Why Aren’t U.S. Navy LCAC Hovercraft Being Used To Deliver Aid To Gaza?

It will take some time before the Biden administration’s highly touted pier in Gaza is usable again after breaking apart in heavy seas. Humanitarian aid deliveries via the sea have subsequently ground to a halt and criticisms are growing about how the technically ‘no-boots-on-the-ground’ mission has proceeded to date. Yet the U.S. has a robust capability to conduct outsized deliveries from ship to shore without any of this infrastructure. So, if this is such a high-priority humanitarian mission, where are the U.S. Navy’s Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft?

Readers can get up to speed on the current state of the pier, estimated to have cost some $320 million to establish and operate, and how it got the way it is now in The War Zone‘s initial reporting on the situation here.

A satellite image provided by Maxar showing the state of the now nearly non-existent aid pier on the Gaza shore after it broke up in heavy seas more than a week ago now. Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies

The so-called Trident Pier was only put into place roughly two-and-a-half weeks ago. U.S. President Joe Biden had first announced plans for the aid operation back in March. The initial assembly of the pier, which consists of an array of modular floating sections supported by small tugs that are part of a larger system of systems called Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore (JLOTS), had already been delayed due to rough seas.

A truck carrying aid drives down the U.S. military pier toward the Gaza shore on May 19. US Army

“Some of that aid that is currently in Cyprus is being loaded onto vessels. So when the pier is re-anchored back onto the Gaza shore, that aid would already be prepositioned and can roll off pretty immediately,” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said at a press conference on May 28. “For the rest of the aid that’s in Cyprus, that’s still an ongoing conversation that USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] is leading in terms of how best to move that aid… to Gaza.”

The War Zone has reached out to U.S. Central Command, which is leading the aid operation, for more information about what, if any alternatives it might be considering for getting humanitarian assistance into Gaza by sea in the absence of the pier.

The U.S. military does have other assets in its inventory that could be used to help move that aid ashore right now, and even before the pier itself was in operation. Chief among these available capabilities is the Navy’s fleet of some 90 LCAC hovercraft. The Navy is also working to replace the LCACs with similar, but more capable Ship-to-Shore Connectors (SSC).

“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,” according to the Navy’s official fact sheet on the hovercraft. That payload can include various kinds of vehicles, including cargo trucks, which can drive right onto the beach or onto a dispersal area after the LCAC arrives.

A US Marine Corps MTVR wrecker truck drives off an LCAC right onto the beach during an exercise. USN

“Air cushion technology allows this vehicle to reach more than 70 percent of the world’s coastline, while only about 15 percent of that coastline is accessible by conventional landing craft,” the Navy’s fact sheet adds, highlighting the ability of these hovercraft to get in beach areas that might otherwise be inaccessible. The LCACs also boast a top speed of 40 knots and a range up of to 200 miles while traveling at 35 knots with a 50-ton payload.

“LCACs have proven to be very useful in supporting non-hostile amphibious operations and were vital in delivering life-saving equipment, food, water, and medical supplies in humanitarian relief efforts throughout the world,” by the Navy’s own accounting. The War Zone has explored the immense value LCACs offer in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance scenarios, even within the United States, in the past. LCACs have also executed missions in more threatening environments, including evacuating U.S. personnel from Libya.

A US Navy LCAC delivers Los Angeles County Fire Department vehicles and personnel to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California to help fight wildfires in 2007. This highlights the ability of these hovercraft to support non-combat disaster relief and humanitarian missions. USN

With all this in mind, an immediate question is why the JLOTS pier option was solely chosen given the urgency of the aid crisis in Gaza rather than dispatching amphibious ships capable of launching and recovering LCACs that could have conceivably swung into action faster. Right before Biden announced the pier plan, The War Zone had detailed a host of alternative options, including the use of LCACs, for establishing an aid beachhead in Gaza.

Whether any technical or logistical issues led to the decision to use the JLOTS pier, and the pier alone, is unclear. Regardless, at the very least, the LCACs could have been put into action as soon as security was in place without the large pier being built and could fill in now that the pier has been put out of action.

Depositing commercial trucks not designed for offroad use right straight onto the beach could present complications. However, one of the key benefits of LCACs is their ability to travel up the beach directly to an offload area. When the pier was in operation, trucks were coming off and driving up an embankment before departing the beach area. This seems like an ideal landing area for LCACs. In fact, the LCACs could potentially traverse the embankment and drop the cargo onto a harder surface.

