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Riding Waves : Navy Craft Hailed for Ability to Open Beaches for Assault

Times Staff Writer

From a distance it looks something like an overgrown river raft, its girth ringed by a chubby black tube of rubber. To the military it’s a technological marvel, a new breed of craft that dramatically enhances ship-to-shore assaults.

In military jargon, it’s the LCAC--landing craft air cushion--a state-of-the-art craft that made its debut recently before reporters and Navy brass on a beach north of Oceanside. The new craft are the first in a Navy squadron being formed at Camp Pendleton.

“Quite frankly, we’re very, very excited about it,” said Rear Adm. John Higginson, who suggested that the $20-million craft will revolutionize amphibious warfare.

Living Up to Reviews

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Dancing across the swells on a four-foot cushion of air during a demonstration cruise, the LCAC (pronounced el-kak) showed very quickly that it should have few problems living up to such heady reviews.

While traditional landing craft would churn slowly ashore with troops and supplies, the LCAC is designed to travel at speeds in excess of 45 m.p.h. on the water and then do something no predecessor could--roar up the beach and far inland as well.

Jeff Bartlett, a boatswain mate chief who pilots one of the vessels, put it more simply: “It’s like going from a Volkswagen to a Cadillac.”

Peering from behind aviator-style sunglasses, Bartlett maneuvered the 88-foot craft down a concrete ramp from the $50-million LCAC training center on the beach next to Interstate 5.

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A torrent of sand sprayed into the air as the craft--manned by a crew of five--floated across the beach. Throttling up the vehicle’s four gas-turbine engines, Bartlett steered the machine through the breakers. Like some high-tech water bug, the craft skipped over the waves and zipped along on its carpet of air.

Inside, Bartlett and two crewmen--all of them outfitted in olive-green flight suits with colorful shoulder patches listing their unit--monitored sophisticated instruments and video screens showing everything from the status of various engine components to the speed of the vessel. The LCAC has radar and other equipment designed to allow it to make night landings.

‘Like Driving a Car’

Indeed, from the looks on their faces, the crewmen manning the LCAC seemed like they would not trade places with anyone.

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“Very fun,” Bartlett said. “It’s like driving a car, once you get used to it.”

After a quick spin around the coastal waters and a side trip onto a Camp Pendleton beach, Bartlett pointed the craft back toward the training facility.

Eager to display the craft’s ability to tackle rough terrain, the seaman steered the LCAC toward a gaping pothole at the edge of the concrete apron leading back to the training facility. The obstacle easily would have devoured most small cars, but the craft slipped over without a bump.

The short trip concluded, Bartlett and his crew flipped a series of switches and the craft settled onto the edge of the paved training ground, which is about the size of four football fields. The pilot lighted a cigarette, took a few contented puffs and grinned.

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“Piece of cake,” he said.

Senior military officers hope that the LCAC will make assaults on enemy shorelines just like that.

With its impressive speed, the craft has several advantages over older amphibious vessels. It enables commanders to launch assaults from ships as far as 50 miles out at sea, giving them a better chance at obtaining an element of surprise.

Opens Beach Access

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Moreover, the LCAC’s ability to motor onto hard ground opens up numerous beachfronts that would be inaccessible to lesser landing craft, which can approach only 17% of the world’s beach fronts. The LCAC is accessible to more than 80% of the coastline, according to the Navy.

“You can go where the enemy is not,” said Cmdr. Wallace Fine, leader of Assault Craft Unit 5, which will include Camp Pendleton-based craft. “This will revolutionize amphibious warfare.”

Higginson said the craft’s prime responsibility will be to ferry large loads such as tanks and jeeps to beaches. The LCAC can carry up to 60 tons of equipment. Initial assaults will still be made by Marines who are carried ashore in helicopters and amphibious tractors.

Three of the craft are stationed at Camp Pendleton. The machines arrived aboard a support ship via the Panama Canal from the New Orleans factory of Textron Marine Systems, a division of Bell Aerospace.

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45 Crafts Stationed

By 1993, the Navy expects to have about 45 of the craft stationed at Camp Pendleton--the western half of a network of 90 such vessels nationwide. Another base is planned at Little Creek, Va.

To accommodate the craft, the Navy has undertaken construction of the training center on the Marine Corps base. Although many sections of the facility remain unfinished, passers-by on Interstate 5 can see the sloping earthen berms with thick concrete walls that encircle the area.

Although the Navy built the walls to block noise from the vehicles, senior officers say they are pleased that the craft is much quieter than they expected, adding that they are confident that noise and other effects from the vehicles will not spoil the local environment.

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It was noise that prompted Coronado officials to protest four years ago when the Navy first proposed building the LCAC facility at its amphibious training complex on Coronado. The complaints persuaded the Navy to pick the Camp Pendleton site.

California Coastal Commission officials granted permission for the base but were troubled because of fears that it would affect the endangered California least tern and several other threatened birds that nest in the area.

Senior Navy officers, however, stressed that they have made the nesting sites off limits for the vehicle. Moreover, the military has been required to conduct restoration work in a canyon battered by years of maneuvers and initiate an environmental monitoring program through 1995.

“We don’t feel they’re going to be any problem for the Southern California environment,” Higginson said.

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