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If anyone were to doubt the contribution that amphibious support ships can make to humanitarian operations, the recollection of an event in September 2008 may change their mind. Hurricane Ike ripped through the Gulf of Mexico causing damage to the coast of Texas, particularly Galveston where it made landfall. The US Navy's Amphibious Construction Battalion 2 was deployed aboard the USS Nassau, a Tarawa class Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) vessel, to help clear debris in and around Galveston.

The increasing participation of military forces in disaster recovery and humanitarian operations has led to a corresponding renaissance for the amphibious support vessel, which can act as an invaluable sea base not only for the deployment of troops and equipment to assist recovery operations, but also to host a clean and safe environment within which medical assistance can be provided. The French Navy's Mistral class amphibious support ships, for example, contain a 70-bed hospital with operating theatres and a dental surgery to this end. In addition to such vital capabilities, modern communication and computer systems provide a command centre from which efforts can be co-ordinated, alongside large open spaces that can be quickly transformed into recovery and triage centres. Self-defences and modest armament provide protection, should the vessels be performing their mission in a theatre of conflict. Bitter history has taught that armed forces and non-government organisations providing humanitarian assistance, are no longer considered impartial in today's, and probably tomorrow's, war zones.

The interest in amphibious support ships around the world is clear. Navies are looking toward their future amphibious support force structures, upgrading vessels, buying ships, and in some case developing an amphibious support capability for the first time. This survey will provide an overview of recent activity regarding amphibious vessel purchases and upgrades as well as future acquisitions.

Australia

One country involved in upgrading its amphibious capabilities is Australia. The Royal Australian Navy operates two Kanmible class amphibious support vessels that were delivered from US Navy stocks in 1994. The vessels are the former USS Saginaw and USS Fairfax County Newport class ships. However, the service is also receiving two Canberra class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships to replace the HMAS Tobruk Landing Ship Heavy (LSH), which entered service in 1981, to complement the Kanmible vessels.

The Canberra class ships, expected to be commissioned in 2013, are being built by Navantia of Spain and BAE Systems Australia. They will be named Canberra and Adelaide. It was announced in December 2008 that the two vessels, in addition to the three Hobart class Air Warfare Destroyer ships that the force will receive by 2017, will be equipped with maritime satellite terminals under a $ 52.9 million contract with BAE Systems Australia, which will see a total delivery of 14 maritime terminals to provide vital communication and navigation capabilities for the Canberra vessels.

However, despite the fact that these ships are yet to even enter service, thoughts are turning to their successors. On 15 April a study concluded by Hugo White, a former deputy Secretary of State for Defence Strategy and Intelligence, weeks ahead of publication of Australia's new Defence White Paper, argued that amphibious operations should not be considered a priority for the Australian Navy and that once they leave service circa 2015, the service should consider acquiring smaller vessels to support sea-to-shore missions, but not necessarily high-tempo operations as replacements for the Canberra vessels. The White Paper makes no mention of the substitution capability, although it does conclude that additional heavy landing craft (up to six vessels in total) will be acquired. They would need to have the capability to move troops, vehicles and personnel and cater to intra-theatre lift. Whether the replacement of the Canberra vessels will be achieved with a larger fleet of smaller vessels will depend on the strategic realities that Australia encounters over the next forty-to-fifty years. The country has performed interventions in its local region, notably in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, where the capabilities of the Canberra class vessels were, arguably, sorely needed.

While Australia will induct new LHDs into service and is turning its thoughts to the future regarding its amphibious support fleet, other countries are considering acquiring such a capability for the first time. One such nation is Algeria, which, after a decade of civil war, is looking towards a widespread military modernisation, flush with revenues from a high oil price and anxious to move away from dependence on Russian and Soviet-era equipment. Last year it was reported that Algiers was in the market for new amphibious support ships. Currently, the Algerian Navy comprises two Kalaat class Landing Ship Logistics (LSL) and a single Polnochny-B class medium landing ship, the latter commissioned in 1967.

There is little indication of what kind of vessel the navy would like to acquire to replace these ships, but some reports have talked of the service being interested in acquiring a design similar to the French Navy's Mistral. However, this would be a major step for the force and would indicate an apparent interest in adopting a comprehensive force projection capability for amphibious and humanitarian support operations far beyond Algerian shores. At the same time the force has seemed to adopt an increasingly outward-looking vision, having exercised with the US Navy in the Mediterranean Sea in October 2007 to hone its skills in fighting waterborne terrorism.

