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Navy Replaces Amphibious Connectors

by Kris Osborn on August 29, 2014

120106-N-PB383-070The Navy is starting a modernization overhaul designed to replace its existing fleet of connectors in order to better transport personnel, equipment and weapons from ship to shore.

The Navy and Marine Corps are now working to replace and recapitalize the existing fleet of Landing Craft Utility vessels, or LCUs, and Landing Craft Air Cushions, or LCACs.

“When we talk about operational maneuver from the sea with a landing force and ships, we get the landing force ashore with the landing craft or connectors,” Maj. Gen. Robert Walsh, Navy director of expeditionary warfare, told Military​.com in an interview.

The Navy and Marine Corps currently operate 32 Landing Craft Utility vessels, which are large over-sea troop and equipment amphibious transporters able to transit as much as 125 tons worth of gear from ship to shore.  The current fleet of LCUs, which have an average age of about 43-years, can travel as far at 1,200 nautical miles over periods up to 10 days, Walsh said.

The Landing Craft Air Cushions are smaller, newer, faster and higher tech than the LCUs. The Navy’s 72 LCACs can transport up to 60-tons, reach speed of 36-knots and travel ranges up to 200 nautical miles, Navy officials explained.  The LCACs were first produced in the 80s.

The Navy recently signed a deal with the initial maker of the LCAC, Textron Marine and Land Systems, to engineer up to eight new LCACs, Walsh said.

“We’re trying to recapitalize what we have. The LCACs were fairly revolutionary when we built them. We started building them in 1986. They are impressive hovercraft able to come up on a skirt, go fast, and carry a lot of equipment. They can actually come up onto the beach,” he added.

The new LCACs, slated to be delivered in May of 2017, will include upgraded engines, software and digital controls. The Navy plans to have six new LCACs delivered by 2020, Walsh said.

“We’re looking at recapitalizing the design we have and adding capability like increased payload, better engines and better digital controls,” he said.

The new LCAC is being engineered to carry up to 74-tons of equipment and gear, a sizeable jump from its current capacity to carry 60-tons.

The approximate price of the first LCAC is $60 million, however the Navy plans to drop the cost down to about $45 million each once more LCACs are produced.

With some of the existing fleet of LCACs approaching 30-years of service, the Navy needs to begin replacing them with new ones soon, Walsh added.

“The LCACs are going to start dropping out of service. The LCAC’s over-the-horizon speed makes us different than any other Navy. We’ve got a capability to take us in and maneuver from anywhere along the coastline beyond the horizon. In a contested environment, this allows us to find gaps where the enemy is not,” he explained.

LCACs are also designed for disaster relief because they can deliver personnel and supplies into areas where the existing infrastructure may have been destroyed.

“LCACs can go over rocks and go inland. They don’t just drop off in the water. WWII landing craft would have to drop the forward door so Soldiers and Marines would step off. LCACs can drive right off that ramp and onto terrain,” he said.

The new LCACs are called Ship-to-Shore Connectors, or SSCs. While it waits for the SSC to come to reach operational readiness, the Navy continues to work on a service-life extension for its existing fleet of LCACs.

Designed to add at least ten more years to the service life of LCACs, the extension program upgrades communication, navigation, software and electrical systems.  The Navy is even doing a post-service life extension designed to add five to seven more years to the LCACs on top of the initial ten.

Walsh said the Navy is also looking to replace its fleet of 32 LCUs, which are now at an average age of 43.  The Navy recently finished what’s called an analysis of alternatives on the LCU, a thorough examination of requirements and mission sets the new LCU will be built to take on.

The new LCU, called the Surface Connector XR, or SCXR, program, will be based closely on the existing design, Walsh said.

“We like them and we are not going to change a lot,” he explained.

One key difference is that the SCXR will be configured to transport as much as 170 tons of payload, considerably more than the 125-tons the existing LCU can carry.

The Navy plans an industry competition for the SCXR with the first contract slated for 2018. The SCXR is expected to be operational by 2022, Walsh explained.

Alongside these existing efforts to replace and modernize the LCACs and LCUs, the Navy is also in the very early stages of a program they call “connector next,” an attempt to envision what a next-generation connector will need to look like.

The Marine Corps warfighting lab and the Office of Naval Research are involved in the effort, which includes early discussions of concepts and missions for this future technology.

“What are some of the options following on the SSC and SCRX? We want the speed, maneuverability and beyond the horizon capability of the LCAC. We’re working with industry to drive toward something for the future,” Walsh added.

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