UK amphibious doctrine has for some time seen a heavily opposed landing as a last resort and the assumption is that because of the proliferation of anti-ship and anti-tank guided weapons any such approach would be suicidal without the strongest level of battlespace preparation. The true value of an amphibious capability is being able to appear in an area that is only lightly defended, secure an area inland using heliborne troops and establish a beachhead before Johny foreigner realises what has happened. Amphibious operations encompass a wide range of activity but the number of vehicles, stores and personnel even a light role unit requires means that logistics are key.
Once the pointy sharp stick stuff has been done, the logistics follow up will generally include the Bay class LSD(A) and combinations of LCU Mk10’s and Mexeflotes to get the bulk of the stores onshore. As capable as this is, a deep water port with container handling and RORO facilities will for any operation of decent scale, be a prerequisite for continuing operations. The Points class RORO ships and commercial vessels will then bring the bulk of the material. Of course, not all operations start with an amphibious assault and not all operations are of such a scale that they need a deep water port.
Amphibious logistics are simply about throughput, the ability to offload from ships, usually onto smaller ships/hovercraft and deposit their cargo onto shore, ready for movement inland. It’s a complicated, finely choreographed, operation that has to deal with many variables. This has resulted in many imaginative solutions and proposals, mainly from the US of course but in some respects, the UK with its Albion/Bay/Mexeflote/Points capability has many advantages. The QinetiQ partial air cushion catamaran (PACSAT) demonstrator shows that the UK can still innovate in this area. The PACSAT concept from IMAA builds on the sidewall hovercraft from the sixties. As innovative as it is, it still doesn’t solve the problem of capacity, for that one needs a port, not a beach.
The earthquake in Haiti bought into sharp relief the need for port facilities, even the combined capabilities of a number of nations amphibious ships, serious capacity did not start moving until port facilities had been re-established. The allies faced exactly the same problem of logistics in 1942 when they started planning for D Day. Planners knew there was little chance of securing a deep water port, so basically built their own, the Mulberry, the remains of which can still be seen. The principal problems were twofold, providing a protected anchorage and some means to bridge the gap between the shore and a ship at anchor. Although amphibious transports were used, everything from the DUKW to the LCT, the Mulberry was instrumental in the success of the operation. A little known aspect of Mulberry was the US RHINO floating barge ferry.
These diverse systems have evolved into the UK Mexeflote and very impressive US JLOTS, seen below in a couple of videos.
Despite being very impressive for RORO cargo these still do not handle breakbulk or ISO containers particularly efficiently, container handling is especially slow in comparison with established.
It is arguable whether any significant advances have been made since Mulberry and Rhino.
Instead of planning ever more expensive large scale hovercraft, PASCAT or T Craft, we should perhaps be concentrating here, improving a known and thoroughly unglamorous capability, yet one which is likely to be increasingly used. As it becomes easier to deny ports and push amphibious operations further away from within striking distance of such facilities the need to deliver actual real-life bulk cargo, which means containers, into an austere location, will be more needed than ever.
Piers for use on beaches
This was the basic requirement laid down by Winston Churchill to the D Day planners, and the resultant Mulberry’s handled between 5,000 and 7,000 tonnes per day. Although the situation was of course quite different, one wonders what the transfer rate was in Haiti?
We always assume these are new problems that no one has ever faced before but in this case, again, we have been here before, particularly in the aftermath of the Falklands Conflict.
Based on technology and systems developed for the North Sea oil industry, the Falkland Islands Intermediate Port and Storage System (FIPASS) was designed to resolve a number of issues; port access, refrigerated warehouse space and personnel accommodation. Six North Sea oil rig support barges (300×90 ft) were connected together and linked to the shore via a 600-foot causeway. Four of the barges carried warehouses, with provision for refrigerated storage. In addition, there were accommodation offices, which include a galley and messing facility for 200 persons.
The first cargo ship to use Flexiport unloaded 500 tonnes of general cargo and 60 ISO containers in 30 hours, by way of comparison, the same load, offloaded using Mexeflotes took 21 days
All this cost £23 million, or about £50 million in today’s money.
