Since President Joe Biden announced during his State of the Union address that the U.S. military would build a humanitarian aid pier on the Gaza Strip, and that “no U.S. boots will be on the ground” in Gaza, Keith Robbins and other retired military logistics officers have been watching.

And on Thursday, after weeks of preparation, security planning and weather delays, the Pentagon announced that a trident pier had been stabbed into the Gaza beach.

The pier is essentially an erector set-like assembly of metal pieces built at sea and sitting close to the water that can assume a variety of lengths depending on the mission requirements.

Retired logisticians like Robbins are seeing a long-neglected but nonetheless vital military capability getting its time to shine, even as concerns remain about the security of the sailors and soldiers handling the undulating, 1,600-foot pier.

The capability, known as Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore, or JLOTS, will be used to help bring aid to civilians in Gaza as Israeli operations to destroy Hamas continue in the wake of the Palestinian militant group’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and is expected to cost at least $320 million.

Before his retirement as a lieutenant colonel in 2007, Robbins spent the last tour of his career as the JLOTS program manager for U.S. Transportation Command, and oversaw three JLOTS exercises, including one in Guatemala before he got out.

Military Times also spoke with two retired senior Army officers, a retired senior Navy supply officer and an active-duty Army officer, who all spent years of their service focused on JLOTS.

Except for Robbins, the retired and active-duty officers all requested anonymity to speak candidly about the capability and the Gaza mission. Military Times confirmed their identities and their military service.

“So few people know what a JLOTS entails,” one retired Army transportation officer told Military Times. “You can’t go walk the halls of the Pentagon and find two people who know what they’re talking about, because it’s such a small niche capability that’s very, very specialized.”

JLOTS is a feat of military engineering, in which 1,000 soldiers and sailors first build a massive floating platform at sea, where ships carrying screened cargo from Cyprus can be offloaded.

Trucks are then ferried to the trident pier by vessels that are essentially motorized pier sections, and driven from there onto the beach, where U.N. relief workers will oversee distribution.

Ashore, Israeli military engineers guided the pier into place, according to Navy Vice Adm. Bradley Cooper, deputy command of U.S. Central Command, which oversees all U.S. forces in the Middle East.

“IDF engineers prepared the beach at Gaza and secured the temporary pier to the beach,” Cooper told reporters Thursday. “This group of engineers were specially trained for this mission by U.S. Army engineers in the preceding weeks on a beach in Israel.”

And while the trident pier has purportedly been attached to the beach without U.S. service members setting foot in Gaza, retired military logistics officers who spoke with Military Times questioned the use of the “boots on the ground” term by the White House and the Pentagon.

A retired Navy supply captain, the equivalent of a colonel in the other services, called the term “code talk in Washington for no risk to U.S. forces.”

But even if the Gaza mission can be pulled off without a single American service member setting foot on the beach in Gaza, those soldiers and sailors will still be at risk, he said.

“I just want honesty, that’s all,” the officer said. “The military is trained for this, they understand it. But let’s be honest about boots on the ground, and that they will be at risk.”

“It’s an inherently risky endeavor when you’re not in complete control of the land and sea and air around it,” he added.

During the JLOTS exercises he partook in, the Navy officer said there were “hundreds” of U.S. troops on the beach.

“Or they’re in very close proximity to the shore, because that’s where all the stuff operates,” he said.

Cooper said Thursday that 500 tons of aid could be flowing off the pier and into Gaza in the coming days, and he emphasized that U.S. and Israeli forces were in close coordination to keep the U.S. troops taking part in the pier mission and the U.N. aid workers safe during the mission.

“On the force protection side, I’m not going to be able to talk about specifics, other than to say that we’ve been coordinating very closely, as I mentioned, with the Israeli Defense Force to address any potential issue in every domain that exists,” he said.

U.S. and Israeli forces have had “extremely close coordination” in the past six weeks “to work out every single operational detail,” Cooper added.

The officers interviewed by Military Times noted that keeping a trident pier stable and in place involves using heavy anchors buried in the sand, as well as Army tugs that look nothing like a traditional tugboat and are generally used to keep the pier in place as it bobs in the water.

Such an arrangement inevitably requires U.S. troops to be close to shore, if not technically standing on the beach.

They also noted how doing a JLOTS evolution is inherently risky for troops involved, even under the best conditions.

“You’re moving 40-ton and 20-ton containers on an environment that is moving, so anything can happen,” the retired Navy captain said. “Somebody gets crushed, falls overboard or gets run over.”

Despite the security risks and challenges, several of the officers said they think JLOTS is tailor-made for the Gaza mission, delivering much-needed relief via the sea where no port is available.

How they stab the beach

To stab the trident pier into the beach, a platoon’s worth of soldiers first use military bulldozers to dig a massive slot trench on the beach, which leads the pier into a so-called “duck pond,” basically a water-filled entry point for the pier to mate with the beach, the officers said.

After the duck pond is established, which usually takes a day or so, the pier is rammed at four or 5 knots into the sand, and must get at least 40 feet in, according to one retired Army officer who spent decades in the transportation corps.

After that, a mix of buried anchors and Army tug vessels keep the pier in place as trucks start rolling on and off.

“Those anchoring systems need to be constantly maintained, to hold the pier in place, securely and stable so that they can do discharge operations safely,” Robbins said.

It remains unclear whether U.S. or Israeli forces will be in charge of keeping the pier stable.

Security concerns

The retired Army transportation corps officer said JLOTS is “built for a less-kinetic environment,” and using it in Gaza could come with risks, and additional challenges.

