by John Konrad (gCaptain) According to Craig Hooper, a senior military contributor for Forbes, the US Marine Corps has been working with offshore oil and gas experts to develop a new solution for the contested reefs and islands of the South China Sea. The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab created a prototype for a future Marine Corps landing ship, and it turned out to be a tough, mobile, shallow-water mini-base, which could be produced in large numbers at a reasonable cost.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab lifted the veil on their initial effort to transform Offshore Support Vessels into a test fleet of up to three “Stern Landing Vessels,” or SLVs, which could change the game in the South China Sea. These prototypes are based on proven effective, low-cost, designs and could be effective in resupplying troops in island campaigns. With their newly-equipped jackup boats, the SLV is a fascinating blend of commercial utility and military expediency.
The Marine Corps started by leasing a tough Offshore Support Vessel from Hornbeck Offshore Servicesand modified it to become even tougher. It can host up to fifty sailors, and it now boasts an extendable ramp, a strengthened hull, a reinforced deck, along with protected steering and propulsion. It is set up to be a mini-jack-up rig, equipped with four extendable legs capable of reaching into the seabed and holding the ship steady in surf. But the legs can also turn the ship into a platform or temporary pier in shallow waters—something the Filipino Navy desperately needs.
Currently, the boats appear to be equipped with spud legs, which are small jack-up units that primarily aid in positioning boats in shallow water. If these legs prove effective, future designs may include a more substantial design that would fully lift the boats out of the water.
This concept is in stark contracts to the US Maritime Administration’s plan to purchase larger Roll-On Roll-Off (RoRo) ships and hybrid RoRo-Containerships for its ready reserve fleet. These huge ships may not be useful in a war against peer-level competitors like China and Russia because they require large ports with steady docks and huge containership gantry cranes, which are vulnerable targets. Putting too much equipment on a few large ships is an example of the “all eggs in one basket” approach that the USMC wants to avoid in Force-Design-2030, the strategy for redesigning the Corps to be more nimble and effective in the Pacific. On the other hand, the offshore oil and construction industry often uses lift boats and jack-ups to move supplies in remote areas where major ports and intermodal networks are not available. In island nations like the Philippines and in contested environments, offshore vessels could be useful in creating temporary docks and makeshift harbors for offloading smaller, faster supply ships.
Navy OSV Experiments
The US Navy is also experimenting with workboats. In a highly contested environment, an American warship could use its entire battery of vertical launch missiles in a matter of hours and the Navy currently has no effective way to quickly reload them. For this reason, they are testing a new method of rearming warships using a vertical launch system (VLS) reload in San Diego. The tests involved the crane-equipped OSV Ocean Valor and guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance, demonstrating a new way to reload guided missile destroyers in sheltered waters. The successful proof-of-concept evolution involved sailors aboard the destroyer lowering training ordnance into the ship’s forward VLS cells. This is the first time the Navy has tested VLS reloading from an offshore support vessel, specifically the MSC-contracted offshore supply vessel Ocean Valor, which is designated as a “fleet experimentation vessel” and has recently been equipped with a substantial crane on her back deck.
These efforts could also help island nations like the Philippines and Taiwan defend themselves. According to Hooper at Forbes SLVs would make ideal replacements for the Philippines’ old, rusted-out LST, the BRP Sierra Madre, which was deliberately grounded on the resource-rich Ayungin Shoal in 1999. Under sporadic blockade by trespassing Chinese vessels, the stranded outpost desperately needs replacing. The HOS Resolution could be a strong replacement for the old, rusted-out LST. Big enough and powerful enough to handle the rough-and-tumble operational environment of the South China Sea, the HOS Resolution can push aside blockading ships and set up camp in Ayungin Shoal. And, if two more are available, members of the three-ship fleet could regularly swap out for regular refits and maintenance.
The Marine Corps knows what it wants. It is no surprise that the public unveiling of HOS Resolution’s upgrades came just days after the Philippines announced that a Type 718 Chinese Coast Guard ship had used a military-grade laser to keep a far smaller Philippine patrol vessel, BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4403), from resupplying the BRP Sierra Madre. News of the new craft also came days before the Philippine Marine Corps Chief, Maj. Gen. Charlton Sean Gaerlan was set to arrive in Washington to spend the week with General David Berger, America’s Marine Corps commandant, who quipped that “he had much to learn about mobility around islands and beaches”. With the modified HOS Resolution, the foresighted General and his Service—as well as the Chinese—are likely to learn an enormous amount.
People Then Ideas Then Technology
With over 350,000 mariners, the Philippines has the largest workforce of seafarers in the world and a robust marine education system so there is no shortage of highly skilled merchant mariners to operate these vessels. This is just the tip of the iceberg. By working closely with the American and Philippine merchant marine and offshore industry the US Navy and Marine Corp has a nearly bottomless well of offshore and deepwater expertise at their disposal that can be leveraged to repurpose proven systems and techniques for tomorrow’s battlefield. With additional training, Philippine mariners – who are currently sailing in almost every sea and harbor around the world – could acquire the military communications and defensive training China is already providing their seafarers. They could become the world’s largest forward-deployed intelligence network and serve as first responders in a crisis.
The “Stern Landing Vessels” SLV concept is a great first step, it’s currently just a small-scale concept and gCaptain has found little evidence of the US Military working directly with merchant marine colleges or offshore training centers in the US and the Philippines. If the US Marine Corps and US Navy are serious about leveraging offshore underway replenishment and offshore construction equipment and techniques they need to do more than conduct small-scale experiments offshore. They put people first, then ideas, followed by technology. But today you will be hard-pressed to find a single uniformed USN or USMC officer even attending a shipping event like CMA or an offshore event like Workboat let alone dedicated research and support staff at schools like the US Merchant Marine Academy, the Edison Chouest offshore training center, maritime union training schools, and the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy.
“People, ideas, machines — in that order!” – Colonel John Boyd
If the military wants this to work, it needs to put people first (then ideas like VLS) and engage directly with US and Filipino mariners working offshore.