Brazil

While Algeria has pondered the enhancement of its amphibious warfare capabilities, Brazil's Navy is working hard on developing its own sea mobility platforms. This May the service finally placed the ex-Royal Navy LSL RFA Sir Bedivere into service. The ship was one of the Royal Navy's Round Table class and saw service during the 1982 Falklands conflict, then later during Operation Iraqi Freedom and in Sierra Leone. She entered service in 1970 and has since been renamed as the NDCC Almirante Saboia by the Brazilian Navy. Despite the vessel's age, the Brazilian Navy may obtain another two decades of life from the ship given that she underwent a life extension programme in 1994 which saw her machinery being replaced and super-structure modernised.

France

While Algeria is said to have shown an interest in the French Navy's Mistral amphibious support ships, the French Navy is showing a distinct interest in Landing Craft Air Cushioned Vehicles. The US Marine Corps is the most intense western user of these hovercraft-based ships, having operated their Lcac machines since the early 1970s. The French Navy has had a strong interest in such craft since the entry into service of their Mistral vessels, with senior officers speculating that such hovercraft would be an ideal addition to the fleet to provide a fast, over-the-horizon means of moving personnel, vehicles and materiel from the well deck to the shore.

To this end, in March 2009, the Marine Nationale began a series of experiments with a variable-draft hovercraft design. The author saw the concept demonstrated during a presentation on board the Tonnerre (the Mistral's sister ship) in autumn 2008 before the Euronaval exhibition in Paris. Since then, the concept has been developed into a full-scale demonstration craft which was constructed in La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. The craft is 30 metres long and is designed to combine the speed of the hovercraft with the load-carrying abilities of a deep-draft traditional landing craft. The design is constructed around a pontoon deck that can be raised and lowered according to the navigation profile of the vessel. When navigating between an amphibious support ship and the shore, the vessel will have the pontoon deck raised. This will allow the landing craft to operate like a catamaran and to attain high speeds. When it reaches the beachhead, the pontoon deck is lowered, enabling the cargo to be unloaded. The design is a noticeable step away from the traditional landing craft hovercraft, which has also been adopted by the navies of Russia, Greece, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

CMN Shipbuilding of Normandy, which has designed the vessel, calls it the L-Cat and has worked to ensure that the design has as few risks as possible. For example, standard diesel powerplants are used to power conventional water jets. These engines enable the prototype to reach speeds of up to 20 kt even when carrying a 110-tonne payload. Importantly, the speed of the vessel increases still further when lightly loaded, reaching up to 30 kt. While the speed of the L-Cat concept is still slower in comparison to the US Navy's Lcacs, which can reach 40 kt with a full load, the French design can carry more weight (the Lcacs can lift around 54 tonnes, or up to 68 tonnes when overloaded). The new prototype vessel has been put through its paces, with sea trials having begun in December 2008. Since then, the vessel has also performed trials in the Mistral's well deck and has practiced loading and unloading vehicles. Future trials are planned involving the French Navy's Foudre class Landing Platform Docks (LPD), alongside further experiments with the Mistral.

The Foudre class vessels make up the other half of the Navy's amphibious capabilities alongside the Mistrals. However, the Foudre ships, of which there are two in the class, are not getting any younger. The eponymous vessel was launched in 1990, followed by the Siroco in 1998. Further-more, the vessels do not have the capabilities of the Mistral class, accommodating four helicopters, eight landing craft, up to 900 troops and travelling at speeds of 21 kt. The Mistral ships, on the other hand, can carry the same number of troops in addition to a 150-person operational headquarters. While they lose out on speed compared to the Foudre class, developing around 18 kt, they can accommodate up to ten heavy helicopters (or 35 light machines), although the well deck can house four landing craft, or two Lcac-sized hovercraft.

The two ships in the Mistral class acquitted themselves well during Operation Baliste; the French evacuation of European Union citizens during the 2006 Lebanon War, and also during Operation Licorne; the French contribution to United Nations operations in Cote d'Ivoire. Because of this, the French Government approved the construction of a third vessel in the class on 16 April. Construction on the vessel at the STX France Cruise shipyard in St. Nazaire in the Loire River estuary has commenced. The vessel will be equipped with the DCNS Senit-9 and Sic-21 combat data and command and control systems, along with Link-11 and Link-16 datalinks, and Syracuse-III Satellite communication. The ship is being procured, in part, as a component of the French Government's economic stimulus package for the country. The ship will eventually replace one of the Foudre ships, which will leave service in 2012.

