For two years, the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Command has been studying the use of foreign-built high-speed vessels (HSVs) to support SEAL teams and other special operations forces (SOFs). Consequently, Navy representatives expect the experimental littoral support craft (LSC)-designated LSC (X) or X-Craft-to fill a long-standing void in maritime special operations force capabilities. (The LSC is not to be confused with the littoral combat ship [LCS], which is a separate program.)
The Army and Marine Corps are eying two LSC-type vessels: the Joint Venture (HSV-X1) and Swift (HSV-2). In 2001, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), Naval Warfare Development Command, and Marine Corps Combat Development Command, in partnership with the Army, signed a lease for the high-speed wave-piercing catamaran Joint Venture. Thereafter, Bollinger teamed with Incat to develop the Swift.
Bollinger-Incat's 98-meter wave-piercing Swift often is mistakenly considered to be the first high-speed vessel designed for the Navy from the keel up. Actually, ONR has spearheaded development of the LSC since 1996, and the craft is scheduled for launch this month.
Characteristics and Capabilities
The 264-foot X-Craft catamaran can achieve speeds of more than 50 knots and perform impressively in varying sea states-for instance, 40 knots in sea state 4. The craft will support two helicopters from an open flight deck; its mission bay will support several types of Naval Special Warfare combat rubber raiding craft (CRRC), rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs), and SEAL delivery vehicles (SDVs). Craft will be launched and recovered across an articulated stern ramp. Night operations will be facilitated by an innovative illumination configuration that will permit totally dark launch and recovery of aircraft and combatant craft. (See Table 1 for a vessel overview.)
Underlying the operational capabilities of the LSC is a modular scheme whereby containers of specialized equipment can be unloaded for particular missions. Refinement of this approach will occur over time as various command levels, crewmembers, and embarked units become more familiar with the craft's capabilities. Because the craft is designed with limited crew accommodations, embarked troops will need air mattresses, and provisions must be made for stowage of demolitions and small arms ammunition. SDV operations will require battery-recharging space with atmospheric controls that mitigate battery vapors. Because of dangers associated with diving sicknesses, such as the "bends" and nitrogen narcosis, the craft will have to accommodate a recompression chamber fed with high air pressure and related medical facilities.
The X-Craft is going to be an invaluable asset to the Special Operations Command (SOCom), which has no dedicated ship or platform for its naval component, the NSW Command. Although the Joint Venture and Swift are operational, they are earmarked for intratheater transport of soldiers and Marines-not for SOFs, which, in addition to naval teams, could include Army Special Forces, Rangers, psychological warfare units, and Air Force combat control teams. While SEALs and boat teams will fulfill most routine LSC deployments, X-Craft will be available for the other services and joint special operations task groups or forces.
Naval Special Warfare Employment
SEALs conduct operations from their organic craft, primarily CRRCs and RHIBs. Although support from amphibious ships remains an option, those vessels are dedicated almost exclusively to Marine Corps deployments and related operations. In many tactical situations, submarines are preferable for launching and recovering SDVs-but these operations are highly technical, small-unit employments of limited duration. Special boat teams have to loiter in an operational area for extended periods; LSC can provide the necessary afloat logistic and maintenance support for smaller combatant craft.
X-Craft, with embarked SEALs and other SOFs, are especially useful for littoral operations in the Persian Gulf. As mentioned, there is no dedieated platform-ship, boat, or floating barge-for SOF maritime employment in the Middle East. The standard amphibious ready group's SEALs and Marine force reconnaissance platoon are committed primarily to supporting Marine Corps operations. Here, the LSC would fill a gap.
Current doctrine calls for deploying NSW squadrons, specially configured organizations for deployments that consist of SEALs, SDVs, special boats, and other necessary support elements such as communications and mobile support teams. They normally are based ashore and assigned to regional combatant commanders. Deployed squadrons use CRRC, RHIBs, and available platforms. An intheater LSC would solve and satisfy numerous operational problems for SEAL squadron commanders and theater naval commanders. The theater special operations commander-a flag or general officer subordinate to the combatant commander-would have the benefit of a full-time asset.
Last year, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld designated SOCom as a supported command in the war on terrorism. (Previously, it functioned as a supporting command to the combatant commanders.) This organizational switch was made to meet the challenges of terrorism and the complex planning required for President George W. Bush's national strategy of preemption. The move might portend huge operational shifts. Should SOCom decide on a certain course of action, in-theater commanders will be obligated to provide the requisite support, including Navy ships for maritime tasks. Without adequate planning lead times, short-fused commitments could disrupt schedules that tend to become hardened by such trivialities as country clearance for port visits, fly-over permission (if required), and other host-country considerations that usually involve the local U.S. embassy and possibly the State Department in Washington. A dedicated SOF asset such as the X-Craft would make the theater commander's job-if not that of the U.S. ambassador-easier.
The LSC will be assigned to the fleet under Naval Surface Forces Pacific. Titan Corporation is the program's lead company under the Office of Naval Research. A sizeable test list is being assembled to put X-Craft through its paces. Assuming that ONR scientists do not use the craft us a full-time test bed, the Navy will be able to drop the "X" and assign the craft to the fleet, where it is needed so badly.
The program does not need to conduct discrete tests on the catamaran hull. At the same time, some operational testing is required. Barebones designs for communications and self-protection should be reassessed with determination and speed. Other operational tests can be accomplished in the San Diego operations areas this winter and spring to prepare the LSC for full deployment by the end of 2005.
After a period to demonstrate the utility of such a dedicated ship, the Navy and SOCom should consider constructing additional craft for other geographic areas. Forward-presence and contingency requirements could be eased by posting X-Craft overseas, with rotating (or home-ported) crews. The craft based in the continental United States would satisfy local training, exercise, and upkeep requirements.
Unfortunately, terrorist threats are going to be with us for years-and new naval challenges are just over the horizon. The China-Taiwan issue persists, as does Iran's aggressive pursuit of nuclear development. China is rebuilding its navy and Iran recently conducted successful tests of the Shabab-3 missile, which could reach Israel with a nuclear warhead.
There are more than ample employment opportunities for X-Craft minus the "X." The LSC is needed in the fleet now.
Admiral Worthington, former commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, is a defense consultant in San Diego, California.