Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D. – In June 1898, an American fleet arrived off the coast of Daiquiri, Cuba. On board the ships, 16,000 men of the U.S. Army V Corps waited to offload and launch the invasion to liberate Cuba from the Spanish. The thirty-eight transports came from the coastal and ocean-going merchant marine of the United States. Not since Vera Cruz in 1847, had the nation staged the landing of an army on foreign soil. The whole nature of the operation was hurried in the eyes of the executive officer of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry embarked on board SS Yucatan.
Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt resigned his position as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy to lead a unit into combat. Now, off the southern shore of Cuba, he needed only one thing – the means to get off Yucatan and land ashore. Most of the tugboats and barges chartered by the Army to facilitate the landing did not arrive. Forced to use lifeboats from the chartered fleet, the troops were rowed ashore onto a small quay. The deep water off the shore, and a setting wind and current precluded the ships anchoring or staying close offshore, making the effort difficult.
Perhaps more difficult was the discharge of the over 2,000 horses and mules, along with tons of cargo. As Roosevelt notes, “our horses were being landed, together with the mules, by the simple method of throwing them overboard and letting them swim ashore…One of mine was drowned. The other, little Texas, got ashore all right.” The plight off Daiquiri led to the establishment of the Army Transport Service in August of 1898 and included troopships, but also tugs and barges – the forerunner of today’s Army watercraft fleet.
Until recently, Army Watercraft Systems included 132 assets, ranging from large Landing Ship Vehicles – basically smaller versions of the Navy’s former Landing Ship Tanks, down to Landing Ship Utility and a fleet of tugs. The craft provide an essential linchpin in the ability of the military to offload ships at anchor and transport them ashore – what is known as Logistics over the Shore (LOTS).
Since 1898, Army watercraft proved their worth in actions around the globe. In World War Two, Army Engineer Special Brigades operated watercraft to offload ships in underdeveloped or damaged ports. The famous Army DUKWs – amphibious 2 ½ ton trucks – could come alongside Liberty ships, load, motor ashore, and then engage their wheels and drive to depots to offload. Army FS boats – made famous in the movie Mister Roberts – served where the larger cargo ships could not go.
After World War Two, while the larger watercraft went to the Navy’s Military Sea Transportation Service, now known as Military Sealift Command, the watercraft were retained by the Army. In Korea and Vietnam, Army watercraft provided support along the coasts and rivers in the Far East. In the mid-1980s, an entire port opening package was prepositioned aboard the chartered MV American Cormorant and staged in Diego Garcia for eventual use in the liberation of Kuwait. In the Army’s history of the Iraq War, On Point, it showcases the efforts of these craft in a vignette entitled, “An Unlikely Flotilla”. The US Army Vessel Mechanicsville (LCU 2027) served as a special warfare platform along with the large tug USAV Champagne Marne (LT 1974). Prior to this, Army watercraft shuttled a prepositioned brigade of material from Qatar to Kuwait for the 3rd Infantry Division.
This is all about to change as the Army has announced plans to eliminate its watercraft. At the General Services Administration website, a banner across the top announces an “Army Vessel Sale – Selling 14 small tugs, 6 large tugs, 2 barge derricks, 18 landing craft utilities, up to 2 Logistics Support Vessels and up to 36 Landing Craft Mechanized. The represents nearly half of the major watercraft assets held by the Army. The loss of these vessel marks a significant reduction in the ability of the military to project forces ashore.
The argument in favor of the sale has to do with the introduction of the Expeditionary Transfer Docks, USNS Montford Point and John Glenn, and the proposed replacement of the Navy’s LCAC fleet. However, this system has some limitations. LCACs operate as hovercraft and as such, they have to land on a platform and load. They cannot come alongside a vessel and have cargo lowered into them like a traditional watercraft. Typically, LCACs operate in Navy amphibious ships, but Montford Point and John Glenn are modified Alaska-class tankers and as such can land three craft. They can dock cargo ships alongside and either have cargo transferred to them by traditional lift-on/lift-off methods or by roll-on/roll-off platforms.
LCACs carry 60 tons while LCU-2000s transport 350 tons and LSVs have the capacity for between 900 to 2,000 tons. While LCACs are substantially faster – 40 knots vice 10 knots – the issue is the limited number of LCACs and the fact that there are only two ESDs in the world; one based in Diego Garcia and the other in Guam. Obviously, both have their unique features, but in World War Two, it was landing craft like the Army fleet that proved their worth along the shores of Normandy. As noted naval historian Craig Symonds in Neptune highlights, when the artificial ports were damaged, and the allies could not capture Cherbourg on schedule, it was tonnage brought over the landing beaches that sustained the Allied forces.
While LCACs may be able to sustain forces for a while, it will require a concentrated effort and the slashing of the Army watercraft fleet is a grave error. In 1949, the Army transferred their larger freighters and troopships to what is today MSC. Perhaps it is time for the Army to make a similar decision and allow Military Sealift Command, or the Maritime Administration, or a commercial operator to lease these craft and keep them in operation but provide the military the option to call these craft back into service if needed. They could provide a tremendous supplement to individual ship owners while maintaining an active reserve force of watercraft in time of national emergency. The worst mistake would see these vital craft squandered away and the nation finds itself in a contingency similar to that off Daiquiri.