If you saw The Pacific on HBO, then you saw what amphibious landings usually involved during World War II and most of the 1950s and 60s. Higgins boats were used to deliver infantry and light vehicles while heavier vehicles and tanks came from larger landing craft or ships that beached themselves.
That is no longer the case. These days, the grunts are likely to ride in on helicopters, like the CH-53E Super Stallion and the MH-60S Seahawk, or tiltrotors, like the MV-22 Osprey. When possible, Marines use these aircraft to fly in from dozens of miles offshore. Sometimes, however, the mission requires an approach by sea — and when it does, it doesn't make much sense to run a landing ship tank onto the beach.
A U.S. Navy landing craft air cushion (LCAC) embarks the well deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21). (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jered T. Stone)
A new landing craft was developed to be the perfect entry vessel: the Landing Craft Air Cushion. It isn't exactly a boat — it's a hovercraft — and it's a huge step up from WWII-era landing craft that were, in actuality, barely functional. Previously, troops were often forced to wade through water – a very slow process that left them very vulnerable. If you saw the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, you get the idea.
The LCAC entered service in 1987 and the United States bought 91. They have a crew of five and can haul troops, tanks, and cargo onto the shore and well inland. Unlike previous landing craft, the LCAC can move inland a bit and then deliver the troops, instead of dropping the ramp at sea. The Marines can storm beaches without getting their feet wet.
U.S. Navy Landing Craft, Air Cushion 71 approaches the well deck of the dock landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD 51). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jessica L. Dowell)
While the LCAC can't take much punishment, it still gets the Marines' vehicles ashore quickly.
Learn more about this combat hovercraft by watching the video below!