Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC)

The Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC -- pronounced Ell-Cack) Transport weapons systems, equipment, cargo and personnel of the assault elements of the Marine Air/Ground Task Force both from ship to shore and across the beach. The landing craft air cushion (LCAC) is a high-speed, over-the-beach fully amphibious landing craft capable of carrying a 60-75 ton payload. Capable of operating from existing and planned well deck ships, it is used to transport weapons systems, equipment, cargo and personnel from ship to shore and across the beach. The advantages of air-cushion landing craft are numerous. They can carry heavy payloads, such as an M-1 tank, at high speeds. Their payload and speed mean more forces reach the shore in a shorter time, with shorter intervals between trips.

The LCAC is capable of carrying a 60 ton payload (up to 75 tons in an overload condition) at speeds over 40 knots. Fuel capacity is 5000 gallons. The LCAC uses an average of 1000 gallons per hour. Maneuvering considerations include requiring 500 yards or more to stop and 2000 yards or more turning radius. The LCAC, like all "hovercraft," rides on a cushion of air. The air is supplied to the cushion by four centrifugal fans driven by the craft's gas turbine engines. The air is enclosed by a flexible skirt system manufactured of rubberized canvas. Unlike the Surface Effect Ship (SES), no portion of the LCAC hull structure penetrates the water surface; the entire hull rides approximately four feet above the surface.

LCAC operates in waters regardless of depth, underwater obstacles, shallows or adverse tides. It can proceed inland on its air cushion, clearing obstacles up to four feet, regardless of terrain or topography), including mud flats, sand dunes, ditches, marshlands, riverbanks, wet snow, or slippery and icy shorelines. Equipment, such as trucks and track vehicles, can disembark via ramps located both forward and aft, there by shortening critical off load time.

LCAC is a dramatic innovation in modern amphibious warfare technology. It provides the capability to launch amphibious assaults from points over the horizon, thereby decreasing risk to ships and personnel and generating greater uncertainty in the enemy's mind as to the location and timing of an assault, thereby maximizing its prospects of success. It is also important to point out the LCAC propulsion system makes it less susceptible to mines than other assault craft or vehicles. Previously, landing craft had a top speed of approximately eight knots and could cross only 17% of the world's beach area. Assaults were made From one to two miles off-shore. Due to its tremendous over-the-beach capability, LCAC is accessible to more than 80% of the world's coastlines. It can make an undisclosed, over the horizon (OTH) assault from up to 50 miles offshore. Its high speed complements a joint assault with helicopters, so personnel and equipment can be unloaded beyond the beach in secure landing areas. For 20 years, helicopters have provided the partial capability to launch OTH amphibious assaults. Now, with LCAC, landing craft complement helos in speed, tactical surprise and without exposing ships to enemy fire.

With LCACs in the fleet, an amphibious assault force could be nearly 500 miles away at H-hour minus 24 and still make pre-dawn attack launched from beyond an enemy's horizon. The LCAC's air-cushion capability also allows it to proceed inland beyond an enemy's horizon to discharge cargo on dry, trafficable beaches, thus reducing build-ups of troops, equipment and other material in the surf zone.

LCAC was developed to satisfy the need for an air cushion landing craft capable of carrying troops, artillery, tanks, combat vehicles, and other major items of combat and combat support equipment across the beach. Recognizing the need for a landing craft with increased capabilities in speed, range, and mobility, the Navy established Assault Landing Craft/Experimental Trials Unit at Panama City, Florida in October 1977 for the purpose of testing two air cushion vehicle prototypes. Based on test results of JEFF(A), built by Aerojet General Corporation, and JEFF(B), built by Bell Aerospace Textron, the latter was awarded the contract in 1981 to begin the production of Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC). The first LCAC was delivered to Assault Craft Unit 5 (PACFLT) in December 1984.

LCAC is the production follow-on the earlier advanced development craft which were tested by the Navy between 1977 and 1981. On June 29, 1987, LCAC was granted approval for full production. Forty-eight air-cushion landing craft were authorized and appropriated through FY 89. Lockheed Shipbuilding Company was competitively selected as a second source. The FY 1990 budget request included $219.3 million for nine craft. The FY 1991 request included full funding for 12 LCACs and advance procurement in support of the FY 1992 program (which was intended to be nine craft). The remaining 24 were funded in FY92. As of December 1995, 82 LCACs had been delivered to the Navy.

IOC was achieved in 1986. Contracts for 91 LCACs were approved through FY 97, with 91 craft delivered to the Fleet by the end of 2000. Seven of these have been disassembled for FGE, ten are in deep Reduced Operation Status (ROS), two are held for R&D, and 36 are in use on each coast.

