BMT's 20-ton Caimen 200, illustrated here, is intended to land armored vehicles on enemy shores. (BMT Defence Services)
LONDON, PARIS and ROME — When British Royal Marines storm a beach on the French island of Corsica this month as part of an amphibious exercise, they will be using a landing craft that would not look out of place on a World War II film set.
It may be a sign of the low priority some militaries put on this aspect of their amphibious forces. While many British capabilities deployed for the Corsican Lion exercise with France are out of the top draw, the landing craft technology used to transport marines to the beach will have a distinctly D-Day feel.
Corsican Lion is part of Cougar 12, a three-month training deployment to the Mediterranean by the British. Led by the Royal Navy’s landing platform dock (LPD) Bulwark, the warships, Royal Marines and aircraft make up the new British Response Force Task Group, which debuted during the NATO campaign in Libya last year.
The French force will be led by the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
Like other navies, the British have invested substantial revenue building a modern force of LPDs and other large amphibious warships, but spending on the boats that ferry troops and equipment those last few miles to the shore has not kept up.
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A fast landing craft program to replace some of the British Royal Marines’ assets is on hold as tighter budgets and greater priorities fuel uncertainty about the timing of a now-delayed replacement.
A spokesman for Britain’s Ministry of Defence said that while there is interest in a new fast landing craft for the Royal Marines, the requirement is not in the core equipment program and remains unfunded at this time. The out-of-service date for the current landing craft is 2022, he said.
Muir Macdonald, the managing director of leading British naval designer BMT Defence Services, said a number of the world’s navies have invested in amphibious host ships but have failed to look at the wider requirement.
“People aren’t considering the whole system. They need to also be looking at what is potentially the weakest link — the run ashore,” he said.
The BMT executive has a vested interest in the debate. His company has designed a new family of high-speed landing craft, ranging from a 200-ton, 68-meter-long armored vehicle transporter known as the Caimen 200 to the smallest vessel in the lineup, at 60 tons. All offer a stable platform able to get from the mothership to shore at high speed, BMT said.
In the case of the Caimen 90, that means carrying a main battle tank at 22 knots or a lighter load at up to 40 knots.
“With a relatively low-cost vessel, a small investment can give you an amphibious game changer,” Macdonald said. “Faster landing craft give commanders more options and reduce the vulnerability of host ships as they can stand further offshore.”
The BMT boss said there was growing interest in new-generation landing craft and named North America and Australia among potential markets.
“It’s early days, but we are already talking to possible build partners in the U.S. on the Caiman 200,” he said.
Corsican Lion may provide pointers on the future of British fast-landing-craft ambitions now that they are starting to look beyond Afghanistan.
Commodore Paddy McAlpine, the commander of the UK Task Group Cougar 12, admitted that with the Royal Marines heavily engaged in a landlocked war in Afghanistan, the exercise provides an opportunity to relearn amphibious skills.
“Cougar 12 provides us with a superb opportunity to rekindle our amphibious capability after a prolonged period when our focus has been on operations elsewhere,” McAlpine said.
Britain’s French partners in Corsican Lion have already been investing in new landing craft capabilities in the shape of the new-generation Landing Catamaran, or L-CAT, developed by Constructions Industrielles de la Méditerranée (CNIM), a small shipbuilder from La Seyne-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast.
The French Navy bought L-CAT for the Mistral-class command-and-projection ship, classified as a landing helicopter dock. In the Corsican Lion exercise, the Mistral will deploy one L-CAT and two vessels of the landing craft utility type, a French Navy spokesman said.
The flat-bottomed, variable draft L-CAT is designed to sail 20 nautical miles through rough seas, land troops and vehicles on flat beaches, and deliver cargo to ports and quays.
A Navy L-CAT carried journalists across Toulon Bay on Sept. 25, demonstrating the vessel’s ability to lift its platform and sail as a high-speed catamaran.
CNIM is soon due to deliver the last of four L-CATs, with the Navy holding an option for a further four.
The 30-meter vessels can carry up to 80 tons — a main battle tank or six troop carriers — at 18 knots, or reach about 25 knots when empty.
CNIM said it has around 13 prospects for export sales of the L-CAT in base and modified versions, including the U.S. Navy, which is looking for a replacement for its landing craft utility vessel.
India is looking for about eight landing craft as part of a procurement of four landing platform dock vessels, while Singapore could buy a stretched L-CAT. Australia is looking for a ship-to-shore connection to replace old landing craft.
The planned vessels would not go in the well deck of a mothership, but would travel alongside the ship, pick up cargo and move to the shore themselves.
CNIM sees other sales possibilities in Asia and the Middle East, where forces are looking for capabilities for bigger loads.
The company is looking at developing versions that are 35 meters long and able to carry about 125 tons, and 44 meters long able to carry 200 tons.
CNIM is also working on a multipurpose craft designed to combine offshore patrol vessel and landing craft duties, an executive of the French engineering company said.
“It’s work we’re doing with customers,” said Thierry O’Neill, naval adviser to CNIM.
Details were scarce, but the planned vessel would be more than 50 meters long and would be a mix of an offshore patrol vessel and landing craft, he said.
Italy, Europe’s third naval power, has already invested in building its amphibious capabilities with LPDs and landing craft, but further investments in capability are hung up on budget problems.
The Italian Navy’s stop-start plans to buy a new 18,000- to 20,000-ton LPD for amphibious operations is again on the back burner following budget cuts, but a contract could be forthcoming in 2017 or 2018, an industry source said.
Italian yard Fincantieri has received a $30 million contract to study options for that vessel, as well as a new logistics supply ship the Italian Navy is interested in acquiring, possibly in 2016.
A new LPD would join three smaller 8,000-ton, San Giorgio-class LPDs built by Fincantieri, which are already in service with the Italian Navy and offer helicopter decks, space for 350 soldiers and floodable docks that host three LCM 6 landing vessels, built by Italy’s Vittoria shipyard.
The yard recently replaced the vessels with new versions that are faster and have better communications and anti-ballistic steel hulls. Twelve were delivered, three for each vessel and three reserves.
The planned larger LPD that Fincantieri and the Navy are now mulling would host six of the LCM vessels, or two new larger versions — 40 to 42 meters long and designed to hold 60 tons worth of vehicles rather than the 30 tons the LCM 6s hold — to be built by Fincantieri.