Army Watercraft: Shifting Priorities and Lessons Learned

By Lt. Col. David Alvarez and Capt. Don LopesFebruary 5, 2021

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As the Operation Spartan Shield (OSS) Combat Sustainment Support Battalion (CSSB), it is unique that a tactical logistical battalion would be planning, coordinating, and overseeing a 56-day, 10,000 Nautical Mile voyage for two logistics support vessels (LSVs) that would cross three combatant commands (CCMD) and include a Suez Canal crossing. This is not a normal tactical operation conducted within the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)  area of responsibility (AOR).

The last time a LSV conducted a transoceanic voyage to or from CENTCOM was in 2011 when a LSV departed U.S. Indo-Pacific Command for its final destination in Kuwait. This new shift of Army watercraft allocation is being driven by adapting to large-scale combat operations (LSCO) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS). The NDS was signed in January 2018 by then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. At the time of its publication, many leaders started to ask how to turn this strategy into execution in regards to Global Force Management to meet the demands of multiple CCMD while balancing the readiness of the Services. Based on the NDS, the priorities across the DoD put higher emphasis on our global adversaries within the 2+3.

Based on doctrine, Army watercraft are normally aligned under a transportation terminal battalion (TTB) within a transportation brigade expeditionary (TBX) like the 7th TBX at Fort Eustis, Virginia. In exceptions when a TBXis not forward deployed, ATP 4-93.1 states that when a CSSB is the first or last logistical headquarters in a joint operations area, a CSSB may have other logistical units attached like LSVs. This article will highlight some of their capabilities and lessons learned during an 8-month deployment as the CSSB headquarters with tactical control of two LSVs supporting operations and missions within CENTCOM.

In regards to capabilities, LSVs are classified as Lighters Watercraft, which are utilized for heavy lift transport and the distribution of extremely oversized cargo. The LSV is a multi-functional logistics support vessel providing an immediate heavy lift capability to various units throughout a combatant commander’s AOR. The combined effort of two LSVs can transport 96 Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) or essentially transporting 48 TEUs per vessel. This also equates to 24 M1A2 Abrams tanks or 32 M2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles per vessel. Internal sustainment capabilities allow the LSVs to conduct multiple missions for long durations that can last up to 30 days without resupply. A small number of the most noted internal sustainment capabilities include the vessel’s Class I rations storage capacity, dual engine redundancy, advanced navigation, firefighting suppression gear and evaporation systems (EVAP). The EVAP systems allow the LSV to purify salt water through extreme condensed heat and filtration for potable water. LSVs provide an overwhelming capability for supporting the Army and the joint force in extending operational reach, freedom of action, and sustained endurance.

The LSVs are also equipped with multiple defense weapons which include lethal and non-lethal capabilities to deter aggression or defeat enemies based on ROE. LSVs also are vital to the success of various strategic mission requirements to include logistics over the shore and joint logistics over the shore (JLOTS). According to Army Techniques Publication 4-15, Army watercraft are the key enablers to achieving decisive action in unified land operations in operating environments requiring operations in the shoreline. Understanding these capabilities as a leader will increase your logistical responsiveness in certain AORs and more efficiently use your sustainment economy of force.

In the past year, Army Watercraft played a pivotal role within the U.S. Army Central (ARCENT) AOR and enabled United States Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) for multiple operations. LSVs have the unique capability to bypass countries when logisticians can use the Sea Lines of Communications. But understanding port locations and country diplomatic clearance requirements was also important at the operational and tactical level. During heightened tensions, the LSVs quickly responded to support movement of equipment and critical munitions to support ARCENT and NAVCENT.

During the JLOTS exercise in the United Arab Emirates in March 2020, both LSVs in CENTCOM supported the movement of Army, Navy, and Marine Corps equipment from a strategic vessel to the Trident Pier to enable the joint force to train for amphibious landing operations. These types of exercises are essential to combatant commanders to support contingency operations in case of seaport of debarkation congestion or denials from enemy forces or other emerging threats. Emerging threats that also included the COVID-19 virus that affected all Middle East countries. The LSVs implemented COVID-19 implementation procedures and standard operating procedures to ensure the crews’ safety with additional quarantine requirements upon return from out of country missions.

The LSV crews also created a COVID-19 battle drill for a possible contamination of a crew member. Crews live in close quarters with metallic surfaces so COVID-19 prevention procedures were essential for the vessel when it received Class I rations or when Mariners conducted mail and resupply runs. But their logistical capabilities also allowed them to rapidly transport critical Army pre-positioned stocks to Kuwait to enable health care providers with additional medical equipment. This allowed the medical community to be prepared to treat patients as necessary within ARCENT. These types of missions are much more challenging to coordinate unless you understand the requirements to effectively enable the LSVs.

The OSS CSSB staff faced many challenges but few more complex than filling the role of a previously assigned Theater Harbormaster Detachment within ARCENT. This key command element assisted and coordinated with LSV berthing spaces, husbandry services, contracting officer’s representative duties and coordination with the Navy for future requirements.

Adaptability has become one of the most powerful tools in the staff’s arsenal. Members of the staff learned how to manage complex contracts, conduct unique GPC purchases, coordinate vessel maintenance, and plan extended voyages across the Atlantic. This was accomplished with coordination and execution of contract support through several agencies, to include the American Bureau of Shipping  and the Department of Transportation. The OSS CSSB also coordinated external maintenance while ensuring vessels remained in compliance with all Watercraft Inspection Branch requirements. Overseeing contracts of husbandry services throughout voyages proved to be vital for resupply. Our team also arranged DIP clearances and established port calls in four different countries for the trans-Atlantic Voyage. This complex task covered over 10,000 nautical miles and added a level of learning experience that few CSSBs ever accomplished. This task could not have been accomplished without the assistance of the higher sustainment brigade and theater sustainment command staff members to coordinate the operational and strategic level requirements across multiple AORs and with the U.S. Navy.

With their departure from the CENTCOM AOR, the CSSB staff learned a lot of valuable lessons in regards to Army watercraft. But it is also important to highlight that leaders need to understand the future of Army watercraft for our Army and remain adaptable. The Force Development Directorate Transportation (FDD-T) at the Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Virginia, is taking the lead for this under the Chief of Transportation. CASCOM is continuing the modernization for the future of Army watercraft to support Multi-Domain Operations. As logisticians who had zero operational experience with Army Watercraft, I recommend that all leaders continue to develop their understanding of all areas of current and future sustainment doctrine. This will better prepare us to ensure the success of LSCOs.


Lt. Col. David M. Alvarez currently serves as the 87th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion commander. He served as the Operation Spartan Shield CSSB commander from December 2019 - September 2020. He holds a bachelor’s degree and is a demonstrated Master Logistician from the Society of Logistics Engineers.

Capt. Don T. Lopes currently serves as the 87th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion support operations officer (SPO) . He served as the Operation Spartan Shield CSSB SPO from January - September 2020. He holds a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in Transportation and Logistics Management,  and is a demonstrated Senior Logistician from the Society of Logistics Engineers.



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