An amphibious assault ship (also known as an amphibious assault carrier or commando carrier) is a type of helicopter carrier employed to land and support ground forces on enemy territory by an amphibious assault. Although it often resembles an aircraft carrier, an amphibious assault ship has a fundamentally different role: Its aviation facilities have the primary function of hosting helicopters to support forces ashore rather than to support strike aircraft. They are, however, capable of serving in the sea-control role, employing aircraft like Harrier fighters and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters. Most of these ships can also carry or support landing craft, such as air-cushioned landing craft or landing craft utilities (LCUs). The largest fleet of these types is operated by the United States Navy, including the Tarawa class, dating back to the 1970s and the newer and larger Wasp class ships that debuted in 1989.
It has been said that amphibious assaults are among the toughest of all military operations to coordinate. They need such fine control and high degree of coordination that only the top-tier powers appear to have the ability to even attempt them seriously, let alone complete them successfully. The two nations that have made by far the most amphibious assaults during the past century are the United States and the United Kingdom. From the great assaults of World War II to the recent attack on the Al-Faw Peninsula in Iraq, both countries have been at the forefront of developing amphibious assault doctrine and shipping.
Due to their aircraft carrier heritage, all amphibious assault ships resemble aircraft carriers in design. The flight deck is used to operate helicopters for landing troops and supplies and Harrier Jump Jets to provide air support to landing operations. Landing craft are also carried, either on deck-mounted davits, or in an internal well deck.
The history of the specialist amphibious assault vessel really began during World War II. Prior to World War I, amphibious assaults were undertaken with conventional boats. The disastrous Gallipoli landings of 1915 (during the Battle of Gallipoli) showed that this type of operation was impossible in the face of modern weapons, especially the machine gun. The 1920s and 1930s did not see much progress in most of the world, the exception being the U.S. Marine Corps. The small Corps operations of the period in Central and South America led to the development of amphibious assault doctrine much in advance of the rest of the world. By the late 1930s, concrete plans were beginning to form to build the first truly specialized amphibious assault ships.
Specialized shipping can be divided into two types, most crudely described as ships and craft. In general, the ships carry troops from the port of embarkation to the drop point for the assault, and the craft carry troops from the ship to the shore. Amphibious assaults taking place over short distances can also involve the shore-to-shore technique, where landing craft go directly from the port of embarkation to the assault point.
Many of the early types of shipping were converted cargo vessels. Of these, the Landing Ship Tank (LST) stands out. As the name suggests, it is a specialized type for getting tanks or other large vehicles ashore. Unlike the other larger shipping, LSTs could beach and discharge directly onto shore. Beyond the ships carrying the troops, other vessels were needed. It was quickly appreciated that amphibious assaults were such complicated operations that a specialized flagship was needed, with facilities that a normal naval vessel simply could not provide. It was also realized that battleships, cruisers, and destroyers could not necessarily provide all the fire support (including suppressive fire) that an assault would need. Therefore, specialized shipping was developed that incorporated various direct and indirect fire weapons. These included guns and rockets that could be mounted on landing craft and landing ships. As part of the final barrage before an assault, the landing area would be plastered by these types.
Despite all the progress that was seen during World War II, there were still fundamental limitations in the types of coastline suitable for assault. Beaches had to be relatively free of obstacles, and have the right tidal conditions and the correct slope. However, the development of the helicopter fundamentally changed the equation.
The first use of helicopters in an amphibious assault came during the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 (the Suez War). Two British light fleet carriers were pressed into service to carry helicopters, and a battalion-sized airborne assault was made. One of these, Bulwark, was commissioned in the late 50s as a dedicated "commando carrier."
The techniques were developed further by American forces in the Vietnam War and refined during training exercises. The modern amphibious assault can take place at virtually any point of the coast, making defending against them extremely difficult.
Earlier ships that played a role similar to current vessels as the heart of an amphibious assault included five Iwo Jima class Landing Platform Helicopter vessels, built in the 1950s and 1960s, and various converted fleet and escort carriers. The first of the type envisaged was the escort aircraft carrier USS Block Island (CVE-106/LPH-1), which never actually saw service as an amphibious assault ship. Delays in construction of the Iwo Jima class saw other conversions made as a stopgap measure. Three Essex-class aircraft carriers (USS Boxer (CV-21/LPH-4), USS Princeton (CV-37/LPH-5), and USS Valley Forge (CV-45/LPH-8)) and one Casablanca-class escort carrier (USS Thetis Bay (CVE-90/CVHA-1/LPH-6)) were converted into amphibs, the Boxer and Thetis Bay classes.
The Tarawa and Wasp types and their Iwo Jima class forebears resemble aircraft carriers. However, the role of an amphibious assault ship is fundamentally different from that of an aircraft carrier. Its aviation facilities are not to support strike or air defense aircraft but for hosting helicopters to support forces ashore.
One of the most recent innovations is the LCAC or Landing Craft Air Cushioned. These large hovercraft further expand the range of conditions under which an amphibious assault can take place and increase the speed of transfer of assets from ship to shore. Ground effect planes such as the Ekranoplan, straddling the line between aircraft and ship, have also been proposed for the role in the past.
Amphibious assault submarines, while proposed during the 1950s, and almost constructed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s, are currently not being designed. However, if the predictions of military experts such as John Keegan or others hold true, and surface shipping becomes extremely dangerous during future wars of evenly matched powers (due to satellite recon and anti-ship missiles), then transport and amphibious assault submarines might deserve another look.
Beyond the largest vessels in the fleet, a variety of other specialized types support amphibious assaults. These include the landing platform dock (LPD), landing ship dock (LSD), and command ships (LCC and AGF). Navies other than the U.S. Navy operate additional types, including the landing ship tank (LST), landing ship logistics (LSL), and landing ship medium (LSM).
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