A U.S. Army Logistics Support Vessel (LSV) is seen here docked at the end of the pier. CENTCOM

There might have also been questions of volume and throughput. Prior to the pier being put out of commission, the U.S. military says it was able to get over 1,000 metric tons into Gaza. One for one, U.S. Army Logistics Support Vessels (LSV) and other larger landing craft that have been supporting the operation so far can carry larger payloads than the LCACs.

At the same time, the use of a single pier alone inherently creates a bottleneck. By comparison, multiple LCACs could unload simultaneously in waves along a broader beach section.

Meulaboh, Sumatra, Indonesia (Jan. 10, 2005) – Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) vehicles, assigned to USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) and Expeditionary Strike Group Five (ESG-5), deliver much needed materials and supplies to the citizens in the city of Meulaboh, on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Bart A. Bauer)

As for transferring the cargo from ships to LCACs, the throughput could be further increased by the use of the Navy’s Expeditionary Transfer Dock ships. These vessels, the USNS Montford Point and USNS John Glenn, were designed explicitly to act as self-propelled piers to help rapidly transload cargo from massive cargo ships onto waiting LCACs and other landing craft for movement ashore in the absence of traditional port facilities. The Navy bought two of these ships for exactly this mission set, then relegated them to reserve status.

Readiness-wise, Montford Point and John Glenn are currently categorized as being at Reduced Operating Status Five (ROS 5). “In a ROS 5 status,” the ships can be “made ready for tasking within five days of notice to support fleet operations,” according to the Navy.

An LCAC comes in to dock on the Navy’s Expeditionary Transfer Dock ship USNS Montford Point during an exercise in 2014. Two other LCACs are seen in the ship’s other purpose-built docking lanes. The Montford Point is also seen here attached to the cargo ship USNS Bob Hope, with vehicles able to drive off that ship on the expeditionary transfer dock via a ramp. USN

Once again, none of this would preclude the use of the JLOTS pier. Long-term, JLOTS is an attractive option, but LCACs could operate alongside the pier facility and just let it take over once it is in place.

Regardless, with the existing pier that was established on the Gaza shore having been scattered along the Israeli-Gaza coastline and now having to be rounded up, fixed, and reassembled, no aid is flowing via the sea at all.

Biloxi, Miss. (Sept. 4, 2005) – Vehicles and equipment assigned to Amphibious Construction Battalion Two (ACB-2) arrive on the shores of Biloxi, Miss., to render assistance to Hurricane Katrina survivors. The equipment was transported via Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC) from the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7). The Navy’s involvement in the Hurricane Katrina humanitarian assistance operations is led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in conjunction with the Department of Defense. U.S. Navy photo by Lithographer 1st Class Edward S. Kessler

One very plausible reasons why this obvious application of LCAC capability was not brought to bear is that the hovercraft would have to land on the beach. The Biden administration and the Pentagon have been adamant that the aid operation on the Gaza shore is and will continue to be a no-boots-on-the-ground mission. This has always been a massive tour de force in semantics as the pier is literally sitting right on the beach, along with U.S. personnel and defensive systems, all packed onto a relatively tiny area.

The fact that a matter of feet would change the risk to U.S. personnel is totally irrelevant in terms of operational reality, but it is very much a factor in terms of optics and messaging, especially considering how the administration sold this operation to the American people.

It could easily be argued that using LCACs is actually far less risky than a pier as the pier is a totally fixed point, packed with assets and personnel, including large cargo ships at their far end, that can be easily targeted. LCACs move fast and can come ashore anywhere along a beach. They can vary their approach and landing point, even if on a small scale, to greatly complicate enemy targeting, especially by indirect fires. When they are not unloading, there is nothing there to target at all. The pier has no such luxury and its tight confines mean that an attack could do a lot of damage compared to a less predictable, spread-out operation.

A US Navy sailor uses signal flags to direct an LCAC onto a beach during training. USN

Force protection measures, including systems to protect against drones and various indirect fire threats, had been put in place on the pier underscoring the very real risks personnel had been facing even without having their boots physically touching the beach.

Currently, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been providing primary force protection and security ashore for the operation, with U.S. assets in the region on standby in case of an incident.

Trucks head down the pier toward the Gaza shore on May 18. US Army

Even when the pier returns to full operational capacity, LCACs could still augment it to speed up the inflow of humanitarian assistance via the sea. In the meantime, with aid for those in Gaza desperately in need now stranded in Cyprus, at least temporarily, questions remain about why alternative mechanisms like Navy hovercrafts are not already being used to help get it where needs to go.

Contact the author: Tyler@twz.com