As it rethinks its global posture for a possible shift to the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. Army wants to buy a new fleet of small boats and upgrade existing watercraft, an official said.
The land force and largest branch of the U.S. military has more than 100 vessels in its inventory -- including the Cold War-era Landing Craft Mechanized-8 "Mike" boat, as well as the larger Logistics Support Vessel, LSV, and Landing Craft Utility, or LCU-2000 -- to support combat and humanitarian missions.
The Army is gearing up to solicit proposals to replace the so-called Mike boats as part of a new acquisition program to buy three dozen craft called the Maneuver Support Vessel (Light), or MSV(L), according to Scott Davis, who heads the service's Combat Support and Combat Service Support office in Warren, Michigan.
"With the uncertain nature of the where we might go and even the shift potentially toward the Pacific region ... these watercraft take on a much greater importance," he said at last week’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., organized by the Association of the United States Army, an Arlington, Virginia-based advocacy group.
Pentagon officials have vowed that the shift of U.S. forces to the Asia-Pacific region is on course despite growing demand for American troops and equipment to counter a resurgent Russia in Europe and militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in the Middle East.
The U.S. has about 1,600 troops in Iraq, mostly at Joint Operations Centers in Baghdad and Erbil in the north, to help coordinate U.S.-led airstrikes against the militants and train Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno has suggested proposals to decrease the size of the active-duty force due largely to automatic budget cuts and an end to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are based on outdated assessments.
"The problem is ... the world is changing in front of us," he said at the conference. "We've seen Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, we've seen ISIS, we've seen some increased instability in other places, so I now have a concern whether even going below 490,000 [soldiers] is the right thing to do," he added, referring to another acronym for the militant group and the size of the Army's active-duty component.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has acknowledged that demands on the Army will only increase and become more complex in the future. And while he didn't comment on the small boat program specifically, he said Army systems that augment those of other services will be useful.
"To stay ready for future challenges, the Army must keep innovating for the long term," he said at the conference. "With our ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, the Army could broaden its role by leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery and air defense systems."
He added, “These capabilities would provide multiple benefits … such as hardening the defenses of U.S. installations; enabling greater mobility of Navy Aegis destroyers and other joint force assets; and helping ensure the free flow of commerce.”
Davis, the Army acquisition official, said his office is also working to upgrade the communications and navigation systems in the LSV boats and begin a service-life extension program for the LCU-2000 because it can no longer buy parts for the latter’s propulsion system.
The Army has already begun getting rid of some of its aging Mike boats. This summer, the government auctioned off one of the vessels docked at Fort Eustis, Virginia. The boat -- which is 74 feet long, 21 feet wide and can carry as much as 80 tons, or more than an M1 Abrams tank -- sold for slightly less than $43,000.
Davis didn’t say how much the new replacement program would cost. But he did say he was concerned that Congress has repeatedly targeted the effort for cuts in recent years and that he and other service officials planned to make their case to lawmakers during a visit to Capitol Hill.
When asked why the Navy or the Marine Corps wouldn't assume responsibility for inherently maritime missions, Davis said the Army boats would support naval ships in helping to move equipment to shore.
"A lot of times, they can't bring it all the way in," he said. "We'd be picking vehicles up off of the Navy ship onto these landing craft and then bringing them to shore," he said. "What it really does is give the operational commander now a lot more options available to how he can deploy his force."
Davis also noted that Army watercraft were used to help provide humanitarian relief in Haiti in 2010 following the devastating earthquake there, and noted that the service would likely respond to similar contingencies in the future.
"It isn't just warfare and fighting always that's really in our Army future, but it's how we respond to any nature of contingency," he said. "It's just one other tool in our kit bag that allows us to do some of those other kinds of things."