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Bridging continents.

The past year has witnessed some interesting activity in the world of sea mobility, particularly as regards amphibious support ships. Several countries are looking to augment their capabilities with new vessels, while others turn to pre-owned craft to enhance their portfolio of amphibious support assets. Natural disasters such as the Haiti Earthquake in January this year underscore the need for the world's navies to possess amphibious support ships that not only act as a platform from where humanitarian aid can be dispatched, but that can also host hospitals to tend the sick and injured, and command centres from where the relief effort can be co-ordinated.

In fact, as we shall see in this article, some of these ships can turn themselves into major urban centres in their own right, as they can house almost any essential trade found in a city, from bakers to physicians, dentists and engineers--the latter to run their own electric power-plants and even the modern three-dimensional radar equipping contemporary amphibious support vessels that can be pressed into service as surrogate air traffic control radar when similar land-based facilities have been destroyed or are no longer functioning. Perhaps even more importantly, some are designed to be certified as civilian ships, with military assets being optional, which would theoretically enable them to access any harbour when they are in 'clean' configuration.

Russia Rethinks

In August 2009, Russia took the radical step of purchasing a foreign-designed ship for service with its navy in the form of a Mistral class amphibious support vessel from the French shipbuilder DCNS. Although at present the Russian government is only considering the purchase of a single unit, this could increase to four ships that would be built jointly in Russia and France. Russia's decision to purchase the Mistral class vessels owes much to the nation's changing maritime posture. Moscow has realised the importance of power projection in its nearby littoral regions, notably the Baltic and Black seas.

Fusing the Mistral class ships together with a robust amphibious assault capability, which could be reinforced with aircraft such as the Kamov Ka-50 attack helicopter, will give Russia a thorough 21st Century amphibious warfare capability. Current plans call for the first two examples of these ships to be deployed with the Pacific and Northern Fleets, although this latter deployment could cause some friction with Russia's Baltic neighbours mindful of the power projection capabilities this signifies. For example, in February 2010 Lithuania's Minister of National Defence pledged to raise the issue of Russia's Mistral acquisition with other European Union Defence Ministers, The Mistral sale has also triggered misgivings in some parts of the United States defence establishment with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, noting his concern regarding the sale of the Mistral vessels to Russia, the step change that this may confer on Russian amphibious warfare capabilities, and how this may alter the balance of power vis-a-vis amphibious capabilities in Russia's coastal regions. It is interesting to note that, short of expressing concern regarding the Mistral sale to Russia, Mr. Gates and his colleagues are said to be in a weak position regarding the veto of any sale, as Mistral vessels do not contain any American technology, making it difficult for Washington to block the sale.

At any rate, Russia's Defence Minister, Anatoli Serdunikov, announced in late August 2010 that the purchase was not sealed and that Russia had decided to launch an international tender, which opens the doors to several contenders like South Korea and possibly Spain with a variant of its Navantia Juan Carlos I.

Reports in December last year also spoke of Russia evaluating some other amphibious support ship designs. In particular, Moscow was reportedly looking at Navantia's BPE (Buque de Proyeccion Estrategica/Strategic Projection Vessel) design, from which the Royal Australian Navy's Canberra class vessels are derived. One attraction of this design, which is lacking in the Mistral class, is that it features a ski jump over the bow, which could enable the Russians to operate fighters. The Russian Navy is no stranger to ski jump aircraft carrier operations and has used such a structure on its Admiral Kuznetsov class ships for its Sukhoi Su-27Ks (Nato reporting name 'Flanker'). Moreover, the Russian Navy is thought to be interested in the Rotterdam class built by Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding in the Netherlands, although these ships lack both a ski jump and a through-deck design for the use of fixed-wing aircraft.

The acquisition of the Mistrals would be a major enhancement for the Russian navy's amphibious warfare capabilities, which, at present, include Project 1171/Tapir class and Project 775/Ropucha landing ships. The Tapir vessels, of which the Russian fleet is thought to comprise four, displace up to 4775 tonnes when fully loaded and can accommodate up to 440 troops. However, these ships are not getting any younger, having been launched in the mid-1960s.

