Takeaways from the voyage to Gaza for the US Army’s watercraft program

When the U.S. Army’s largest watercraft, LSV-1, cast off for Gaza in early March, it marked the start of a momentous journey. This voyage, followed by the deployment of several additional ships loaded with equipment to establish a pier and parts of a modular causeway system, represents a significant portion of the Army’s mission-critical, intra-theater lift capability.

The ships are now in place, and the mission has sparked a wave of discussions, debates and potential misconceptions about the Army watercraft program’s strategic positioning and future.

The question today is: How much does the deployment to Gaza help — or hinder — the future of Army watercraft writ large?

The primary objective of this voyage was to construct a pier in Gaza, a mission that was expected to involve between at least 500 and 1,000 troops and take approximately 60 days. The task is particularly daunting, given the lack of existing port infrastructure in Gaza. Despite the complexities, President Joe Biden has assured the public that no soldier would be on shore, which is likely one reason the Army watercraft program’s specific capabilities were selected.

But this deployment is inconsistent with how AWC program missions have recently been discussed.

AWC are now a key part of a larger, cross-cutting effort on contested logistics, with a focus on the Pacific. Speaking to USNI News, Maj. Gen. Jered Helwig recently highlighted the need for such watercraft in the Pacific. Seeing several Army ships sail eastward through the Atlantic Ocean may further bury the stated demands on the other side of the globe.

The deployment to Gaza showcases the pivotal role AWC can play in a humanitarian assistance mission, which may be tempting to some decision-makers to prove the AWC program’s inherent value to the Army and the joint force. However, it’s essential to remember that the Army’s force structure is not primarily driven by humanitarian missions.

The Gaza deployment echoes what some thought should have been done more extensively in Puerto Rico, and was done successfully in Haiti, to demonstrate the AWC program’s capability in a humanitarian scenario. However, a relief mission should not distract from the AWC program’s primary missions, which are based on the future warfighting demands coming from each theater.

The need for a balanced watercraft fleet that meets theater demands remains critical. And seeing several Army watercraft move east from Virginia does beg the question as to how the Army is balancing such deployments against their primary missions in the Pacific.

The deployment to Gaza may seem to validate the Army’s expeditionary role in future operations — a testament to its ability to forward-deploy capabilities where needed in a timely manner. However, this deployment is more of an administrative movement — to move critical capabilities to a theater in need — than an expeditionary one.

A report of setting up the pier on James River, then breaking it back down to be shipped on different vessels, does not make the argument for an expeditionary Army.

The mission might suffer from the time it takes, or from the fact that the watercraft and piers are being placed too far from the eventual need, or that the mission itself is not aligned to the expeditionary nature of the Army’s evolving concepts for future warfare.

The Army had moved its watercraft from U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, only to later require the watercraft to return, which raises questions about whether this intra-theater capability is being correctly allocated.

This deployment potentially underscores the importance of having AWC placed closer to the point of need, but using a humanitarian mission as validation for theater needs is a hard case to make. With finite military resources available, humanitarian assistance, while necessary, is seen as a distraction.

Army watercraft, with their unique design and ability to operate in shallower depths, are often the preferred choice for missions such as the one in Gaza. According to the Army’s website, the logistic support vessel, for example, is designed to operate in areas that are inaccessible to traditional ships, making them a valuable asset to the Gaza mission.

These vessels have a cargo deck capable of handling fully loaded military vehicles, and they can also carry up to 2,000 tons of deck cargo, including containers and watercraft. However, they are not the only provider for this capability. The Navy has similar capabilities that are not being leveraged — for reasons not entirely clear.

AWC may be subject to what some refer to as a polarity: Watercraft are useful in humanitarian assistance, but humanitarian missions don’t drive the AWC program’s existence. At the same time, AWC are critical for future Army and joint concepts, and yet those concepts lack resources. Both ideas can be true at the same time, leading to a polarity to be managed and not necessarily solved.

The Army’s ability to run operations and push forces as needed has been demonstrated in various scenarios that don’t drive their raison d’être, but do echo a long history of being internationally relevant. The deployment of Army watercraft to Gaza is a significant event, and while it is highly uncertain as to how strategy might change in the Middle East given recent developments, it is crucial to ask the right questions and avoid succumbing to the wrong narratives.

The future of the AWC program hinges on making sound, informed decisions based on a comprehensive understanding of its strategic relevance and potential. As the Army navigates these uncharted waters, it should ensure it’s steering the AWC program in the right direction.

Author: Christopher G. Pernin and Lt. Col. Joslyn Fleming
Source: DefenseNews

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