2012 July: Army muscle-power comes aboard CANTERBURY
The Army and ship’s company of HMNZS CANTERBURY took advantage of a fine sunny July day in Wellington to conduct trial loadings of some of the Army’s biggest vehicles as part of the drive to align the three NZDF services as a joint amphibious task force.
By 8am, four big green machines were at the Aotea Quay wharf next to CANTERBURY—one of the Army’s six new JCB High Mobility Engineer Excavators (HMEEs), an up-armoured Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV), an eye-catching MAN HX77 truck mounted with an extendable bridge and an 18.9m long Heavy Equipment Transporter (HET) used to carry LAVs and other big items.
The trial was a capacity-building exercise to see how such big vehicles could not just be carried by CANTERBURY—the Navy’s multi-purpose sea lift and amphibious support vessel—but also how they could be disembarked at sea if need be on missions to islands with no or insufficient wharf facilities.
“It’s all about interoperability between the services,” says Lieutenant Commander Julie Fitzell, an amphibious warfare specialist in the New Zealand Defence Force Capability Branch. “This is the first trial with the Army’s major capability assets. We’ve lifted Army vehicles on to CANTERBURY before but these are unique because they are bigger and heavier than anything tried before.”
Under the 2011 Defence Capability Plan, the Army, Navy and Air Force are to establish as their core a Joint Amphibious Task Force by 2015. A key feature of the plan is the ability to transport and sustain the Army overseas, with the Joint Amphibious Task Force capable of working independently in the South Pacific or as part of a larger coalition operation.
CANTERBURY is an integral part of the plan, as she can carry up to 250 troops, five helicopters (including four of the latest Air Force NH-90s) and up to 65 vehicles, the latter depending how many supply containers are stored on her vehicle deck. She has a stern ramp that can open at sea to load suitable landing craft, a side ramp through which vehicles can be driven on and off at a wharf, two big cranes able to lift objects as heavy as 65 tonnes, and two 59-tonne landing craft (Landing Craft Medium or LCM) hoisted in and out of the water by the cranes.
This day, the first Army vehicle to come aboard is the 15.7-tonne HMEE, which looks like a bulldozer-digger out of a futuristic movie. It is a high-mobility earthmoving plant designed to survive on a modern battlefield.
CANTERBURY’s crew includes seven permanent Army personnel who operate the ship’s cranes and supervise loading and unloading of equipment. They spend considerable time working out what kind of chains will be best to lift the HMEE safely and without damaging the vehicle’s paintwork. Ones with blue plastic covering are eventually chosen.
At 9.45am the HMEE is lifted off the wharf, over the side of the ship and down through the starboard (wharf-side) hatch in the flight deck to the vehicle deck below. There is not much clearance for such a big machine through the hatch but all goes well, with the loaders pushing and prodding the HMEE with their hands and feet as it is lowered.
Next is the 22-tonne LAV, a model with extra armour retro-fitted underneath and on its sides. It is the model used by our forces in Afghanistan, the extra armour designed to withstand blasts from Improvised Explosive Devices hidden in the ground. It too goes in smoothly at 10.15am.
The trial now requires lifting the two vehicles up through the port (harbour-side) hatch and down into the landing craft. A RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) is launched with the LCM’s operators aboard and the crane operator prepares to lift the LCM.
LT CDR Fitzell, who was the Supply Officer on CANTERBURY for two years before taking up her current role, says the ship lists by 6 degrees as the LCM is lowered—and it does, quite noticeably.
Both the HMEE and LAV are lifted to and from the landing craft without a hitch, proving they can be deployed to an island or beach environment with no wharf facility, something common in the South Pacific and other places such as East Timor where our forces go for humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.
After lunch, it is the turn of the “bridge truck.” In official jargon this vehicle is a Gap Crossing System (GCS), a “Rapidly Emplaced Bridge” mounted on a MAN HX77 host vehicle. In use, the chunky vehicle is driven to a river or ravine or other gap needing to be crossed. The folded bridge on the truck’s tray is hydraulically laid to the ground, then a 30-metre bridge is hydraulically laid across the gap.
It is far too big to go through CANTERBURY’s flight deck hatches and too heavy to be placed on the flight deck, but this trial seeks to see if it can be lifted by the ship’s cranes. It is quickly discovered the truck itself has no lifting points, so cradles are fitted under its tyres and, very slowly, it is lifted several metres above the wharf. The crane operator calls out that he’s lifting 21.5 tonnes.
The “bridge” itself is then moved under the crane. It has lifting points, and is also lifted a few metres above the wharf. It weighs 11.6 tonnes, the crane operator calls.
By now it is 3pm and high tide, when there’s a window of opportunity to lower CANTERBURY’s side ramp. This trial is seeing if the HET articulated truck can get into the vehicle deck. The driver makes a number of attempts to back in and turn so it can be parked parallel with the sides of the ship but each time, there is not enough room to get the cab in after the trailer.
It is then decided to back it straight towards the far side of the deck and this works without a hitch. There is room to spare as CANTERBURY’s beam is 23.4 metres, allowing enough space to stow the HET even with the ramp closed. One wag says “we can put two of them here.”
Mr Gary Shanley, the Capability Branch project manager for the HET, says he had cut out scale shapes of the HET and the ship to see how the HET would fit, and believed from the outset that the way to go was to back it straight across the vehicle deck.
“I thought that would work and it did.”
With the HET still parked with its cab close to the ramp, the LAV and the excavator are driven out past it. The HET then departs and the last trial of the day—backing the bridge truck in—is easily done.
The trials are pronounced a success. The NZDF has further enhanced its Joint Amphibious Taskforce capability.
Picture: Lifting the LAV to CANTERBURY's landing craft