The Navy's Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) is one hell of a heavy hauling monster. Yet their large size that makes them so effective leaves their operators little margin for error when operating from the well-decks of the Navy's amphibious assault ships, especially at night.
LCACs can carry up to 75 tons of cargo at a time, which can consist of throngs of disaster relief supplies or an Abrams Main Battle Tank. Their ability to deliver such large loads directly onto beaches makes them essential to the USMC's operating doctrine as the LCAC can access 80% of the world's shores. Also, they can literally fly over mines and shallow obstacles which would disable or destroy traditional shallow-hull landing craft.
LCACs are "flown" via large rudders that sit behind a pair of massive push-fans that are controlled by "rudder pedals," and a yoke is used to control the rotating thrust vectoring "blowers," which are located on each forward corner of the LCAC, and are used for fine tuned control. The LCACs that have been upgraded through a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) with four ETF-40B gas turbines that provide power for the air cushion, the maneuvering blowers and the push-fans in the back. These four engines produce almost 19,000hp in total which allows the LCAC to travel at speeds in excess of 40kts and as far as 200 miles, or at 35kts for 300 miles. Non SLEP modified LCACS produce around 16,000 hp.
A crew of five operate the LCAC, all of which are enlisted. "Flying" the $25M hovercraft is one of the most demanding enlisted jobs in the Navy, and has been metaphorically described as driving an office building sized air-hockey puck around at highway speeds. Candidates must have good depth perception and outstanding spacial orientation, as the "seat of the pants" flying ability and judging drift and yaw intuitively is what flying the LCAC is all about.
LCACs takes up almost every single inch of the semi-submersed well decks located at the rear of America's LHD, LPD, LSD amphibious assault ships, and during low-visibility operations, or docking in heavy seas, the operation of boarding can be incredibly tense. The fact that the LCAC brings its own squall conditions where ever it goes further hampers visibility and spacial awareness, especially when operating in very tight areas.
Basically the LCAC has revolutionized the way America's "Gator Navy" and USMC does business and has greatly increased the vulnerability of America's potential enemies shorelines. It has also allowed an Expeditionary Strike Group to operate much more safely far "over the horizon" from an enemy's shoreline. Still, the Navy's 80 LCACs are aging and are currently going through a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) which will allow them to last until the Ship-To-Shore-Connector comes online and eventually replaces them on a close to one-to-one basis.
The Ship-To-Shore-Connector will feature the widespread use of aluminum and composite structures, a simplified drivetrain system, and a state-of-the-art two man fly-by-wire cockpit featuring joystick controls. It will also utilize a version of the MV-22 Osprey's Rolls Royce turbine engine which will give it high-commonality when it comes to deploying spare parts and engine cores aboard Amphibious Assault Ships. It will also be faster, with a top speed around 50kts. Each "SSC" will cost close to $60M and will serve for at least 30 years. They are supposed to completely replace the LCAC by 2034 with a slightly smaller force of 73 hovercraft.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com