Typically, a JLOTS deployment would follow a Marine Corps amphibious assault on a given location, he said, referring to JLOTS as “LOTS” for short.

“Forced entry, they secure the ground and they move inland and create standoff,” he said. “After the Marine Corps provides the ground or the space, the Army then moves in for a long, enduring operations, where we bring in LOTS capability.”

“It’s usually not the kinetic environment we see now in Gaza,” the officer added.

Already, aid groups ashore were mortared last month, and Hamas has said the group will resist any foreign presence associated with the project, The Associated Press reported.

Several of the officers interviewed worried about the Israeli and U.S. militaries’ ability to counter lower-tech threats, such as mortar rounds.

There’s also the matter of keeping the pier safe.

The military has limited JLOTS sets, the Navy officer noted, and one being used in Gaza can’t be used for something else.

The capability has been neglected and underfunded over the years, particularly Army watercraft, the officers said, but a conventional war with China has resurrected a desire for such capabilities, he said.

“There’s plenty in the military that are clamoring for more JLOTS-type enablers,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for the U.S. military to show why the investments in technology like this matter.”

How to do JLOTS

The JLOTS system involves several parts: a massive discharge platform, where cargo ships can offload aid, the trident pier, or causeway, and a series of pier sections-slash-boats that will move the aid from the platform to the pier.

All the parts are built from the same sectional modular pieces, which are put together like an at-sea erector set, the retired Army transportation officer said.

“We just build an acre of causeways all connected together” for the discharge platform, he said. “And then you build the causeway ferries, which are built from causeway sections, causeway pieces … with a powered section at the end. Kind of looks like a pier, but it’s powered and you can use it like a boat and you can build them, 300, 400, 800-feet long.”

“They almost look like a piece of causeway section with a pilot house on it,” the Navy officer said.

Those ferries can then “marry up” at the trident pier, allowing trucks to drive off and toward land.

“It’s all made from the same parts and pieces, it’s just how you erect it,” the Army transportation officer said.

Trident piers sit just a few feet above the water, and are susceptible to volatile and choppy sea states, the transportation officer said.

Other officers recalled how trident pier missions had to be scrapped because of uncooperative waters in past JLOTS exercises.

The Pentagon said earlier this month that the pier was delayed due to weather, and the retired Army officer said that opposing winds and currents can whip up that stretch of the Mediterranean Sea, but that bad weather passes relatively quickly.

Cooper, the deputy CENTCOM commander, said Thursday that how weather affects using the pier will be “situationally dependent.”

“One variable we cannot control here is the weather,” he said. “So we’ll just see what that looks like. It’s very favorable here in the coming days and week or so. And our goal is to move as much humanitarian assistance as possible during that period, and then we’ll make assessments going forward, as we would with any military operation and the weather.’

The Pentagon has indicated that contractors will drive the aid trucks down the trident pier and onto the beach. Officers who spoke with Military Times questioned whether a non-military truck driver would be up to the daunting task.

“Some of that’s a little dicey for a commercial truck driver that probably has never driven on a causeway section before,” one officer said.

‘It’s very risky even to put the damn causeway together’

But even without the security threats that a mission like the one in Gaza poses, JLOTS is a potentially dangerous undertaking for troops involved, even under the best of circumstances, the officers said.

“It’s very risky even to put the damn causeway together,” the active-duty Army officer said.

The massive ships at sea crane-load and dangle massive platform and pier sections over the side, and everything is assembled via human labor.

“We’re talking about building and erecting an erector set of equipment in the water,” the retired Army transportation officer said. “There’s just a huge risk in doing that, and the processes have to be done in ideal conditions.”

Rolling out JLOTS requires “relatively good weather, good sea conditions, to be able to put and stitch all of that stuff together,” one officer said.

The sections used to assemble the discharge platform, the ribbon bridge ferries and the trident pier are all massive and heavy, and soldiers have been crushed carrying out the mission in the past, the officers said.

Once everything is in place, moving the cargo can be equally harrowing, the officers said. Cargo trucks have to drive down a 50-degree sloped ramp from the cargo ship to the floating discharge platform, and those soldiers may not be trained in JLOTS.

“It’s usually the soldier driving his own tank, or his own truck, who’s not a watercraft soldier, he’s not a causeway soldier, this is not his environment, and you’re directing him to get him to shore so he can get back into his environment,” the officer said. “Those soldiers who are unpracticed or inexperienced at that tend to be just frightened to death, operating in the water like that.”

Going down that sloped ramp requires particular leaps of faith for the drivers, even with soldiers on the ground guiding them, and it all gets “exponentially worse at night,” the retired senior Army officer said.

Drivers generally take a right turn to get off the cargo ship and onto the ramp, with little visibility regarding where they’re going.

“They see nothing except water, they cannot see the discharge platform and they have to trust in their skill, and they go off this thing and then down and make a left-hand turn onto the discharge facility,” he said. “That in and of itself is a scary thing — where’s the edge?”

Once onto the ribbon bridge ferry or trident pier, the path back to land is undulating in three dimensions.

“It’s up, it’s down, it’s sideways,” the officer said. “It’s a really dynamic operational environment.”

The pier itself is about 24-feet-wide and “way smaller when you’re driving on it,” the senior officer said.

One section goes one way, while the one ahead goes the other way.

“They’re all connected but they move to some degree independently,” he said. “Everything’s moving, nothing is stable, and until you get used to that and trust your own ability to just go straight and not worry about it, that’s an interesting experience.”

Military Times Editorial Fellow Riley Ceder contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Keith Robbins’ JLOTS-related position. He was JLOTS program manager for U.S. Transportation Command.

Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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