The company responsible for FIPASS (ITM Offshore) developed the concept further but have since gone out of business, Flexiport is now marketed and supported by ASP Ship Management. One of the key advantages of using barges is they do not transmit any load to the sea bed, improving siting flexibility. Flexiport is designed to turn any coastal or river anchorage into a working deepwater port by mooring custom designed and built pontoons insufficient depth of water to enable ships to lie alongside and connecting the quayside formed by the pontoons to the road system ashore by a prefabricated bridge or causeway.
Of particular interest is the container port concept.
Simulation has confirmed this can handle 150 TEU’s per hour and can be expanded to include accommodation, storage, repair, aviation support or RORO facilities. It is very flexible and quick to install, except for the causeway to shore.
The US has also been looking at improvements to their capabilities and as might be expected, have come up with some fantastic solutions but one of the lowest profile yet potentially revolutionary is the Lightweight Modular Causeway System or LCMS.
LCMS was originally designed to enhance interoperability between MPF, MPF(F), and JHSV, the wider programme even looking at PASCAT designs. The Joint Enable Theater Access Sea Ports of Debarkation (JETA/SPOD) Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) has demonstrated that a hybrid design, incorporating elements of land-based tactical bridging equipment and floating causeways can support significant loads up to main battle tank weight. Although it is primarily designed for direct unloading of intermediate ships it could be combined with the Flexiport. The system is compact, allowing 120 feet of the causeway to be shipped or stored in a space with a footprint equal to that of three 20-foot ISO containers.
Unlike other systems, the LMCS uses no in-water connections. And in contrast to the current causeway systems (ELCAS) can be deployed by seven trained personnel and be operational in approximately 3 hours. An equal number of personnel can recover the system in approximately the same time. The system is stored in a folded configuration with floatation bladders empty. When deployed, the system is sequentially joined, or assembled, and the floatation bladders are inflated. The bladder nearest the shore can be partially inflated as needed to provide a ramp-like entry and exit point. A unique feature of the LMCS is that the floatation bladders will not be filled with high-pressure air. Instead, they will be rapidly filled with only the volume of air suitable to provide floatation for the roadway system. This significantly speeds up deployment times and can be done with a prepressurised compressed air system (similar to that used to inflate aircraft emergency exit slides) or with a lightweight portable blower system that is smaller than a commercial vacuum.
LCMS has also investigated a powered system for dragging ISO Containers of 463L pallets along its length using a deployable winch system.
On its own, it will also enhance ship to shore capabilities but as we mentioned above, the causeway from a Flexiport to shore can be a construction bottleneck, combining the two would yield significant benefits.
Instead of having to transfer containers, vehicles and breakbulk cargo from container or RORO ships onto shallow draft lighters (JHSV etc) so than can mate with the LCMS causeway, combining it with a large Flexiport allows these deeper draft cargo vessels to unload directly, cutting out the middle man and supporting significant offload capacity in the early stages of an operation. Container and break bulk offload would use commercially available handling equipment
The standard-sized offshore barge is in widespread use, designs are mature and there are many manufacturers. Usage includes floating pipe layers, accommodation, heavy lift cranes, power stations, ROV operation and salvage. Since the Flexiport concept was envisaged things have moved on considerably, dynamic positioning and other technologies have lowered operating costs and improved utility.
Some have the limited self-deployment capability but in general, are either towed or carried on FLO/FLO vessels.
One of the claimed advantages of the Flexiport model that uses these offshore barges is that they float, therefore no load is placed on the sea bed. Their size, anchors and ballasting will contribute to stability but if absolute stability is desirable there are other options.
Jack up or self-erecting barges are used for salvage, craning and offshore construction, especially for wind turbines. This design could be used instead of the free-floating type. If more mobility is required the offshore wind turbine industry has created a solution, the MPI Resolution, Discovery and Adventure. These combine the features of a jack-up construction barge with a normal self-propelled vessel. Although smaller than the larger offshore barges above they are much more mobile. Although much smaller than an offshore barge, because they sit on the sea bed, stability for load handling is assured and it is unlikely that anything above 100 tonnes would be handled anyway.
The first of the class was constructed for less than $30 million
Using a similar design concept, the vessel could be converted to act as the Flexiport loading pier, with a container handling crane and a self deployable lightweight floating causeway.
Deployment time could be measured in hours not weeks, as with conventional methods.
Solutions can often be found in the offshore industry but we tend to ignore them and go off on tangents, designing bespoke military solutions.
This is an innovative but not high technology and an area that is crying out for investment.
It would not even be a large investment.