In the vast Indo-Pacific, where the theater spans more than half of the Earth’s surface and port access is not guaranteed, the U.S. Army’s maritime force is set to play an outsize role as it transforms for the future.
With a fleet of 74 watercraft systems and about 1,000 skilled maritime soldiers some call “boaties,” the Army is gearing up to support critical logistics operations for the joint force with its transoceanic ships, versatile landing craft and ship-to-shore capabilities that haven’t been on the front lines since World War II.
“In the Indo-Pacific, more than any other theater, the [logistics] challenge has manifested itself as we look at the distributed nature of operations,” said Maj. Gen. Jered Helwig, commander of the Fort Shafter, Hawaii-based 8th Theater Sustainment Command. The command’s mission is to provide Army, joint and multinational sustainment capabilities in the Indo-Pacific area of operations.
The Indo-Pacific Theater spans more than 100 million square miles and is home to more than half the world’s population living in 36 nations, more than a third of which are smaller island nations. Its diverse geography is also home to some of the world’s busiest international sea lanes, nine of the 10 largest ports, seven of the world’s 10 largest militaries and five declared nuclear nations, making it one of the most strategically complex regions in the world. It also is the priority theater for the U.S. military, with China as the pacing challenge, a term adopted by the Pentagon to describe the specific threat posed by that country.
As the threat has grown in the theater, Helwig said, logistics operations have become even more distributed to avoid concentration in a single area. This has created “an effect and a requirement on sustainment that may not be as well-built into the normal fabric of what we knew,” he said.
Presented with “logistics we haven’t had to deal with since World War II,” Helwig said, the Army’s watercraft “will be indispensable,” particularly with contested operations in a new and more threatening multidomain environment.
“We really have to ensure that we understand what happens if [capabilities such as GPS] are contested,” he said. “We have to be comfortable being cut off from the main arteries to be able to then work independently and understand intent tied to logistics and go with that intent until we can get back into an area where we can talk and recoordinate.”
In addition to being an environment where anything can be contested, the distance and time it takes to move units and equipment in-theater presents its own challenges, said Col. Sam Miller, commander of the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.
As commander of a joint task force during Exercise Talisman Sabre 23 in July and August, Miller shipped his brigade’s equipment to Australia via rail and strategic ships. It took more than a month. The brigade’s headquarters element, comprising about 400 soldiers, flew there. He compared the logistics of moving brigade personnel and equipment from Virginia to Australia to the process of deploying to Afghanistan, which involved at least two flights before arriving in-country.
“If you take that trip to Afghanistan and at least double it or maybe even triple it for distance alone on strategic air, we have to realize that any units, even an airborne unit, it’s going to be timelines that are a lot more than we’ve experienced in the past,” Miller said.
With the prospect of deploying a combat formation to the Indo-Pacific Theater by air or on a seagoing vessel, Miller said, “at some point there has to probably be a transition to a smaller Army watercraft just based on the threat.”
“At the end of the day, you’re going to have to do dispersed operations,” Miller said. “Unless you’re centralizing on a point in a particular battle, you really need to be dispersed, and you can’t do that with these larger Navy or strategic vessels when it comes to a land force.”
Shift in Strategy
The Army’s fleet of vessels provides a range of capabilities, from large oceangoing ships, to versatile landing craft, to towing and terminal operations vessels. These systems include ship-to-shore enablers such as the Modular Causeway System, which consists of floating causeways and causeway ferries, modular warping tugs and roll-on/roll-off facilities.
The focus on the Army’s watercraft systems as vital to operations in the Indo-Pacific is a significant shift in strategy since 2019, when the service began to drastically reduce its waterborne capabilities by deactivating and divesting equipment, units and soldiers, said Chief Warrant Officer 5 John Zabler, regimental chief warrant officer for the U.S. Army Transportation School and Transportation Corps. Instead, Zabler said, watercraft units and the Army’s maritime force are set to grow and modernize with new formations known as composite watercraft companies and new vessels tailored for more effective light and heavy maneuverability, closing “the last tactical mile” where it becomes too shallow for larger vessels to operate.
Modernization came to the watercraft community in October 2021 with the creation of the 329th Composite Watercraft Company under the 7th Transportation Brigade, the first of its kind. A second formation, the 5th Composite Watercraft Company, has been established at Yokohama North Dock in Japan, and more such units could be stood up as gaps are identified.
Designed to consolidate Mission Command of Army watercraft and provide their own organic maintenance capabilities, the new units each will be manned by about 225 soldiers, including a maintenance platoon, a mission planning cell and a headquarters element.