Meanwhile, around nine of the Ropucha class landing ships remain in service. These vessels are slightly smaller than the Tapirs, displacing around 4663 tonnes fully loaded, capable of carrying up to 25 armoured personnel carriers and using bow and stern ramps for the loading and unloading of vehicles, troops and cargo. These ships are slightly younger than the Tapirs, having entered service in the mid-1970s, but this still makes them over three decades old. These two classes of landing ship are reinforced by four Project 1232.2/Zubr class Landing Craft Air Cushion vehicles, however, for the purposes of this discussion, these ships cannot really be considered bona fide amphibious support ships, as their role is still fast transport to the shore; as such they are essentially beefed-up landing craft.

The advent of the Mistrals would, at a stroke, vastly increase the quantity of materiel that could be carried to support an amphibious operation, and they could act as a command centre platform for such operations, and a flat-top deck which could be used to support helicopter missions. With these capabilities in mind it is easy to see how Russia's neighbours regard the Mistral acquisition with some suspicion.

New Mistral

For its part, France operates two of the Mistral class, the Mistral and the Tonnerre, and is expected to receive a third unit as part of a nationwide economic stimulus effort. The keel for this new ship was laid down on 18 April 2009 and she is expected to be launched by the end of the year as the Yser, taking her name from the Battle of the Yser involving the French Fusiliers Marins during the Great War, when a section of the Belgian coastline was secured by the Allies. The Mistral vessels displace around 21,300 tonnes and can accommodate up to 900 personnel. Within the well deck there is space for four landing craft and the ship can carry up to 230 vehicles. Meanwhile, for the air assault mission, a total of 14 helicopters can be accommodated. These capabilities make the Mistrals some of the largest amphibious support craft outside the United States.

A third vessel would represent a major enhancement for the French Navy, which has no doubt been wondering how it managed to cope for so long without the impressive capabilities offered by the type. There is even some discussion of whether the keel for a fourth example could be laid down, although it is unclear if this vessel would equip the French Navy, or would instead be the first in the class for the Russian Navy.

Going Dutch

The Dutch, meanwhile, as of January 2010, have embarked on their Joint Logistics Support Ship (JLSS) programme. This programme, which will be fulfilled by Damen Naval Shipbuilding in the Netherlands, is intended to yield a vessel displacing 28,000 tonnes with a view to replacing the 16,25 6-tonne HNLMS Zuiderkruis replenishment ship that has been in service with the Koninklijke Marine (Royal Netherlands Navy) since 1975. The new vessels will constitute a quantum leap compared to the capabilities of the Zuiderkruis. They will also more than double the current capability of the Royal Dutch Navy as far as amphibious support ships are concerned. At present, the fleet operates a pair of Rotterdam class Landing Platform Docks that displace 12,750 tonnes (in the case of the first-of-class Rotterdam) and 16,800 tonnes for the HNLMS Johann de Witt, which is 14 metres longer.

Together these two vessels can carry a full marine battalion at a maximum speed of 18 knots across a 3728-km range. In terms of aircraft, the Rotterdam class can host two Agustawestland AW-101 sized helicopters, and up to four similarly-sized aircraft in the hangar. As far as vehicles and landing craft are concerned, up to 170 armoured personnel carriers, or 33 main battle tanks can be carried along with either four or six Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel Mk 3 or Landing Craft Utility Mk 4 vessels. Like Canada's Joint Support Ship concept (see below), the Dutch Navy is on the lookout for a vessel that can perform the amphibious support mission, carry helicopters, treat casualties in a floating hospital and act as an underway replenishment and conventional sea lift platform. In total, the navy would like to acquire three units, although such a diverse range of missions could give the vessels a considerable cost.

