Using simulation tools for operational readiness in maritime and littoral operations

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center
Published June 18, 2021
ERDC has begun to ship simulator technology for military uses giving leaders a tool to simulate vessel landings in severe environments.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Jake Muehls, a Landing Craft Air Cushion Craftmaster, virtually pilots a vessel in ERDC’s ship simulator. ERDC has used ship simulator and vessel-response models since the early 1980s to evaluate federally maintained navigation channels, and has recently begun to apply the state-of-the-art technology to military uses. It gives leaders a tool to simulate vessel landings in severe environments.

VICKSBURG, Miss. — Operational readiness is a term used throughout the six branches of the U.S. military. The ability of armed forces to conduct the full range of military operations, regardless of a posed threat, is contingent upon how well units are manned, equipped, trained and led. To increase readiness, researchers at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) have partnered with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps on a joint venture to use ship simulation and numerical models in the planning of amphibious assaults and littoral operations.

From the first large-scale amphibious operations at the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I to the beaches of Normandy in World War II to what some consider the most brilliant amphibious maneuvers in military history at Inchon, Korea, the United States has a long record in amphibious warfare. In naval warfare, littoral operations — those in and around the littoral zone, within a certain distance of shore — are essential to naval readiness.

Over the last decade, significant technological advances have been made in estimating tidal current and water levels using numerical models, as well as in estimating vessel maneuverability using ship/tow simulators. Benefits in applying these new technologies to planning an amphibious assault include minimizing operational risk by testing the feasibility of the navigability of an area, determining the capacity and timing of the operation, defining the optimal axes-of-assault that best ensures navigational safety and developing a training platform for executing a particular plan.

“We can use simulation to plan and pre-position ourselves to win in competition,” said Dr. Keith Martin, a research physicist with the ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory. “We — the U.S. — certainly don’t want to fight, but if we have to, this is a tool that helps us do it even better.”

With major assaults such as Normandy and Inchon receding further into history, the institutional knowledge of the planners and craft operators involved in those amphibious operations has also faded. Parenthetically, simulator data files developed by the laboratory can be disseminated and used directly without modification, meaning the data obtained in the simulations can have multiple uses, such as training and practical exercises.

“With this tool, not only can we look at ways to get on shore, but we can turn around and take those files and provide them to another defense simulator to allow service members to undergo the range of conditions they could face,” said Martin. “It gives them experience in an environment that’s not pressurized with whatever the weather is doing and by the fact that somebody may or may not be shooting at them.”

The greatest benefit obtained from using the ship simulator is in evaluating an operation under marginal tide, wind and river conditions to define the metrics of the go or no-go condition.

“What we do informs a plan,” said Martin. “That plan is used by the commander to make a decision on whether or not we go, based on what he sees in the plan and what he sees out the window of his ship. If we can inform a better plan and give him a better tool to make that decision, then we are going to be more efficient, more successful and more of our people will come back.”

Currently, Martin and his team have been running simulations using three different craft including the landing craft air cushion (LCAC), the landing craft utility (LCU) and the assault amphibious vehicle (AAV). Each craft is unique and moves at various speeds.

“In the simulator, it’s helpful that we can simulate all three, because it’s a timing issue,” said Martin. “We have to know when to send the AAV, when to send the LCAC, and when to send the LCU, so they land when they are supposed to. We need them to land in the right place at the right time, because everything is about timing.”

The ERDC ship simulator is comprised of four distinct components, including a vessel-response model, the bridge with visual scenes, an environmental library and the pilot or craftmaster.

“What makes our simulator desirable for amphibious operations is that generally, amphibious craft are small craft usually operated by one person,” said Martin. “Everything is in arms reach, and that’s how our bridges are laid out. We have 11 view screens, and all the controls are in one place. It’s beneficial that everything is right there where you can reach it. If you look at larger Naval simulators, the room is much bigger, and they have multiple stations that each do a different thing.”

Martin says the simulations can also be connected to each other.

“We can run three craft at once, and they can all see each other,” he said. “So, if the pilot from one craft looks off to the side on the visual screen, he can see the other craft that’s operating next to him.”

The laboratory currently houses three individual simulators with plans to build eight more.

“There is a proposal to build a brand-new building to house eight new bridges,” said Martin. “So instead of three ships, we would be able to connect up to 11. That’s important when considering larger operations.”

“It’s also important because our civil works mission doesn’t stop,” he said. “We’re going to continue to have those projects, and if we add military work on top of that, we have to have the space to do multiple projects at once.”

Martin has high hopes for the future of the program. “The ultimate goal is for this to become a program of record,” he said. “We want the Navy, the Army and the Marine Corps all to use this for amphibious planning. We want to serve our military, and we think this tool will serve them well.”