The existence of Army Watercraft Systems and the capabilities they offer remain a revelation to many. However, the enabling effect these seagoing vessels provide to the joint force and the Indo-Pacific region is undeniable.
The Army has played an integral role in joint overseas expeditions and joint war plans since the establishment of the Joint Army and Navy Board in 1903. Army amphibious operations began as a joint venture under the command of the Navy, but over time, the Army assumed command responsibility of its amphibious formations and operations.
In the early 1940s, Gen. Douglas MacArthur specifically requested the Army’s amphibious formations for shore-to-shore operations in the Southwest Pacific. In 1943, he received three engineer amphibious brigades along with their vessels. The brigades were used for beach landings and the transport of personnel, equipment and supplies. These brigades conducted 36 major and 344 secondary shore-to-shore and ship-to-shore operations and executed 148 combat landings in support of joint forces.
The joint nature of amphibious operations remains a constant in the Pacific as the Army maintains joint maritime integration in preparation for future operations in the theater.
As the Army looks at future Army amphibious operations in the Pacific, it’s important to analyze how Army Watercraft Systems (AWS) enable the joint force for the next conflict. Future Army amphibious operations against 21st century near-peer competitors will require an Army watercraft fleet that operates at the speed of war, is maintained in the theater of war, is properly manned, and executes joint and integrated amphibious operations with joint and multinational partners. The vessels of the future must be able to integrate into a joint maritime convoy, conduct movement and maneuver, as well as execute intratheater distribution within the littorals, or coastal regions.
History has illustrated AWS as a critical capability, especially in the Pacific; however, the utilization of watercraft by the Army has been under review for some time. In fact, in 2018, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper ordered the divestment of most AWS. Consequently, the Army conducted an in-depth analysis of its watercraft fleet to identify requirements across the combatant commands.
Due to the ever-present global threat by near-peer competitors and the capability AWS provides the joint force, the decision was made to divest, realign and modernize the Army watercraft fleet. The fleet is undergoing divestment and will be reduced to 74 systems by fiscal 2027. Additionally, a composite watercraft company will be fielded in the Pacific, which will provide maintenance support for AWS across the region.
This divestment is part of the Army Watercraft Transformation Strategy to globally position AWS to meet the National Defense Strategy and combatant commander requirements. AWS are a strategic capability in the Army inventory and will be essential to enabling the joint force in crisis, competition and conflict during joint all-domain operations.
AWS provide the combatant commander with options by enabling operational reach, freedom of action and prolonged endurance. The Pacific fleet consists of Logistics Support Vessels, Landing Craft Utility vessels, Landing Craft Mechanized vessels, floating causeways, roll-on/roll-off discharge facilities and tugs.
With some of these assets residing in Army pre-positioned stock, AWS are used to enable the intra- and intertheater transport of personnel, equipment and supplies.
Additionally, AWS are used to execute joint logistics over the shore across unimproved beaches and degraded ports. Each system is unique and strategically postured throughout the Pacific to enable the joint force.
The Logistics Support Vessel is the “workhorse” among Army Watercraft Systems and is the largest of the fleet, with a maximum speed of approximately 12 knots. The vessel provides heavy lift capability and can transport upward of 24 M1A2 Abrams tanks, or 48 double-stacked containers or 250 combat-equipped troops. It has an equivalent payload capacity of 40 C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft loads and is primarily used for deployments and relocation missions.
The Landing Craft Utility vessel is a smaller vessel, but it still provides heavy lift capability. This vessel can carry up to five M1A2 tanks, or 30 double-stacked containers or 250 combat-equipped troops, with an equivalent payload capacity of seven C-17 loads and is used for tactical resupply and logistics-over-the-shore operations.
The Landing Craft Mechanized vessel can transport up to two 20-foot containers, or one to two smaller rolling stock. The Landing Craft Mechanized vessel is used for the transport of equipment and personnel from ship to shore. The vessel will soon be replaced by the Maneuver Support Vessel (Light), a larger and faster vessel. The Maneuver Support Vessel (Light) will have the capacity to transport a tank or two armored vehicles.
In a maritime-dominated area of operations, AWS serve as a force multiplier for the Army and joint force during theater opening activities and theater sustainment and distribution operations.
Mission and Operations
AWS are critical to sustaining and supporting joint force operations in the Pacific area of operations. The U.S. Navy’s fleet is considered the main effort in the Pacific, with myriad vessels and ships to conduct almost any operation. However, Army AWS are the transport vessels that provide an efficient rate of movement to the joint force and have the capability to transverse throughout the littorals transporting personnel, equipment and supplies to the point of need.
The sea is the mode of transport in the Pacific, and AWS provide maritime mobility for the joint force.