Inside, the Joint Logistics Support Ship concept will have 2000 lane-metres of space and a flight deck sufficient for six helicopters (or two Boeing CH-47 Chinook-sized aircraft), plus a lift, cranes and two masts for replenishment at sea. The ship will be designed around a roll-on/roll-off configuration with a stern ramp for the transfer of troops, materiel, and vehicles. However, it has not, so far, been reported whether these new vessels will be outfitted with a well deck for landing craft. A complement of up to 150 crewmembers is expected, along with accommodation for the same number of passengers. For self-defence, these ships will be outfitted with two Thales Goalkeeper close-in weapon systems, a pair of 30-mm remote weapon stations and four 12.7-mm machine guns. The budget for the acquisition is around [euro]365.5 million with delivery of the first vessel occurring in 2014, In addition, the design has been mooted as a possible contender for any restarted Canadian Joint Support Ship programme (see below), however this design would almost certainly need to be augmented with ice-breaking capabilities, which may well add cost and complexity to the project.

Joint Support Ships

Canada's navy needs a new support ship to replace the HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver supply ships, which have been in service since the late 1960s. The Canadian Forces Maritime Command had intended to acquire three multi-purpose vessels, known as Joint Support Ships (JSS) to perform amphibious operations support, in addition to sealift and at sea replenishment. The command issued a Request for Proposals to this effect in 2006, with delivery earmarked for 2012. Two bidders, Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems of Germany and Canada's SNC-Lavalin Profac were eventually shortlisted to provide two competing designs for the JSS requirement. However, as of August 2008, the programme was terminated amid reports alleging the unsuitability of the designs submitted for the request for proposals. The result is that, for the time being, the Royal Canadian Navy will have to solider on with its existing Protecteur class vessels, which are not getting any younger. However, this does potentially leave the door open for the further acquisition of up to three amphibious support vessels at a later date for the force.

M80 Stiletto

While Canada's amphibious support ship ambitions may have foundered, this cannot be said for the US Navy. The service's M80 Stiletto vessel, which uses an innovative M-shaped hull, deployed on 13 June last year to support counter-narcotics missions as part of the Joint Interagency Task Force South in the Caribbean Sea. The Stiletto's groundbreaking design allows the vessel to reach maximum speeds of 51 knots, while displacing up to 60 tonnes. The ship can also operate at speed in shallow waters, given its 76-cm draft. Crucially, the hull design attenuates wave erosion and also gives the shock mitigation characteristics of a conventional hull with the stability of a multi-hulled craft. In terms of reducing the visual signature of the vessel, the craft's wake is assuaged by its design. Not only does this make the Stilleto suitable for amphibious and coastal operations, but also a rigid hull inflatable boat can be deployed from the vessel to perform the stop and search of other craft.

Furthermore, M-hull vessels could also be designed in such a fashion that they could be physically linked together to provide a large platform for the storage of materiel, which would dovetail nicely with the US Navy's sea-basing concept. Sea-basing takes its influence from the Mulberry Harbours used by the Allies during the World War Two D-Day landings. The concept focuses on building a large sea-based logistics hub that could be located over the horizon, out of reach of enemy shore weapons, for the provision of troops, vehicles and supplies to units performing amphibious and coastal operations.

The Stiletto is unlikely to be procured as a series of vessels as it has been used solely as a test bed, however it may well prove some important technologies that the navy can spin out into future designs of amphibious support vessels. Essentially, the vessel could help to iron out some of the issues relating to M-shaped hull vessels before the US Navy takes the ambitious step of designing its next generation of naval support ships around this hull configuration.

San Antonio

October 2009 saw Northrop Grumman deliver the USS New York, a San Antonio class amphibious support ship. Until now, the US Navy had been experiencing some challenges regards the introduction of these new amphibious vessels. Any complex piece of military equipment will always suffer some growing pains upon service entry, although the USS San Antonio, the lead ship in the eponymous class, had been particularly unlucky as the cost of the ship rose from $ 700 million to over $ 1.7 billion.

