For decades, the naval community has tried to justify mounting expenses for amphibious operations against criticisms that such tactics and equipment are no longer needed to face modern threats.

Now, with the littoral focus and growing interest in delivering humanitarian aid in the wake of natural disasters, navies are finding a solid anchor for amphibious aspirations. Their sails are filling quickly with plans for larger amphibious fleets and other ships to support those missions. The U.S. Navy in particular is searching for innovative ways to buttress such operations while refining equipment to move forces from ship to shore.

Two promising vessels for amphibious support operations, Navy brass say, are the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV), which provide transit of more than 40 kt. into shallow coastal waters.

The LCS-1 USS Freedom proved it can perform amphibious support in June, during the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training 2013 exercise with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) aboard USS LSD-46 Tortuga, in a mock raid with Malaysian army paratroopers in the Asia-Pacific region.

Sailors acted as safety observers from the ship's 11-meter (36-ft.) rigid hull inflatable boat, while the crew of Helicopter Maritime Strike Sqdn. HSM-73 provided aerial support with Freedom's MH-60R (Romeo) helicopter. With its shallow draft, Freedom anchored closer to the beach than other units and monitored landings.

“The Romeo was able to provide maritime support to the amphibious force,” says Lt. Mike Roselli, attached to HSM-73. “We could, if needed, provide Hellfire rockets, torpedoes or a search-and-rescue swimmer.”

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, U.S. chief of naval operations (CNO), is optimistic about using the JHSV in amphibious support with the vessel's capacity to carry more than 300 Marines or other personnel. “Our ability to conduct amphibious operations is an asymmetric capability,” he said in May during the International Maritime and Defense Exhibition in Singapore.

The CNO touts that capability as one of the keys to success for the U.S. Pacific pivot. And there is little doubt about the importance of amphibious operations in that area, where regional powers are investing in mid-range amphibious fleets.

“The region is the clear growth leader for amphibious platforms, with 117 new ships and craft expected at a market value of over $13 billion,” AMI International says. “By hull count, the 16 nations in AMI's Asia-Pacific region are set to acquire more of these platforms than the rest of the world combined (outside the U.S.). Of note are ongoing and future large amphibious ships capable of operating landing craft from floodable well decks and fixed-wing strike aircraft from hull-length flight decks.”

AMI says the top Asia-Pacific spenders for amphibious ships over the next 20 years will be, in order: China, India, Australia, South Korea and Indonesia. “These ships are key to sustaining more distant naval operations. They also provide a flexible capability to respond to a range of missions.”

There is little doubt about the importance China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) puts on amphibious operations. “The PLA Navy also increased its amphibious force in 2012,” the Pentagon notes in its recent annual China report. “Two Yuzhao-class amphibious transport docks were accepted into service during the year, bringing the total Yuzhao LPDs to three.”

U.S. Navy officials say the Chinese want to develop amphibious and other logistical capabilities to support far-flung operations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. needs to maintain its ship-to-shore capability, especially with cancellation of the Marines Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The Navy and Marine Corps rely on amphibious assault vehicles for ship-to-shore transit while they await development of the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle.

The landing craft, air cushion (LCAC) vessel has also been a workhorse during exercises such as Bold Alligator 2012 off the North Carolina coast. The Wasp-class amphibious assault ship LHD-3 USS Kearsarge participated, and Capt. Dorian Jones, commanding officer, said during the exercise that the combination of LCACs, aircraft and shore-landed marines underpins the expeditionary nature of such ships and their flexibility to handle diverse missions.

The LHD-6 USS Bonhomme Richard also made use of LCACs—as well as CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters and MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft—with the 31st MEU as part of the biennial combined joint-training exercise Talisman Saber 2013, off Australia in July. During the exercise, the Navy honed the SH-60 Seahawk's ability to provide operational overwatch by gathering intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and transmitting the data to ground troops.

“Sea control and air superiority are critical to successfully carry out an amphibious landing . . .” the Navy notes in a blog about Bold Alligator. For this reason, the Pentagon is working on programs for amphibious assault support.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, is developing the Captive Air Amphibious Transporter (CAAT), a tracked vehicle that moves through water with air-filled pontoons on the tracks. CAAT shows potential for transporting 20-40-ft. containers from ship to shore, enabling commercial ships to relieve military vessels.

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