22 NAVY NEWS, JANUARY 2012
YOU have to hand it to the Swedes. They do simple yet effective functionality to a ‘t’. Ikea. Volvos. Meatballs. Forty-knot fast assault
craft. You’re probably not acquainted with the latter. But the Royal Marines are – for the past six months they’ve been trialling the Swedish-built Combat Boat 90 as the commando assault squadrons go through a speed revolution. “It’s about a cultural shift, turning the landing craft branch from eight knots to 40 knots,” says Lt Col Simon Guyer succinctly. Which is a tall order.
By and large, the means of putting men and machines ashore haven’t changed fundamentally since WW2: mother ships unleashing sluggish, fl at-fronted smaller boats with ramps to disgorge troops and armour ashore.
And much of that is still the case, except that now the requirement is that the mother ship sits up to 30 nautical miles from the landing spot. In existing landing craft – vehicle/personnel (LCVP) for troops and smaller items of kit, utility (LCU) for tanks, Vikings, fuel trucks and the like – at six, eight, ten knots, that’s a long old journey. It’s also cold, uncomfortable, and invariably wet. As the Offi cer Commanding Craft Trials Wing
with 11 (Amphibious Trials and Training) Squadron, retired Lt Col Guyer and his team at RM Instow in North Devon have the task of assessing any new boat or craft which may – or may not – be used by the Royal Navy’s amphibious force. They’ve already tried out the PACSCAT – Partially Air Cushion Supported CATamaran – to test the ability of putting heavy kit ashore in a vessel three times faster than existing boats; it did that, but the trials demonstrated the limitations of the concept and it will need further design work before being considered as an operational landing craft.
One size down and the case has been made for a ‘Force Protection Craft’ – a fast, well-armed gunboat. As the name suggests, its role fi rst and foremost is to safeguard a naval force against fast attack craft (amphibious ships are typically slow and rather lumbering, landing craft especially so). An additional requirement is that it can deliver a ‘pre-landing force’, a small specialist beach recce/ forward party who pave the way for a full landing. Around a dozen such craft will be needed – and
are likely to replace the existing LCVPs. One vessel in this class is the Combat Boat 90
(for 1990). The Swedes have loaned the Royal Marines at Instow a couple to evaluate – and in return the Royals have loaned out some Offshore Raiding Craft.
The team at Instow got their hands on the boats
in May. After a fortnight’s instruction in Sweden with CB90 experts, they returned to Devon for another two weeks of training. A sea training package (mini BOST) in the hands of the Flag Offi cer Sea Training who were happy that crews could cope with fi re, fl ood and other misfortunes which might befall a boat at sea, followed. After various checks and assessments to determine safe operating limits, it was time for the ‘meat’ of the trials: testing the CB90’s ability to operate on the front line with the Fleet. Based at Zeta Berth – the last of 26 berths once used by the Americans as part of the build-up for the Normandy landings – on the River Torridge, the boats have been ranging around the Devon coast (and beyond).
The CB90s weigh around 16 tonnes, have a top speed of about 45kts (they made Instow to Plymouth in fi ve hours, averaging 35kts) propelled along by water jet propulson system (which also allow them to turn on a sixpence) and are similar in size to an LCVP. They’re run by a crew of four – one commander (a corporal), one helmsman (a marine or lance corporal), and two marines operating the weapons and manning the ropes. Behind the ‘cockpit’ there’s a large ‘passenger hold’ with 18 bucket seats – spartan and similar to an airport departure lounge – and a lot of space in the middle for kit. A neat little ramp at the front, operated by a mandraulic pulley, allows troops to deploy on to a beach (although with their Bergens it’s a tight fi t). And that’s about it. It’s basic – and it works.
“It’s a basic boat, you can really throw it about and it keeps coming back for more. That’s the sort of thing we like,” says Lt Col Guyer.