Sea trials of the San Antonio experienced problems with the vessel's steering systems in March 2007, and other repairs were also necessary, which lead to the ship first being deployed on a mission two-and-a-half years after the navy had accepted her into service. When deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2008 as part of an operational mission, the ship suffered leaks in oil pipes lubricating the power-plants. It is difficult to pin down exactly what has caused these problems. Some reports in the general media cite problems experienced with the three-dimensional computer-aided design tools used during the ship's development. The USS New Orleans, the next vessel in the class, also suffered problems and did not deploy on a mission until two years after it had been commissioned.

While the problems suffered by these vessels have no doubt been a serious inconvenience for the navy, the work undertaken in repairing them will hopefully at least afford some understanding on how to remedy faults earlier on in the production schedule for later vessels, three of which are still to be launched, to ensure that the disruption to the San Antonio class' service lives is minimal once these future ships enter service. The US Navy, to this end, is still awaiting the delivery of the USS San Diego, USS Anchorage, USS Arlington and the USS Somerset, the latter of which should enter service by 2012. In total, the San Antonio class will replace four separate series of amphibious support ships. These include the Austin class, the Anchorage class dock landing ships and Newport class tank landing craft.

Lightening the Load

Ships are vital for sea mobility but so is lighterage. Lighterage is the term navies confer on small craft designed to transport cargo or personnel from ship to shore. Lighterage includes amphibians, landing craft, discharge lighters, causeways and barges. However, lighters do have one important difference in that they tend to have a flat shape, enabling them to carry loads, and also to be linked together to form ramps over which vehicles can drive from a ship to the shore in situations where port environments are either destroyed on non-existent. The US Navy has always carried its lighters on the force's Maritime Prepositioning Ships operated by Military Sealift Command, and the service has recognised the importance of this humble, yet vital, craft pouring investment into the Improved Navy Lighterage System.

In 2003 Marinette Marine was awarded a fixed-price contract for the production of the Improved Navy Lighterage System (INLS). The system consists of powered and non-powered floating barges that can be assembled as warping tugs, roll-on/roll-off discharge facilities and causeway ferries. The completed lighters will be delivered to Naval Amphibious Construction Battalion One in California, Naval Amphibious Construction Battalion Two in Virginia and the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group in Florida. Since its entry into service, the Improved Navy Lighterage System has been used to support US Navy operations during the Haitian earthquake earlier this year.

This new lighter design comprises three sections, one of which houses a powerplant and a control station, which connects to an intermediate flat platform and thence to a beach section which connects to the shore with a ramp. This entire ensemble can be ready for use in less than two hours and can carry its cargo to the beach at speeds of up to twelve knots--an important improvement compared to the 4.5 kt of the preceding lighters used by the service. Moreover, in terms of flexibility, these new craft can comfortably operate in conditions of up to sea state three, which is a step forward compared to previous lighters which were restricted to operating in conditions of up to sea state two.

However, thanks to its flexible design, should an amphibious support ship need to transfer cargo to the shore, the lighters can be assembled together to form a roll-on/roll-off facility that could stretch 73 metres in length and 21 metres in width and be assembled in less than 24 hours. One concept of operations for the ro-ro facility calls for vehicles to drive off their ships onto the discharge facility and from there onto waiting lighters or landing craft to be transferred to the shore. Once again, this harks back to the navy's guiding philosophy of sea-basing (see above) which is designed to keep the logistics supporting an amphibious force as far out to sea, and hence out of danger, as possible.

Looking towards the future, Asia appears to be the driving force behind an expected rash of acquisitions as far as amphibious ships are concerned. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 shook a number of navies around the region into realising that their capabilities to deal with natural disasters were inadequate. Moreover, an increasingly 'blue water' focus of navies such as South Korea and Taiwan means that amphibious support vessels have become part of a wider portfolio of naval capabilities that these forces want to be able to perform at range.