“This is a significant shift within the last couple of years,” Zabler said of the Army’s decision to grow its watercraft capabilities. “The majority of our watercraft fleet, as far as vessels and personnel, are going to be in the Pacific.”
The units include oceangoing vessels, landing craft, small tugboats and, when they begin fielding in fiscal 2026, the new Maneuver Support Vessel (Light).
This next-generation Maneuver Support Vessel (Light), or MSV(L), will replace the decades-old watercraft known as the Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) that’s been used to transport vehicles, equipment and personnel from ship to shore.
Calling it “the first major modernization in 40 years” for the Army’s maritime fleet, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Nicholas Laferte, the senior watercraft warrant officer in the Army’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Training at the Pentagon, pointed to the vessel’s speed of 30 knots, or about 35 mph, as a huge change from the LCM, which tops out at 10 knots, or about 12 mph.
In a first, the vessel will have dedicated seating for a platoon-size element of combat troops for trips of more than six hours and standing room for 400 troops for shorter trips.
“We can’t just say the MSV(L) replaces [the LCM]; it absolutely displaces that vessel in load capacity, in speed, utility communications and self-defense,” Laferte said. “Everything is night and day, with the exception of they both float.”
Larger and faster, the MSV(L) also will be able to transport an M1A2 Abrams tank or two armored vehicles. To complement the new vessel, the Army is developing a heavy version that will be able to transport more troops and equipment.
The largest watercraft in the Army’s maritime fleet is the Logistics Support Vessel with a crew of 31 warrant officers and enlisted soldiers. Known as the LSV, it is a durable, oceangoing workhorse that can carry 2,000 tons of cargo on its massive 10,000-square-foot deck—more than two dozen M1A2 Abrams tanks or 48 double-stacked shipping containers, for example, or 250 combat-equipped troops.
“The utility of the LSV really gets after what Army watercraft as a capability provides the Army, and that’s heavy sealift with extreme light draft,” Laferte said, explaining that the LSV “only needs like 15 feet of water to be able to operate. Think about a deep swimming pool; that’s all it needs.”
“It’s a transoceanic vessel that can go anywhere in the world under its own power,” he said, though with a top speed of 12 knots, or about 14 mph, the LSV’s speed is limited. “Even though it’s a little bit slower craft, when it gets [to its destination], it’s going to have a ton of equipment on board.”
One rung down in size from the LSV is the Landing Craft Utility (LCU). This vessel can operate up to about 230 miles offshore and maneuver through shallow inland waterways. As with the LSV, the LCU is heavy lift with a light draft. It’s roughly 100 feet shorter than the 273-foot LSV, so its carriage capacity is lower, but it can still carry up to five M1A2 Abrams tanks or 30 double-stacked containers.
The vessel is used for tactical resupply and logistics-over-the-shore operations, and it provides intratheater movement from advanced bases into smaller ports, harbors, inland waterways and remote, underdeveloped coastlines and unimproved beaches.
“We have eight LSVs and 17 LCUs, and when you talk about intratheater movement, the LCUs are very efficient,” Laferte said. “They can provide that sustained access to extreme austere locations.”
Professionals at Work
Maritime soldiers are embracing the Army’s high-profile Indo-Pacific role and the first modernization effort for the maritime fleet in decades. Seasoned Army seafaring crews have been operating in relative obscurity compared to the rest of the force.
Explaining that mariners call each other “boaties,” Zabler, who has been a mariner since he joined the Army 23 years ago, said it’s a tightly knit community that “is like family, because you’re living on the boat, you’re seeing them every day, and you’re spending all your free time with them. It’s a small community compared to the rest of the Army.”
Laferte, who has been in the Army for 25 years and a maritime soldier for the past 14 years, pointed out that with the creation of two new watercraft units, soldiers have new stationing options and additional training opportunities, which are “additive bonuses to already receiving pretty significant certificates and ratings in the job that we do.”
“As a leader inside the cohort, I’ve been extremely excited to see how the mariners have responded and the energy in the field,” Laferte said. “They can see transformation as being a positive thing.”
In a shift for the maritime force, he said, modernization and new vessels also mean a new mission, a culture change that involves moving troops, not just equipment.
“You hardly ever leave an Army port and pull into an Army port carrying Army equipment,” Laferte said. “You typically leave someone else’s port carrying somebody else’s equipment, but you’re the Army guy. Now, it’s a mindset of maneuver support. It’s carrying both combat-configured equipment and personnel to the point of need and how critical it is to do your job at such a professional level.”