So far he and his team have tested basic handling, operating with other landing and assault craft (a prerequisite for any future boat), working out of the loading dock of HMS Bulwark, putting
troops ashore, carrying a stretcher aboard safely. “There’s no real comparison with what we operate at the moment – it’s a completely different beast,” says Lt Col Guyer.
“One of the fi rst myths we had to bust was that these boats can’t operate in high seas – they were designed for the Baltic, but yes they can handle the sea and we’ve had them out at the top end of Sea State 4 with little trouble.”
Today it’s about as calm as you could hope the Bristol Channel could be in July, let alone November.
The boat races across the sea at 40kts with
barely a jolt – there’s no trouble sitting down and writing, no roar of engines drowning out radio chatter or conversation.
The only sense of speed in the troop compartment is provided by the wisps of white spray hurtling past the six letterbox windows like a passenger jet cutting through the clouds. The bucket seats for the men look rudimentary, but the Swedes do comfortable functionality like no-one else.
The helmsman performs an emergency stop – 40kts to zero in two boat lengths. You’re not thrown out of your seat. You barely move. Next he turns the craft on that sixpence. Water sloshes against the windows. Otherwise, you barely notice the movement. “We went up to Wales in a Sea State 4, pretty comfortable. The lads in the back were asleep. Those in the LCVP were throwing up,” says Lt Col Guyer. We’re not investing in new craft to be nice to Royal. There’s some good logic behind a faster, more comfortable ride. For a start, you get there more quickly. And when you do, the men are ‘fi t to fi ght’. “As a Marine I know how frustrating it is in an open boat. You’re at the mercy of the elements – in Norway the lads are going in covered in ice,” explains C/Sgt Ian Gibbons, who’s spent 13 years in the landing craft world. So force protection isn’t just about defending the Fleet, it’s about protecting the troops. In the back of the CB90 they’re warm and dry – but it’s not perfect. There are no heads (the boats are only expected to operate for 24 hours and toilets would add weight and more weight equals less speed). More
importantly, there’s no hot water – no way to make a brew or heat ration packs.
More importantly from the force protection criteria, on tests so far armed with a manned heavy machine-gun, the boat hasn’t proved to be particularly effective.
“The results were inconclusive – we’re going
back to South Wales in February for some more detailed live fi ring trials,” Lt Col Guyer adds. And that’s not good, when the fi rst requirement for the craft is that it should be “capable of interdicting and neutralising threats.” The initial assessment of the CB90 is that it’s simple, robust (it was designed for being driven onshore on the rocky shores of the Baltic), easy to learn, handle and maintain. “I think everyone has been impressed by the CB90,” says C/Sgt Gibbons.
“It is very easy to drive – if you can drive an ORC, you can drive one of these. It’s also easy to maintain – on an LCVP you needed to be triple- jointed to get at the engines.” It’s not without its shortcomings. Because it was designed for running ashore in the Baltic it’s less keen about sandy and silty beaches – the engine intakes suck in all manner of gunk. All of these lessons and more will be incorporated into the fi nal specifi cations and requirements when the MOD looks for fi rms to build the Force Protection Craft. The boats won’t complete their trials until the end of next year; there’s exercising with one of the RFA landing ships to carry out, and more thorough weapons tests to carry out (not least remote weapons fi ring; a commando will sit in the ‘cockpit’ and ‘PlayStation-fashion’ control a gun mounted on the boat’s stern), and most importantly, the ability to safely recover a CB90 to Bulwark’s davits while under way in rough seas, because landing operations don’t stop when the water’s a bit choppy.
Whichever existing boat or new design is chosen, the fi rst FPC is planned to arrive at Instow in 2015 with front-line assault squadrons getting their hands on it from around 2017. “What a fantastic job for the future,” Lt Col Guyer enthuses.
“As a marine you could be driving one of these, as a corporal commanding one, racing around at 40 knots. Exciting times.”
Pictures: Greg Barrott, 11(ATT) Sqn
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