has itself. LSVs have also proven they can perform in a multi-mission role, acting an intermediary platform to get materiel from amphibious ships to shore and in less traditional roles, including as submarine tenders during exercises. It would not be hard to configure them as small, impromptu sea bases, as well. You can read more about these ships here.

DOD

An Army General Frank S. Besson-class Logistics Support Vessel acts as a tender for a foreign submarine during an exercise. 

Beyond potentially losing these kinds of capabilities with any cuts, the Army could find it difficult to retain the personnel assigned to the watercraft units. These individuals have training in the relatively specialized role of Army mariners and may require significant retraining before going elsewhere.

On top of that, if the Army is considering selling off or otherwise divesting as many as 18 LCU-2000s, this calls into question whether or not the service plans to limit its watercraft cuts to Reserve and National Guards units. The Army only has 14 of these craft outside of prepositioned stocks and another 20 inside those stockpiles.

This could mean shutting down all of those units or eliminating the extra ones it has on hand in case of a contingency. The Army is planning to acquire 36 new landing craft, known as Maneuver Support Vessels (Light), or MSV(L)s, in the coming years, but these are supposed to replace the aging LCM-8s.

US Army

An artist's conception of a pair of future Army Maneuver Support Vessels (Light).

It is possible that the memo gCaptain obtained mistakenly referred to the LCU-2000s, when it meant the LCM-8s. There are 18 of these Vietnam War-era landing craft across active Army, Army Reserve, and National Guard Units, along with another 18 in preposition stocks.

However, if this is the case, the Army could still find itself in a capability gap depending on when it wants to divest any of these landing craft. The construction of the first four MSV(L)s isn’t supposed to start until 2021.

It’s not entirely clear what might be driving any decision to cut the Army’s watercraft fleets, either. We at The War Zone have noted in the past that the service's maritime capabilities have only become more valuable in recent years, which one might have expected to cause growth rather than contraction in those units and their assets.

The last major change in the service’s maritime capabilities came in 2011, when the Navy took full ownership of all of what were then known as Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV). The Spearhead-class of what are now called Expeditionary Fast Transports, abbreviated EPF, continue to provide important, multi-purpose intra-theater maritime capability for the U.S. military around the world. You can read more about these catamaran vessels here.

USN

The Navy's Expeditionary Fast Transport USNS Spearhead. This ship was originally destined for the US Army.

As Army spokesperson Rivas noted in her statement, the service does have to balance its watercraft requirements against a host of modernization priorities, including new armored vehicles, artillery systems, air defenses, and much more. The U.S. military’s overall effort to re-focus on preparations for “great power competition” against countries such as Russia and China have prompted all of the services to work to revitalize various conventional military capabilities after decades of low-intensity conflicts.

This shift in attitude has reportedly already led current Secretary of the Army Mark Esper to question the value of various elements of his service that no longer seem to be in line with these priorities. Most notably, he has advocated for doing away with the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI) within the Army War College, ostensibly to free up funds for other programs. Advocates have pointed out the wide-ranging benefits PKSOI provides, including its interagency connections and knowledgebase, at extremely low cost.

US Army

Secretary of the Army Mark Esper.

The services watercraft may have attracted similar budget-conscious scrutiny, which could become even more pronounced depending if President Donald Trump's Administration asks for or receives a smaller defense budget in the next fiscal year than it has in the recent past. But, while they may not be ideally suited for "tip of the spear" operations in a high-end conflict, their capabilities could still be invaluable in more permissive areas during distributed operations. These craft could help free up more capable amphibious ships for more demanding missions.

In the Pacific region, especially, where the “tyranny of distance” means that units may be spread across a wide area and positions thousands of miles from established logistics hubs, having additional intermediate maritime transport capacity could be vital to sustained operations. The Army’s fleets already give the Navy more flexibility in how it deploys its own amphibious capabilities.

Eliminating the Army Reserve and National Guard capabilities would deprive them of unique assets to assist in non-combat missions, including disaster relief at home, as well. The Puerto Rico Army National Guard’s LCM-8s helped move personnel, equipment, and supplies in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, the latter of which absolutely devastated the island and made overland travel difficult, if not impossible in many cases.

US Army

A Puerto Rico Army National Guard LCM-8 during operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

“The Army is assessing the program,” is all the service’s spokesperson Rivas could tell us when we followed up for additional details. “This is an on-going formal analysis and a long-term process.”

We will be keeping a close eye out for any future information about how the Army’s plans to cut or otherwise transform its understated, but important maritime capabilities.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com