Marine Corps Week: Look to your LCUs

by admin on November 3, 2013

130908-N-KE519-031There is a certain rigidity to Marine Corps thinking on amphibious warfare that is exasperating. It’s ironic–Their decades-long pursuit of tools to enable “Operational Maneuver From the Sea” (an inherently adaptable approach to the amphibious battlefield) has spawned far too many rigid doctrinarians.  And that crowd is either unable–or unwilling–to break away from their OMFTS brief.

One might think that, given Corps that hasn’t completed a full-scale “from-the-beach” forcible entry for decades, and now that many of their new OMFTS-ready tools are coming on-line, there would, in some quarters, be some certain respect for old ones–the handful of old-fashioned “must-have” enablers of basic, “old school” amphibious warfare.

No such luck. Instead, the Marine Corps has dug in–and ossified around–the idea that they will have X number of large amphibs, with X number of MV-22s, X number of F-35Bs and X fast-swimming equivalents of an Abrams tank. I understand–and approve of–a good fight for resources, but it is high time for the USMC amphibious warfare folk to start shifting from OMFTS-related procurement warfare and start growing a cadre of true amphibious operators.

Here’s a case in point–It makes little sense for America’s gallant Marines to fight high-profile acquisition battles for big grey amphibious vessels (and force the re-introduction of a well deck into the big-deck amphibs, no less) while our antiquated LCU 1600 fleet–the poor bloody well-deck-dwelling infantry of amphibious warfare–crumbles into rust.  A true amphibious warfare professional would be screaming for these cheap, flexible assets to get SLEPed or rebuilt.  But nooo.  Instead, the Marine Corps is dithering over the high-tech, tactical margins.

The 32-hull LCU 1600 fleet is in trouble.  These basic landing craft–each capable of schlepping a good amount of gear to the beach–are simple, cheap and rugged.  Their utility reaches beyond the beach.  With a 10-day (or so) endurance, they can even conduct independent operations.  As far as maintenance goes, their plant is relatively simple, and the LCU crew can do a lot (a lot on their own) to keep the landing craft operation.  But the fleet’s age averages in at about 42 years, and repairs of repairs of repairs are finally breaking down for good. As the venerable platforms grow increasingly feeble, their rated max cargo load is declining and their availability is slumping.

On the procurement front, LCUs have been ignored.  Folks talk (and talk and talk) about replacing the LCU fleet.  It is a conversation that has been going on for….more than a decade now.  And despite all the talk about how the LCU replacement is “just around the corner”, nothing seems to happen.  A simple design refresh would be easy to do.  But you can sense what the procurement warriors want–a complex and power-dense device or some grand-feat-of-engineering contraption.

[An aside: In addition to the USMC ambivalence about the LCU Fleet, LCU recapitalization falls directly into a what I call the “Overhead Curse of Medium Size/Low Complexity Programs (For my acronym-loving Marine Corps readers that’s OCMSLCP).  These boats are simple enough to be made by a couple of welding tool-wielding guys in a bayou someplace, and the fleet size small enough for a simple backwater yard to manage.  As such, the larger, higher-overhead defense contractors (the ones with “juice” within the procurement process) are unlikely to touch the project until it reaches a sufficient level of technical complexity–enough so that some of us low-overhead Swamp People won’t be able to build it. But the program itself is too big for a Program Manager (or Assistant Secretary) to order up on his own.  Thus the problem–there’ s no significant external pressure on DOD, so, unless Senior DOD/USMC Leadership steps in to “MAKE THIS LCU HAPPEN ASAP”, it ain’t happening.]

Look. The LCU is not a front-line OMFTS asset. It’s just a truck.  All the thing is supposed to do is to get stuff aboard and run aground.  On sand.  And then to depart and run into a ship.  Unload. And get more stuff.  Again and again.  That’s it.  At the interface between two zones, Marines need something durable, simple and easy to operate.

Sad thing is that an LCU is a great investment.  A simple, flat-hull utility landing craft will never be obsolete–no matter what the strategy is, there will always be demand for a simple landing craft.  And at the present time, amphibious warfare is about getting troops–usually small numbers–ashore to achieve a limited goal.  Usually that goal is not to fight–but to evaluate, secure or evacuate folks–things that new MV-22s and such can handle.  Recent large-scale landings–where the LCUs have been involved–have been to support HA/DR efforts.  A fancy landing craft concept is not needed.

So here the Marine Corps sits, pivoting to the Pacific. Shaping in Africa. Leaving Afghanistan.

What does the Marine Corps need for those tasks?  A good bit, apparently.  But I am darned certain that one key thing the Marine Corps needs is a simple landing craft.

And that’s one thing the USMC sure ain’t busy getting.

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  • El Sid

    @Craig
    I’ve seen claims that the EDAR/L-CAT costs are comparable to a conventional LCU, but I guess you’d have to burrow into French government budgets to see how realistic that claim was. I guess it’s possible just because they have their origins in a small company outside the usual defence mafia.

    You’re aware of the Surface Connector (X) Recapitalization (SC(X)R) programme? It does seem that things are finally moving.

  • John

    The Army has a bunch of those Runnymead-class LCUs. They are pretty big but I bet they could dock up with a big amphib or operate with one of those new mobile landing platforms. And they can self-deploy or be deployed on a big semi-submersible cargo ship. Since the Marines do amphibious forced entry, couldn’t they just use those until the beach head is secure and it’s time for all the Army stuff to go ashore?

  • Craig Hooper

    Hi Chuck–L-CATS are awesome. Love ’em. Scalable, speedy landing craft with fun potential “fast-craft” utility in the catamaran mode. But just how durable are they? And what’s the LCU/LCAT cost differential and operations/sustainment differential?

    My argument is that the basic LCU is chap, pretty darn simple, and it will run forever.

  • The French already have the replacement and it is much faster:
    http://www.navyrecognition.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=993

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