AWS are instrumental in the execution of operations, activities and investments throughout the Pacific Theater. AWS are essential in facilitating theater sustainment and theater distribution. In fact, AWS have been used to support joint multinational exercises and joint maneuver operations west of the international date line. During Exercise Forager 21, Logistics Support Vessels and Landing Craft Utility vessels were used to move the 1st Multi-Domain Task Force from Guam to neighboring islands, transporting High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, Stryker combat vehicles and other key commodities.
Logistics Support Vessels have also been instrumental in transporting ammunition from the Pacific to strategic ammunition seaports like Military Ocean Terminal Concord, California. AWS continue to support Marine expeditionary forces across the Pacific through the transport of personnel and equipment during training exercises. AWS have also been used to facilitate exercises across the area of operations, exercises including Defender Pacific, Keen Edge, Talisman Saber, Valiant Shield, Cobra Gold, Garuda Shield and more.
If AWS remain an essential asset for future operations across the Pacific, the Army has some challenges it must address in AWS staffing and maintenance. AWS are staffed at 100%, resulting in an immediate degradation of capability if one crew member is unavailable for duty.
A solution to this problem set is staffing AWS crews similar to that of aviation crews. The Army aviation community was staffed at 103% for pilots as of August 2019, allowing for flexibility in cases when pilots are unavailable due to injuries, emergencies or temporary assignments. The Army needs to adopt this framework for AWS staffing in order to keep up with the ever-growing demand of AWS operations across the Pacific.
Maintenance is another issue among AWS, due to a heavy reliance on contracted sustainment maintenance to maintain the aged vessels. AWS fall under On Condition Cyclic Maintenance, which requires cyclic maintenance at three- and four-year intervals. Another level of complexity is added when vessels from the Pacific must travel back to the U.S. for scheduled cyclic maintenance, resulting in a loss of capability for an even longer period.
A solution to this problem set is the relocation of sustainment maintenance capability in the Pacific to reduce the time vessels are down due to cyclic maintenance. Additionally, the Army must ensure it procures and maintains the technical data packages required to maintain the vessels once contracts are awarded to manufacturers.
In contrast, the Navy uses a diverse approach to maintaining its vessels. Naval vessel maintenance differs depending upon the location, number, types of ships and the contractor industrial base maintenance support available. The Navy relies heavily on host-nation contracted maintenance support within the region for maintenance support and its organic maintenance facilities. The Army could adopt this approach once sustainment-level maintenance locations are established within the Pacific and international country agreements are expanded throughout the region.
Joint maritime integration enables in-transit visibility and interoperability during joint force operations. The joint integration of Army watercraft operations is critical to ensure the combatant commander maintains operational tempo and freedom of action. The joint force maritime component commander is responsible for the movement and maneuver of forces within the maritime area of operations, while the joint force air component commander is responsible for mission command of joint air operations. Through coordination and integration with the Maritime Operations Center and Air Operations Center, Army watercraft operations are tracked and protected in the sea and from the air.
The Maritime Operations Center provides maritime overwatch of Army watercraft operations and maintains communication with AWS as they traverse through open waters through Link 16, a tactical data link that allows communication between land, sea and air forces to support joint operations and improve interoperability. The Air Operations Center controls air support operations within the area of operations and provides air overwatch in support of Army watercraft operations.
Before any Army watercraft operation, the Maritime Operations Center and Air Operations Center receive detailed information on the operation, to include vessel type, personnel on board, equipment being transported, destination and all voyage details. This coordination is critical to ensuring Army watercraft operations are nested and tracked by the centers in the event that AWS are shadowed, intercepted, disabled or attacked and require protection.
AWS are here to stay as a critical enabler for the joint force, hence the ongoing modernization efforts of Army watercraft. AWS are the only fleet providing an efficient rate of movement within the littorals of the Pacific for the joint force, which will remain a key task during conflict as materiel and personnel move from the strategic support area to the point of need.
The Pacific is the most consequential theater in the world, and the role of AWS will become even greater as the Army expands its posture across the area of operations. Joint maritime integration will be essential as AWS remain the primary means of materiel and personnel transport within the Pacific due to its geography. Sea and air lines of communication must remain free of threats in order for AWS to execute their transport mission, so the joint force must make the protection of AWS a priority.
As AWS take on a greater responsibility in the Pacific, the Army must develop doctrine to truly describe the role of AWS in conflict during joint all-domain operations. Furthermore, the Army must address AWS staffing and maintenance concerns before the next conflict in order for the Pacific to experience the full capability of AWS as they enable the freedom of action, prolonged endurance and operational reach of the joint force.
* * *
Maj. Gen. David Wilson is commanding general of the U.S. Army 8th Theater Sustainment Command, Fort Shafter, Hawaii. Previously, he served as director of logistics, U.S. Forces Korea/U.N. Command, and deputy director of logistics, Combined Forces Command, both in South Korea. Before that, he was the Army’s 40th chief of ordnance. He is a graduate of The Citadel, South Carolina, and holds a master’s degree in general administration from Central Michigan University and a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the National Defense University.