Russia

Algeria is not the only nation reportedly interested in the Mistral design. Russia is thought to have shown an interest in the ships, and in particular the joint production of a Mistral class variant. The eventual procurement of a Mistral-style vessel would be a major enhancement for the Russian Navy's amphibious support ship fleet, which presently consists of a single Ivan Rogov class Landing Ship Dock (LSD), the Mitrofan Moskalenko, which was commissioned in 1990, two Project 1171/Tabir class LSTs which were procured between the mid-1960s and 1970s and a pair of Project 775/Ropucha class LSTs of a similar vintage. For fast delivery of up to 130 tonnes of men and vehicles in large numbers at a range of up to 500 km, Almaz developed the Zubr, also known as Pomornik in Nato parlance. Greece has four, the last one commissioned in early 2005, but Ukraine also has a pair, built by Morye.

India

Like Brazil, India has a history of commissioning pre-owned amphibious support assets into its navy. In 2009, that nation commissioned the final example of its Shardul class of LSTs. The INS Airavat, which was the last vessel in the three-ship class alongside the Shardul and the Kesari, was commissioned on 19 May 2009. Accommodating up to 500 troops, these ships can also carry up to eleven main battle tanks at speeds of 18 kt. Moreover, the ships have a landing spot for an Agusta Westland Sea King helicopter. The ships also carry modest self-defence suites, including WM-18A multiple rocket launchers, a pair of 30-mm CRN-91 anti-aircraft guns and 9K310 Igla (SA-16 Gimlet) surface-to-air missiles.

The Shardul was commissioned one year later than scheduled, reportedly due to problems experienced with the vessel's machinery. The introduction of the Shardul class represents an important enhancement for the Indian Navy vis-a-vis its amphibious capabilities. Currently, the navy comprises a single former US Navy Austin class LPD, the INS Jalashwa (formerly the USS Trenton), which the navy acquired in 2007. Local events such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami have taught the navy the value of amphibious support ships and the service is now expected to embark on the construction of a larger series of amphibious support vessels, although the precise number of craft and their design is yet to be finalised.

Italy

Although the Italian Navy's Cavour aircraft carrier is undergoing trials as the latest addition to the service's aircraft carrier fleet, the Marina Militare is contemplating new amphibious support ships. Currently the service operates a trio of San Giorgio class amphibious transport dock vessels that were commissioned between 1987 and 1994 and were constructed by the Italian ship builder Fincantieri. They can accommodate three landing craft, up to 350 troops and have landing spots for up to three Sea King helicopters.

The Marina is looking at enhancing its amphibious fleet with the possible addition of a single 25,000-tonne helicopter carrier and up to three LPD/LHD vessels as eventual replacements for the San Giorgio ships. However, the need to replace the San Giorgio class will have to be set against the Italian defence budget, which may come under serious strain in accommodating such a building programme. Given the age of the San Giorgio class, any replacement vessels would have to enter service between 2020 and 2025.

Other Hand-overs

The Austin class vessels are not the only amphibious support ships that have been pensioned off from US Navy stocks. The 20 examples of the older Newport class LSTs, which were procured by the US Navy between 1966 and 1972, have been retired since 2002, although two examples have found a new lease of life with the Peruvian Navy. In comparison to modern standards, the Newport class ships offer reduced capabilities. Accommodating up to 400 troops and lacking a well deck, the ships can still load Landing Craft Utility (LCU) vessels from a stern gate and they do have a good speed, up to 20 kt. On 27 March 2009, the Peruvian navy acquired the former USS Fresno and USS Racine. These join the four vessels of the Terrebonne Parish class (known locally as the 'Paita' class) which were built after the Second World War in the early 1950s, and can carry up to 385 troops and three LCUs.

Turkey

While Russia and Algeria are looking towards the possible purchase of a foreign design of amphibious support ship, the Turkish Navy is contemplating the indigenous development of such a craft. Presently, the Turkish Navy includes a single Osman/Gazi class, two Saruca Bey class and two Ertugrul class LSTs. However, the service has a requirement for a single LPD and two new LSTs. A locally developed design has been selected to fulfil the LST requirement and two local designs were submitted in February to fulfil the LPD request. Turkey's naval shipbuilding capabilities have expanded considerably over the last ten years, with the development of the Ada/F-100 class frigates that were designed and built indigenously. Given the experience gained on developing these frigates, there is now little reason why Turkey could not develop its own LPDs and LSTs, although it is expected that some foreign assistance may be sought given their expected size and complexity. Turkey is currently in the process of acquiring eight new Landing Craft Tank (LCT) vessels following the award of a contract to Furtrans-Adik of Tuzla Bay in March 2009 to construct the new LCTs. One major advantage that the new vessels should offer is a vast improvement in speed performance in comparison to the circa nine knots currently attainable by the Turkish Navy's existing C-117 and C-302 LCTs and Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) ships.

