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Adding Bang to the Boat: A Call to Weaponise Land 8710

1 December 2020
Amphibious/joint/interagency
Naval vessels in open water

At last, the Army’s watercraft replacement project is gaining traction. Land 8710 Army Littoral Manoeuvre promises to replace the Army’s archaic LCM-8 and LARC-5 small boats. In addition, the replacement of the decommissioned LCH Balikpapan Class amphibious vessels is receiving serious consideration. To say that this progress is overdue is to minimise the ancientness of these craft — they entered service earlier than the eldest of serving soldiers.

There was a time when the Army’s establishment contained an armada of boats, ships, lighters and other watercraft, rather than the 20 plus boats that remain today. The highpoint for the fleet was the Second World War when soldiers operated over 1,900 vessels of all types in waters from Bougainville to
Borneo. Seven were sunk by enemy action. During
Vietnam
the Army’s fleet of LSMs transported heavy stores between Sydney and Vung Tau. On a supply run up a Vietnamese river the crew of the Clive Steele, fought off a Viet Cong rocket attack. More recently, LCMs supported operations in Bougainville, Timor-Leste and
Iraq.

To date, the operational usage by Army of its watercraft has been nearly entirely limited to the support of land forces ashore, namely the movement of personnel, vehicles and stores either from a ship to shore or for a coastal transfer. When soldiers needed fire support from the sea they had to call upon the navy. I am not aware of any Army vessel being designed as a fire support platform, or even as the coordinator of such fires, that is at least till now. The Army watercraft’s mission was to support the fight, not to undertake it.

There is no longer a good operational or technological reason to continue to treat Army boats solely as support vessels. Under Land 8702 Phase 1 Army will be receiving riverine patrol craft that will provide close support to troops ashore. However, this is tactical fire support and while a good start, it is not enough. Over recent decades, advances in military weaponry and improvements in communications and sensor suites offer the possibility of Army using fires to influence the strategic level of war. As I have argued previously in these pages, the strategic level is where the true potential for Army-applied fires lies. A step forward for a future phase of Land 8710 would be to integrate fires with the maritime manoeuvre potential of Army boats to create a new littoral-based strategic platform. As an organisation, Army would be remiss if we were not to explore and incorporate these opportunities into our future acquisition program. These opportunities include using Army boats to conduct fires, deploy a variety of sensors and armed UVs, and serve as command and control platforms.

The imperative to think differently on the purpose of the Army’s future boats is driven home by the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. It identifies Australia’s primary area of strategic interest as a band of territory beginning in the north-eastern Indian Ocean, passing through South-East Asia and
Papua New Guinea
and terminating in the islands of the South-West Pacific. This is
Australia
’s neighbourhood and it is dominated by thousands of islands, lengthy coastlines and populations that live alongside or near the sea.

If the Defence Strategic Update is correct the Army’s future operational environment is the littoral. However, there will be one significant difference now than was the case during Second World War; soldiers today will fight for the sea, air, space and cyber just as they once did for the land. Modern weapons will allow soldiers to apply force well out to sea, in the air and across the electronic spectrum. In fact, armed with long-range missiles and sensors, for example, the land force can bring fires to bear in all the domains of war. This means that, more than ever, the Army will need the ability to operate throughout the littoral, even from upon the water.

This means that Land 8710 evolves it should become as much a combat program as a support one. Army missile boats will be able to strike at targets on the land as well as on the sea. There is no reason why an Army mother boat cannot launch surface and sub-surface armed and sensor vehicles into sea lanes or send strike UAV’s into the air, bringing Land 129 into the maritime space. As robotic platforms become smaller a single boat could launch and command swarms of such vehicles. Army command centres afloat can also coordinate the fires of various shooters onto myriad targets. Nor does Army have to design a different boat for each of these tasks, as containerised versions exist or can be designed. Even a simple barge can serve as the platform and the firing can be done remotely reducing the risk to soldiers of return fire. For example,
China
has test fired a missile from a standard ISO container, while a Russian company is marketing a similar system. Among Russia’s customers is Venezuela, a country which is not exactly a major military power.

Several countries already field petite but lethal small ships, such as Finland’s Hamina class while
Greece has its Roussen class. Both are packed with missiles.
Iran already has a fleet of more than 100 missile boats. Admittedly, these vessels are operated by their nation’s navies, but this should not matter. The Army’s boats will not sail in blue water and do not need long sea legs. Instead, they will hug the shore and hid in coves and swamps or move upriver. They will be stealthy ambush killers that pack a disproportionate and lethal punch for their size. Bigger vessels will rightly fear them.

The smallest warships the Royal Australia Navy (RAN) currently operates are the Armidale class patrol boats. These displace only 300 tons and they are nearing the end of their life. The RAN’s proposed replacement, the Offshore Patrol Vessel of the Sea 1180 program, will be significantly larger; they are expected to displace more than 1600 tons. This is more than six times the size of a single Finnish Hamina. The RAN’s focus is on large, blue water vessels not small boats that are limited to the littoral. Additionally, the highly lethal operating environment that modern weapons will create means it will be unwise for the RAN to sail too far from
Australia
or beyond the range of air cover. While the RAN has built a potent fleet it is also a risk fleet, too great an investment to lose. For the Army, there are no such limitations. Its boats are expendable.

What I am proposing is neither dramatic nor difficult to implement. The technologies involved are no longer experimental: they are mature. What is required is different thinking. Army knows that its future operational environment is likely to be the littoral and that means having the ability to operate on and from not just the land but also the water. Small armed boats will be able to support land forces ashore and also contest the control for the sea with fires or by launching sea-based vehicles. As Land 8710 progresses it is time to challenge and change the traditional mission of the Army’s fleet. It is time to weaponise the Army’s boats.

Glossary:

  • LARC-5: Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo – 5 Ton (entered service 1969)
  • LCH: Landing Craft Heavy (entered service 1971, transferred to RAN in 1974))
  • LCM: Landing Craft Mechanised (entered service 1967)
  • LSM – Landing Ship Medium (replaced by the LCH class)

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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