Initially, all testing had been conducted in Panama City, FL. Subsequently, the LCAC was tested in California, Australia, and in Arctic waters. Rough weather conditions forced cancellation of Exercise Valiant Usher 89-4, a joint U.S.-Australian amphibious assault exercise to be conducted off the northern Australian coastline. Objectives for tests in Alaska in March 1992 included evaluating all operational effectiveness and suitability concerns of multiple LCAC in an arctic environment. LCAC was neither operationally effective or suitable for arctic operations, and merely correcting the cold weather kit design would not be sufficient to conclude that LCAC was operationally effective and suitable in an arctic environment. Performance in opposed scenarios and in severe cold weather conditions would be necessary to fully evaluate LCAC performance. DOT&E recommended further operational testing. Developmental tests indicated that at colder temperatures engine power increases until gearbox torque limits capability, but icing and sea state would reduce that capability. Since then, LCAC has been used in two arctic exercises, one of which included operations in weather down to 15 degrees F and realistic sortie rates. Based on this exercise, DOT&E concluded that further operational testing would not be necessary. LCAC demonstrated the ability to travel over light ice and open water, in fairly calm seas. The distance traveled per sortie ranged from 3-10 miles each way. Icing, which occurred in some conditions, also requires periodic interruption of missions to remove ice. JP-5 fuel was used, which alleviated problems with filters clogging. Also, LCAC has been involved in several minesweeping exercises, it has shown itself to be a potentially effective minesweeper in very shallow water. While this was not the original intent of the program, the system offers significant potential for enhancing force readiness.

The first deployment of LCAC occurred in 1987 with LCAC 02/03/04 embarked in USS GERMANTOWN (LSD 42). In July 1987 LCAC 04 transited Buckner Bay, Okinawa and conducted the first LCAC landing on foreign soil. The largest deployment of LCAC took place in January 1991 with four (4) detachments consisting of eleven (11) craft reporting for duty in the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Storm.

The similarities between a Navy LCAC and an airplane are substantial. The craftmaster sits in a "cockpit" or command module with a headset radio on. He talks to air traffic control which for LCAC's is well-deck control located near a ship's sterngate. The ride feels like a plane in high turbulence. The craftmaster steers with a yoke, his feet are on rudder controls -- and he flies a lot like a hockey puck on an air hockey table, The LCAC is similar to a helicopter in that it has six dimensions of motion. Operating the LCAC demands unique perceptual and psychomotor skills. In addition, with a machine as expensive and inherently dangerous as the LCAC, sound judgment and decision-making also play an important role. Concerns over escalating training cost, projections for an increased number of LCAC vehicles and crew, and a high attrition rate in training highlighted the importance of developing a more accurate means of selecting candidates. Attrition of operators and engineers has dropped from an initial high of 40% in 1988 to approximately 10-15% today.

Along with operational tasking, LCAC are being used as test platforms for new missions and equipment upgrades. Currently LCAC are being tested with state of the art electronics and ordnance which will allow LCAC to act as a new mine clearance, lane breaching system vehicle. LCAC have proven to be extremely reliable and provide the operational commander with a significant capability when planning any mission. The LCAC will remain in the amphibious inventory well into the next century.

The LCAC Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) is a program to the Navy and the Marine Corps to effectively project power ashore. Without a SLEP the first LCAC would face retirement in 2004, based on a 20-year lifespan. A Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) for the 74 active LCACs will extend hull life from 20 years to 40 years. Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) has been working with Textron Marine and Land Systems since April 1996 on LCAC SLEP research and development. The actual SLEP modifications are planned to be conducted in two phases.

Phase I. Over a period of several years electronics system recapitalization will take place at each Assault Craft Unit (ACU), where the craft are physically located. This will involve replacing current electronics components, which are increasingly becoming obsolete and unsupportable, with an open electronics architecture using easily upgraded, Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) components. The new electronics suite will be more reliable and less costly to operate and maintain.

Phase II. Buoyancy box replacement will be conducted at the Textron Marine and Land Systems facility in New Orleans, LA, where Textron will use design changes, coatings, and changes in materials to increase the LCACs resistance to corrosion. Phase II will also include the electronics upgrade of Phase I, until the entire active fleet is outfitted with the new configuration. The new buoyancy box will incorporate improvements to damage stability and trim control of the LCACs.

NAVSEA transitioned from the research and development effort to the SLEP in 1999. Concurrently NAVSEA also considered additional SLEP options, including an enhanced engine to provide improved operation in excessively hot environments and an advanced skirt that is more reliable and cost effective.

The Navy continued the LCAC Service Life Extension Program in Fiscal Year 2001. This program combines major structural improvements with Command, Control, Communications, Computer and Navigation upgrades and adds 10 years to the service life, extending it to 30 years. In FY 2001, it is funded at $19.9 million and will extend the service life of 1 craft. The SLEP is planned for a total of 74 craft.

The near-term focus will be on the "C4N" [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Navigation] program, to replace the crafts' obsolete equipment. This will focus on replacement of LN-66 radars with modern, high-power P-80 radar systems. Additionally, the SLEP will include an open-architecture concept, relying on modern commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment, which will allow much easier incorporation of later technology changes, such as the precision navigation system and communications systems fully interoperable with in-service and near-term future Joint systems now planned. The C4N program is to complete by 2010, to coincide with the fielding of the AAAV.

Through 2016, the Navy will look to incorporate other important service-life enhancements: Engine upgrades (ETF-40B configuration) that will provide additional power and lift particular in hot (110-degrees F and higher) environments, reduced fuel consumption, reduced maintenance needs, and reduced lift footprint; Replacement of the buoyancy box to solve corrosion problems, incorporate hull improvements, and "reset" the fatigue-limit "clock"; Incorporation of a new (deep) skirt that will reduce drag, increase performance envelope over water and land, and reduce maintenance requirements.

Following the SLEP, the first of the current LCACs will reach its Expected Service Life (ESL) in 2014 and craft number90 will reach ESL in 2027. Discussion is underway to begin the design and development of a follow-on craft to replace the LCAC.

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