One of the challenges facing any disaster relief response by naval forces is the question of how to land the tons of supplies and materiel so desperately needed on shore when harbour facilities are destroyed, damaged or simply nonexistent. For naval forces such as the US Navy or the Royal Navy, each with significant Marine forces, there is an organic capability of landing heavy cargo over the shore. The RCN has no Marine component, and can rely on no more than the AOR’s own organic LCM mk5 landing craft.
If Canada wishes to retain certain independence in such operations it needs its own solution. Any Canadian-made solution should also serve its Arctic mission, assisting in the landing of heavy cargo in under-developed Northern ports. Disaster relief or Northern supply, there are certain common challenges. Primary among those challenges is the unavoidable fact that debris or ice will risk damaging whatever marine vehicle carries out the landing operation.
In designing the hypothetical Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) for the RCN I addressed this challenge by equipping the vessel with a pair of 70’x30’ modular barges. To move those barges a pair of small tugs were added, of the type commonly called boom boats in the logging industry. Separating barge and prime mover adds flexibility; the pieces can be used independently. The barges can be emplaced as a temporary jetty, or the boom boats can be used for such mundane (yet important) tasks as the deployment of oil spill booms during refuelling operations. The system is similar to Mexeflote barges used by the Royal navy, with the exception that all pieces are carried as deck cargo.
The diminutive boom boats are easy to discount. Typically under 20’ LOA, they are the size of the aluminum fishing boats seen all over Canada during the summer months. The boom boat though is equipped with a 200 HP engine and a massive propeller driving through an articulated Z-Drive. They are equipped to operate in the debris-choked waters of a logging operation and feature all-steel construction for maximum durability. Supremely manoeuvrable and immensely powerful for their size, they truly are tugboats shrunk to the minimum size possible. These boats would be equally at home in an ice-choked Northern harbour or a debris-filled Caribbean one.
The barges are pure simplicity; there are several rectangular modules and a taper (end) section. This allows the barges to be bolted together in different configurations as the task requires. The cargo capacity of such a barge is vastly superior to the LCVP mk5, being on the order of 400 tons in a combined configuration. Such a capacity allows an AFSB to offload anything its crane can place on the barge. Higher capacity offload, combined with reduced turn-around time will be an invaluable asset during disaster relief operations.
Both barges and boom boats would deploy from an AFSB by crane. The utility of the combination though is not limited to the AFSB; the new Queenston-class AORs should also be able to carry them. Having downgraded from JSS to ‘JSS-lite” and now being realized as pure AORs, there is no reason that the new ships shouldn’t gain every conceivable advantage they can.