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Rethinking Land 8710 Phase 1: The Jet-Pack as the Ship-to-Shore Connector

15 April 2021
A pilot looking outisde the cockpit window at a person flying with a jetpack
Attribution: The Mandalorian (Disney)

 

While jet-packs are by no means a new idea, they are now starting to come of age. For many decades they have been a feature of science fiction. Younger readers would have enjoyed watching Iron Man’s dogfight with a pair of F22s, while older ones might be more comfortable with the future offered by Buck Rogers. Today, the term jet-pack includes a host of variants that include flying boards and other personal flying devices. A French inventor has crossed the English Channel on a fly board in a 22 minute flight while the Royal Navy has been trialling a flying suit, taking off and touching down between vessels. The US Special Forces have also been experimenting with the technology, and a private
US aviation company is preparing for a jet-pack racing league. In the UK, medical personnel have used jet-packs to conduct remote area rescues. The 2015 Dubai Air Show featured a jetpack flyby. Small multi-person robotic aircraft are also in development with Uber planning to operate an airborne taxi service by 2023. In the near future it may be possible for a mortar team to move via a robotically piloted small aircraft.

Army’s search for new small boats as a part of Land 8710 has been overtaken by improvements in personal aviation devices that may offer a chance to re-imagine how soldiers transit from a ship to the shore. The replacement of the venerable LCM-8s and LARC-Vs is long overdue. They have been in service for many decades and are worn out. One of the more important tasks for which they are used is to move troops, vehicles, equipment and stores from a ship to the shore. The military term for the vehicle performing this task is a ‘ship-to-shore connector’. Without a new ship-to-shore connector, the ADF will be unable to develop the amphibious promise of the Royal Australian Navy’s LHDs, the Canberra and Adelaide. There are numerous like for like but better replacement options available which no doubt the Land 8710 team is rightly examining. I believe, however, this program can do better - and by investigating jet-packs and other small flying devices it just might.

 

In the jet-pack, the challenge for Army is to look beyond the comfort zone of ‘like for like’ and experiment with a different and perhaps better but unproven alternative.

Jet-packs would allow soldiers to fly from a ship or surfaced submarine directly to their objective or objectives ashore. Theoretically, soldiers could even launch from an airborne mother ship. Military interest in the potential of jet-pack technology has been growing rapidly and has even reached the point in the
United States
that an acronym became necessary: ILD which stands for Individual Lift Device. ILDs deserve similar attention here in Australia.

 

To paraphrase Viscount Edward Grey, if the Army is to be a projectile fired from the sea to the land, a new connector is needed. By using an ILD, soldiers will become the projectile and instead of just getting to the shore they will be able to get directly to where they most need to be. Small boats will still have a key part to play in amphibious operations. However, their utility may be for the follow-up force, movement of heavy equipment and vehicles, or to meet the simpler needs of a peace-keeping or disaster relief mission. For the initial insertion of light forces onto a hostile shore, ILDs could offer the better option.

 

In modern war, as technology accelerates the tempo of operations and sensors illuminate the battle space, the need to gain advantage by moving quickly and obtaining surprise is more vital than ever. As a ship-to-shore connector, the key problem of a small boat is its slowness. A fully loaded LCM-8 can make perhaps nine knots and then only in a favourable sea. Due to the lethality of modern land-based anti-ship missiles, the RAN’s LHD will need to hide beyond the horizon in even a minimum threat environment. So the transit to shore by watercraft is likely to take many hours, ensuring considerable exposure to the elements leading to sea-sickness and the physical exhaustion of the troops. Sensors will also allow the enemy to track the course of the boats and provide the adversary with plenty of time to prepare a reception. Even modest non-state opponents now have access to sophisticated anti-ship weapons. In 2016, for example, Houthi fighters fired two missiles at a US Navy destroyer in the
Red Sea. Imagine what a peer competitor could do to the Army’s slow moving landing craft packed with soldiers.

 

If one returns to the fundamental need, the ADF requires the means to move soldiers and their kit from a ship to the land, preferably as close to the objective as possible and as quickly as possible. There already exists a different option to a boat that is commonly used for this task, namely rotary wing aircraft. In the late 1990s, the US Marine Corps pioneered a new concept called Ship-to-Objective Manoeuver or STOM. The idea was to lift the ground force from its ship directly to its objective. To accomplish this task, the US Marine’s platform of choice is the V22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft which can carry 24 combat troops approximately 800 kilometres. The ADF’s amphibious ships can operate helicopters — even an Osprey.  However, they can only do so in limited numbers which slows build-up ashore and risks the potential loss of an entire aircraft and its passengers. Moreover, helicopters require a clear landing zone, preferably a secure one.  This may be a relatively scarce commodity in the ADF’s likely area of operations.

Employing ILDs matches the benefits of the helicopter with none of the risks. ILDs represent the next evolution of the STOM concept, particularly for a small power like Australia that is unlikely to be able to afford the Osprey or ever own enough helicopters. Moreover, an ILD-based assault would allow the force to move dispersed and approach its targets from different directions and altitudes which would minimise loss and confuse the enemy as to the intent and destination(s) of the landing force. In effect, the assaulting force would resemble a swarm of drones, but in this case it would be a human swarm. A further advantage is a swarm’s relatively low signature which could keep the assaulting force below the enemy’s detection threshold, both enhancing security and achieving surprise. New tactics would also become available. For example, if a landing force was to secure a high point, such as a building, why land on a beach, walk to the target and assault from the ground-up? With ILDs, the force could land on the roof and attack downwards.  If soldiers become their own pilots, they will mitigate the risks of aerial insertion while increasing the tactical options for the assaulting force.

ILDs also have the potential to revolutionise the provision of support. Imagine an isolated patrol base receiving its daily resupply via an unmanned delivery platform, a feat already performed by Dominos to deliver a pizza or by drug lords to meet customer demand. During the Vietnam War, the US Marines established a fire base on The Rockpile near the DMZ. The feature was a jagged rock, rising 750 feet high and accessed by air. Back then, a steady stream of helicopters kept the base functioning. In a similar scenario in the future, the same result would be achieved by a series of supply ILDs. At sea, jet-packs offer an easier way to move sailors and small parcels between ships rather than having to conduct a complex Replenishment at Sea (RAS) transfer. The technology also has the potential to ease the heavy loads carried by the infantry. An ILD, with the bulk of the soldiers needs, could follow along or be summoned forth at an opportune time. One day, flying platforms may even serve as the ADF’s MEDIVAC vehicle.

The point is that after decades of research and development, jet-packs and related devices may be on the cusp of success. This means the Australian Army needs to take a serious look at them and possibly redefine its ship-to-shore connector requirement. I am not suggesting that ILDs will replace the Army’s need for small boats. As noted above, landing craft will still be needed to move ashore Army’s vehicles and bulk stores. And as I have previously written in the Land Power Forum, the Army will also require small boats for independent operations in the region’s littoral and riverine waters.

An assault force’s rapid move from ship to shore via the air must be a better option than a slow water passage. For this to happen, Army must get out the mindset and be willing to seize a riskier but potentially more rewarding path. Jet-packs have disappointed before so they may not be the future. But if we do not pose the question on the jet-packs’ utility we may lose the opportunity to create a more operationally effective force that is suited for the technologically disruptive wars of the future. Can we imagine it?

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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