Venezuela

Venezuela may well join Turkey in the acquisition of a large amphibious support ship. That country's navy has been on the lookout for such a vessel since the 1990s and is primarily focused on acquiring a ship that can deliver up to 750 troops alongside their equipment and vehicles. It is thought that three shipbuilders, namely Spain's Navantia, DCNS of France and Italy's Fincantieri, have been approached to fulfil the requirement. The new amphibious support ship could be procured as part of an overall expansion of the country's amphibious warfare capabilities which will see the marine corps being expanded into a division-sized force.

Currently the Venezuelan force operates a quartet of Capana class LSTs, all of which have been in service since 1984. These vessels have recently undergone a significant upgrade programme, which has seen them being equipped with new machinery and hull refits at Caribbean Drydock in Cuba. Meanwhile, the Dianca shipyard in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela has updated the ships' electronics, navigation and communications systems.

United States

The US Navy, meanwhile, is in the middle of a significant and overarching modernisation of its amphibious assets. Integral to this is the withdrawal of the Tarawa class of amphibious assault ships, which have been in service since the launch of the USS Tarawa in May 1976. This ship has been the third in the class to be decommissioned, leaving service in December 2008 at the San Diego Naval Station after 32 years in the fleet. In total, five Tarawa ships entered service and the attributes of these vessels were groundbreaking. Capable of speeds of up to 24 kt, they could embark around 1900 troops, along with landing craft, helicopters and McDonnell Douglas/Boeing AV-8B Harrier vertical/short-take-off and landing combat aircraft in their well deck and on their flight deck. They provided the template for the design from which many of the world's current and future large helicopter-capable amphibious support vessels are based.

The two Tarawa vessels that remain in the fleet are the USS Nassau and USS Peleliu, which will eventually be replaced by the America class of amphibious assault ships. While these vessels will be capable of accommodating significant numbers of aircraft and up to 1800 troops during surge operations, they will not be outfitted with the well decks used on the Tarawa class. This will make them, in design terms, similar to the Royal Navy's HMS Ocean Landing Platform Helicopter vessel. The first ship of the class, USS America, is expected to be delivered to the Navy in 2012 and is currently under construction at Northrop Grumman's shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The America class vessels will join the Wasp class amphibious assault ships, of which the Tarawa class provided the design template and which have been in service since the early 1990s. The final example of the class, the USS Makin Island, which was damaged during her construction by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 along with two Arleigh Burke class destroyers, will be commissioned into US Navy service in October 2009, joining her seven sister ships. One interesting design feature of the Makin Island is that she is outfitted with a hybrid electric drive propulsion which is built around two General Electric LM2500+ gas turbine engines each developing 35,000 horsepower, alongside six Fairbanks Morse diesel generators which develop 4000 kW each. These turbines and generators are coupled to a pair of 5000-hp Alstom variable-speed electric motors which provide the propulsion.

The other vessels comprising the US Navy's current and future amphibious support ship fleet are the San Antonio LPDs, ten of which will constitute the class. In August 2009, the eponymous first ship in the class performed her maiden deployment following last-minute repairs before she joined the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group for operations in the north Atlantic. The gestation of the San Antonio class has been troubled. In 2008, the USS New Orleans, which is the second vessel in the series, received a poor assessment from the US Navy's Board of Inspection and Survey. The USS San Antonio was delivered two years late to the US Navy following difficulties encountered during the vessel's design.

Although there exist ten vessels in the class, plans to acquire an eleventh ship were placed on hold in the Pentagon's budget request of April 2009. Defence Secretary Robert Gates is now expected to assess the cost impact of building an eleventh vessel and also whether it is required as part of the US Navy's sea-basing doctrine. The future of the eleventh San Antonio vessel is expected to be decided via the Quadrennial Defence Review in 2010.

The San Antonio class are not the only amphibious support assets that will fall under the view of the Quadrennial Defence Review. The US Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), which was planned to replace the BAE Systems AAV-7A1 amphibious landing vehicle and which has suffered unit cost escalations and significant delays, will also receive attention. The future of this troubled programme is also now expected to be decided by the review, which among other issues, is tasked with deciding the future force composition and size of the Navy and Marine Corps amphibious capabilities. Providing the vehicle survives the review (despite the delays and cost escalations), there is a strong possibility that the programme will continue. It should begin low-rate initial production in 2011, transitioning to full-rate production in 2015.

Looking towards the future, the US Marine Corps is also contemplating the replacement of other amphibious support assets such as the Whidbey Island class LSDs, which have been in service since the mid-to-late 1980s, with a new vessel, possibly based on the San Antonio class ships. There is no word yet on the final specifications of these vessels, but replacements for the Whidbey Island ships will be required around the 2030 to 2037 timeframe, based on the individual vessels' ages.
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Author:Withington, Thomas
Publication:Armada International
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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