On July 22, U.S. shipbuilder Austal laid the keel for the U.S. Army’s Spearhead, the first of a 10-ship class of high-speed catamaran transports that will be jointly operated by the Army and the U.S. Navy. The $160-million, 100-meter Spearhead will be the most sophisticated ship with a shared, Army-Navy pedigree — but it’s not the first. The Army operates many of the same classes of coastal vessels as the Navy, including small and large landing craft and wheeled amphibious tractors. There’s one important type of Army vessel the Navy doesn’t possess.
The so-called Logistics Support Vessel is a 272-foot, flat-bottomed, beachable, roll-off vessel costing just $32 million. The Army’s eight LSVs, commissioned beginning in the late 1980s, are what independent U.S. naval analyst Craig Hooper called “humble-tech.” “They are long-legged, lightly-manned utility infielders — perfect for experimentation, maintenance support, logistics aid or, well, almost anything but ‘high-threat’ stuff,” Hooper wrote. He and other critics are calling on the Navy to adopt similar vessels to complement the bigger, more expensive ships that dominate U.S. shipbuilding plans.
“An LSV, with its slow speed, tiny draft, mid-sized crew (a core of about 30) and long legs (5,000 miles) would be a perfect ‘presence’ tool for Africa and the Pacific Islands,” Hooper wrote. With its 2,000-ton capacity, “the LSV can bring a lot of stuff to a lot of places.” Not only that, the basic LSV design, built by VT Halter Marine in Mississippi, can be modified for carrying helicopters and small boats, turning it into a tiny aircraft carrier or “mothership” for patrol and riverine craft. The Philippines navy operates two LSVs as helicopter carriers.
The Army’s LSVs underscore an important truth about U.S. maritime power. More so than most nations, America has distributed its sea power across multiple organizations. The U.S. Navy is the main “owner” of maritime assets, but by no means the only one. Military Sealift Command, the Army, the Coast Guard and even the Air Force operate military-grade seagoing vessels that must be counted in the U.S. National Fleet. Ignoring any of America’s “other” navies risks under-utilizing unique skills and assets. The Coast Guard, for instance, is building a class of powerful, efficient, long-range patrol vessels that would be perfect for persistent patrols in pirate-infested waters. Likewise, the Army with its LSVs is an important repository of littoral capability.
The problem is that the Army rarely figures in any strategic maritime planning. The land service’s LSVs are left strictly supporting land operations, most recently hauling supplies between Persian Gulf ports. There’s no reason that U.S. Army LSVs couldn’t get involved in such missions, Hooper wrote. “Let’s get these humble platforms out into the field, and perhaps, after giving them a chance, the experience might start getting us to think a little harder about how a handful of cheap, specialized LSVs … might contribute to U.S. security.”
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