The U.S. Navy is seeking replacements for its 32 LCUs (Landing Craft Utility), which are all over 40 years old and fading fast. LCUs have a flat bottom and a ramp built into the front of the ship, which can be dropped into shallow water to allow armored vehicles or tucks to leave the ship and move right onto the beach. Current LCUs (LCU 1600s) are 380 ton ships that can carry 125 tons of cargo (two tanks, 400 troops or just cargo). These LCUs have a crew of 13, a top speed of 20 kilometers an hour, and can stay at sea for up to ten days. LCUs were developed during World War II and are still in wide use by nations that have a lot of coastline, or nearby islands, as well as in large amphibious ships (for carrying troops from ship to shore).
The navy consulted its experts and all they got were suggestions to develop more complex and much more expensive landing craft. Given the growing cash shortages in the navy, it’s likely that the LCU replacement will just be an updating of the existing design. As much as many admirals abhor the idea the most practical and affordable LCU replacement is one the U.S. Army adopted in the 1990s. The aversion to going with what the army uses stirs up bad memories because during World War II the army controlled more ships than the navy. Most of the army vessels were smaller coastal and amphibious craft. The marines don’t like to be reminded that the army conducted more amphibious operations than the marines during World War II, including the largest one ever (D-Day at Normandy in June 1944). After World War II the navy finally got most of those boats away from the army but the army still has some amphibious craft.
Thus when the army sought to replace its own fleet of LCU 1600s it quickly and inexpensively did so with an updated LCU 1600s. This resulted in the purchase of 34 LCU 2000s. These are 1,087 ton ships that can carry 350 tons (or up to five tanks or 24 cargo containers). The LCU 2000 has the same size crew but can stay at sea for up to 27 days. The army stations some of them overseas (Kuwait, Japan) to help move cargo from anchored ships to shore (and up rivers or numerous bases).
The navy may end up following the army lead in choosing an affordable design for its LCU replacement. The navy would like something more exotic but the cash just isn’t there. The army LCU 2000s have been in service nearly two decades now and the army is planning to refurbish them so the ships can serve another decade beyond their designed life of 25 years. If the navy wants a low-risk replacement for its older LCUs, something based on the army LCU is the best candidate.
There’s another problem to deal with. When it comes to replacing older military equipment simple and inexpensive does not garner many political allies. It’s easier to obtain billions for new and exotic gear that, increasingly is being cancelled or purchased in minute quantities (like the Seawolf SSN, DDG-1000, the EFV amphibious vehicles, the Comanche helicopter, the Crusader artillery vehicle and so on). But when the situation is desperate and cash is tight, you can always resort to cheap and practical.