L-3 Communications (one of our Fast Company 50 this year) has just announced it’s partnering with Textron to bid for a big future military vehicle contract. By big, we mean biiig: a 73-ton hovercraft that’ll ferry troops and hardware from ship to shore.
Yup–you read that right: a hovercraft that weighs 73 tons. It’s the U.S. Navy’s Ship-to-Shore Connector (SSC) program, worth $4 billion, and it’s due to be in service around 2019–it will replace the existing Landing Craft Air Cushion hovercraft that currently does the job. Think of a monster like this floating on nothing more than air, moving at high speed over sea and shore, laden with guns and people to shoot them (or bags foodstuffs when deployed in humanitarian roles). Here’s a picture of a similar but larger prototype design from Textron to help boggle your imagination.
But actually, it’s not all that big when you compare it to other military hardware, which gives us an excuse to talk about some of this stuff.
Challenger II Main Battle Tank
To give you some sense of perspective, 73 tons is pretty close to the basic weight of Britain’s primary piece of battlefield armor–the Challenger II tank. This fearsome beast is actually advertised by its makers as the world’s most reliable main battle tank–it costs about $8 million per unit, carries a crew of four, can fire its high-explosive rounds over five miles, and manages speeds of 25mph off-road. It weighs nearly 70 tons empty–so watch this video and then try and imagine something this big zipping over the sea towards you.
Of course, the SSC is actually designed to carry tanks like this to beachhead positions from ships, but you get the picture.
The Challenger ii weighs nearly as much as the SSC but it doesn’t actually take to the air–unless it’s making a jump. So here’s something heavy and flying for comparison: the C-5 Galaxy. In service with the U.S.A.F. as a heavy lift vehicle, it’s actually one of the largest aircraft in the World. Introduced in 1970, each C-5 is worth around $170 million; it can carry 73 passengers and has 28 wheels and a loading bay that measures 120 feet long and 19 feet high. It’s huge. It flies. And it weighs over 250 tons–three SSCs all at once.
Caspian Sea Monster
Okay, we have the Challenger ii tank that weighs as much as the SSC but which doesn’t fly or float, and the C-5 Galaxy that weighs three times as much but which is actually a genuine plane that you wouldn’t want anywhere near the sea. What about something that combines the two? That’s where you get the Ekranoplan. It’s actually a ground-effect vehicle much like the SSC, but it generates its cushion of air because it’s shaped like an airplane and actually flies very, very close to the water’s surface.
The Soviet Union experimented with many different Ekranoplan designs, but the biggest was so astonishing it was dubbed the Caspian Sea Monster by foreign intelligence agencies. They were designed to move fast–very fast (up to several hundred miles an hour), and to be able to act as attack vehicles as well as cargo freighters. The Caspian Sea Monster weighed over 500 tons.
That vehicle weighs nearly seven times as much as the SSC will, but the Monster never really made it past the prototype phase, whereas the SSC will be roaring over the oceans soon.