When you think of amphibious operations, you probably think of troops storming beaches at Normandy or one of the many of coral atolls in the Pacific. Troops would ride landing craft to dislodge the enemy from their positions — often speeding directly into the teeth of fierce enemy defenses to do so. It was a very bloody way to take islands or to secure a foothold on Europe.
These days, it's unlikely that American troops will face such a situation. This is because amphibious landings have changed — specifically, the landing craft have changed. The old-style Higgins boats are out and Air-Cushion Landing Craft, better known as LCACs, are in.
To describe it simply, the LCAC is a hovercraft. This technology vastly expands the amount of coastline that American troops can hit. According to a US Navy fact sheet, the landing craft you'd see in Saving Private Ryan or The Pacific could hit 15 percent of the coastlines around the world. The LCAC can target 70 percent — that's a 350% increase in eligible landing zones.
The beach above would likely have been passed over had it not been for the LCAC — here, it was just an exercise.
(DOD photo by SSGT Jerry Morrison, USAF)
But for as capable as the LCAC may be, it can't travel across open ocean to find its beach. And for as versatile as they are, they're also quite large, which means they need to be transported somehow. For this, the US Navy uses well decks on larger ships. These decks, which are hangar-like spaces that rest on the waterline, were originally designed to make loading conventional landing craft easier, but they also work well for LCACs.
A LCAC enters USS Wasp (LHD 1).
In fact, these decks make LCACs very versatile crafts. When they're not transporting troops from ship to shore, they can be used to transfer cargo between ships with well decks.
Watch the video below to see the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Bon Homme Richard (LHD 6) carry out a cargo transfer with a San Antonio-class amphibious ship!