Pacific exercises help to shape US Army’s watercraft strategy

Pacific exercises help to shape US Army’s watercraft strategy

PEARL HARBOR – A U.S. Army Light Support Vessel can transport 24 Abrams tanks at once, even at sea for nearly a month without needing a port visit, and one recently deployed to Gaza to help build the floating pier designed to provide humanitarian aid to civilians in the war-torn region.

Aboard the USAV LTG William B. Bunker, or the LSV-4, the vessel master, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Arian Fernandez, told Defense News that much like the B2 Bomber, the ship is old but reliable. It has an engine very similar to a train locomotive, is operated by a crew of just 31 Army mariners and can be ready to go on a lengthy at sea mission within 24 to 48 hours.

The LSV-4 took one of its longest trips from Hawaii out to Talisman Sabre in Australia last year and much was learned about exercising logistics over the shore, according to Maj. Gen. Jared Helwig, the 8th Theater Sustainment Command commander.

At the Association of the U.S. Army’s LANPAC conference in Honolulu last week, Helwig said Talisman Sabre was really the first time a major exercise in the Pacific had a key focus on logistics.

Logistics and sustainment are central to carving out a major role for the Army in the Pacific as the U.S. seeks to deter China and prepares to protect allies and partners.

The Army is figuring out what it will need to conduct logistics and sustainment in a contested environment going forward and watercraft is an essential element.

The LSVs in the Army inventory will stay in the fleet for many years along with other vital watercraft such as smaller Landing Craft Utility boats, modular causeway systems – which are essentially floating piers – and small tugboats.

Yet the Army wants more watercraft and is developing a strategy for strengthening the fleet in the future. Recent exercises in the Pacific theater are helping to shape that plan.

Three-pronged approach

“Watercraft in this region plays an enormously important role,” U.S. Army Pacific Commander Gen. Charles Flynn told Defense News at LANPAC.

For Flynn, the strategy to build out the fleet will have a three-pronged approach. “We have to take what is currently in the inventory,” he said, “and maintain that. We need to do a much deeper look at the maintenance of our current vessels”

Secondly, the Army is taking lessons learned from its current LSV fleet to develop the right requirements for the Maneuver Support Vessel-Light (MSV-L) and MSV-Heavy development. The Army is working closely with industry to modernize through those efforts, Flynn said.

The service wants to “make sure that we have a good lash up between what we’re currently learning, how we’re using them and what the future holds for us with lighter, higher payloads, greater speeds, lower draft, lower signature,” he said.

Additionally, the Army needs to be able to maintain its fleet forward in the Pacific whether that is in Guam, Japan, Australia or anywhere else in the theater.

“Why is that important? That’s important because they are also developing out their watercraft capabilities,” Flynn said. “And that is tied to our military capabilities but it’s also tied to commercial contributions that’s being made in each one of these countries.”

Growing the fleet

The Army is already testing out its first Maneuver Support Vessel-Light prototype with plans to build 14. The plan is to build one vessel a year in the production phase, Lt. Gen. Karl Gingrich, Army G-8, told Defense News in a May 21 interview.

Helwig said he is hoping to get the first MSV-L prototype in Hawaii by the end of the year to validate the capability and experiment with it around the Hawaiian Islands.

“From a sustainers perspective, if we’re able to have it here, doing that activity, validating itself in the environment that it will operate in, it will also teach us a lot about what it takes to sustain it, to employ it, and to correctly integrate it into the joint force,” he said.

The MSV-Heavy is not yet a requirement for the Army, Gingrich said. “When you go above that to maybe an MSV-Heavy or something like that,” he said, “you start to really get up almost into the Navy, Marine Corps’ [Landing Ship Medium] requirement and that’s a really big ship with a really big crew.”

Vessels in that class are “really expensive,” and would be difficult to fund, especially with historically flat or declining Army budgets, Gingrich noted, “so that is going to be really hard.”

The Army is now watching the Marine Corps’ Offshore Support Vessel program. The vessel was at Project Convergence at Camp Pendleton, California, earlier this spring. “That’s in theater right now, as I understand it, for about 90 days to learn and grow.”

Gingrich said he’d asked for a report assessing its performance. “That could be an option, but we are very closely tied to the Marine Corps and what they’re doing,” he said. “Even if we do pursue an MSV-H, we won’t have it for a long time. So what do we do in the interim?”

One solution would be to pursue something commercially, according to Gingrich. “When I say commercial solution, it could be something that we buy, a used craft, and man it. Or some other version where we truly just are contracted. I don’t know yet.”

As watercraft get larger, Helwig noted, moving around areas in the Pacific, particularly archipelagos with shallow water, are challenging and so the Army is looking at “what commercial capabilities are out there as well when it comes to offshore support vessels, commercial shallow draft vessels that might help us out. What kind of barging capabilities are there?”

The Philippines, with over 7,000 islands, for example, move things around on barges regularly, Helwig noted.

This year, the Army has used an offshore support vessel in Operation Pathways, Helwig said. “It’s been a great opportunity for us to see how we would integrate that into our overall military operations as part of Pathways.”

The Army knows it will need to integrate offshore support vessels or commercial vessels, he added. “Just like every operation, we’ve had commercial trucks, and other capabilities integrated into our operations. Watercraft are the same way; we’re never going to build enough watercraft for the military and so we have to leverage the commercial capabilities that are out there.”

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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