Canberra Class

The Royal Australian Navy is already ahead of the game in constructing two Canberra class Landing Helicopter Docks named Canberra and Adelaide, which are expected to be commissioned in 2011. At present, the force makes use of the HMAS Tobruk Heavy Landing Ship, which was commissioned into the fleet in 1981. Displacing 5893 tonnes, the Tobruk has an 8000-nm range at 15 kt and can carry up to 16 main battle tanks or 40 armoured personnel carriers, along with 520 troops. As regards aviation, two Boeing CH-47 Chinook-sized helicopters can be accommodated on the main cargo deck and a single similar-sized aircraft on the rear flight deck. At a stroke, the introduction of the Canberra class adds two ships that each displace up to 27,851 tonnes and can carry up to 1000 troops and 150 vehicles. On the flight deck and in the hangar, 24 helicopters of Sikorsky S-70B Blackhawk size can be conveyed and a ski jump also outfits the vessel. This useful bit of foresight prepares the ships for the eventual operation of Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Short Take Off and Vertical Landing aircraft at a later date.

North of Australia, Japan has enhanced its amphibious warfare capabilities with the introduction into service of the first vessel in the Hyuga class of helicopter carriers, which was commissioned on 18 March last year. This ship is the largest vessel operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force since the Second World War, displacing 18,000 tonnes fully loaded. On the flight deck the Hyuga can carry up to eleven helicopters. A second ship, to be named Ise, is expected to be commissioned in 2011. She will join the Hyuga to support Japanese naval operations. However, two helicopter carriers maybe insufficient for Japanese needs, and reports are circulating that the force may acquire a vessel displacing around 19,812 tonnes and accommodating up to 14 helicopters, plus 4000 troops and 50 trucks. As well as supplementing the Hyuga class, this huge ship would reinforce the 22 assorted tank landing ships, mechanised and utility landing craft and hovercraft that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force currently operates.

A Passage from India

Australia and Japan are not the only two Asian powers enhancing their amphibious warfare capabilities. In 2009 the final example of the Shardul class of tank landing ships, the INS Airavat, was commissioned into Indian naval service. Displacing 5649 tonnes, the ship joins its two sisters, the Shardul and Kesari, each accommodating up to 500 troops, ten armoured vehicles and eleven tanks, plus a single helicopter landing spot. The entry into service of the Airavat represents the latest step in the long-running modernisation of the Indian Navy's amphibious capabilities, the centrepiece of which was the recent entry into service of the former US Navy Austin class amphibious support platform USS Trenton, which was renamed INS Jalashwa.

Additional amphibious support vessels are expected to enter service in the future, although the size of these ships, along with the number to be procured, has yet to have been decided. The expansion of the Indian Navy's amphibious capability is being eagerly watched around the Asian region. While events such as the Indian Ocean tsunami were instrumental in highlighting the shortcomings of the amphibious capabilities of several navies in the Asia-Pacific region, there is no doubt that amphibious capabilities can also be used for offensive operations. Along with its new aircraft carrier in the form of the ex-Russian Navy Kiev class ship, the Admiral Gorshkov, the Indian Navy's emerging amphibious posture will give the force impressive power projection tools around the Asian region.

Design for Life

Should India embark upon a further acquisition of amphibious support vessels, the country will, along with Canada (which is also in the market for new amphibious platforms--see above), have several design concepts from which to choose. The efforts of the French, Dutch and United States, with their respective Mistral craft, JLLS concept and San Antonio class, betray three different philosophies as regards the design of amphibious support vessels.

The French, for their part, have made considerable use of commercial design and building standards in their Mistral ships, prompting some naval observers to consider them as essentially militarised car ferries with a flattop deck. Yet the French design has illustrated that it is possible to build a vessel in such a manner and these vessels have been in consistently high demand around the world to support humanitarian missions.

The Dutch, meanwhile, have opted to fold a number of rolls such as transport, replenishment and amphibious landing support into one vessel, reducing the need to procure additional platforms for these missions, which may help to reduce acquisition costs, although they still have to be constructed and cost overruns are always a danger in new naval programmes.

Finally, the United States has developed a tailor-made amphibious support vessel in the form of the San Antonio class, designed from the ground up as a military ship. These three approaches illustrate that there are no right or wrong answers as regards the design of amphibious support ships and that invariably a number of different design approaches exist to suit navies of all sizes and budgets.
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Author:Withington, Thomas
Publication:Armada International
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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