When the United States Marine Corps' (USMC) incoming Commandant, General Joseph Dunford, announced his vision to return the Corps to an expeditionary role after a decade and a half of concentration on conventional, motorized counterinsurgency and conventional-war operations very distant from any coastline, the assumption was that - beyond some new vehicles, like the now-canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program - there would not be a great deal of difference between Gen. Dunford's vision, and Marine Corps operations in the 1980's.

Fire support for landing operations has long consisted of frigate- to destroyer-class vessels deploying various types of stand-off land attack missiles and cannons in the 5-inch/125mm range. Not since the Landing Ship, Medium (Rocket) (LSM(R)) of World War 2 has there been a truly dedicated close-inshore bombardment-capable vessel. Since the end of the Vietnam War (1964-1975), "inshore fire support" has consisted primarily of craft armed with .50/12.7mm heavy machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, mortars or flamethrowers.

However, times change, and technology changes apace.

Case in point: As technology and high-tech industry has expanded throughout the world, more and more nations are developing energetic and dynamic design firms. Recently unveiled by Indonesian shipbuilder PT Ludin, the X-18 - called, for obvious reasons, the "Tank Boat" - may look like something out of a "GI Joe" movie, but it is definitely an innovative development of preexisting concepts.

Comprised of over 18,000 separate islands, and being on the front lines of both insurgency, piracy and general world unrest, Indonesia has a definite need for an inshore fire support vessel with a heavy punch. In this, the X-18 "Tank Boat" certainly delivers.

Designed by PT Ludin, the X-18 is to be built by the veteran small craft yards of North Sea Boats. Mounting a Cockerill 105mm cannon with an automatic loading system in a small, 2-person turret, with a 360° traverse and a .50cal/12.7x99mm heavy machine gun as a secondary weapon, the X-18 also carries a variety of small, rigid-hulled inflatables. This allows the deployment of boarding or landing parties, as well as special operations teams -- who would presumably have 105mm artillery support within a 10km arc from the craft.

With a reported draft of only 0.8 meters and a reported 900nm range (the distance from Washington, D.C. to Miami, FL) at 30 knots, the twin-hulled catamaran design would certainly have long legs. The design is impressive enough - in theory - to have reportedly garnered an early order from the United Arab Emirates.


However - and this should be a cautionary warning to all concerned - those spectacular numbers, attractive as they are to customers used to fire support from only short-ranged machine guns and grenade launchers, come with a price: armor, or the lack, thereof.

The X-18, assuming that it lives up to its claimed performance, would be a very useful addition to any naval force...as long as its limitations are kept firmly in mind. This is not a capital ship. Its main advantages of speed, range, draft and armament come at the price of physical protection against little more than 7.62x51mm ammunition. In a world where lightweight, man-portable anti-tank rocket launchers are common, this is a serious concern, even with twin, compartmentalized hulls.

Any naval or Marine force looking for potential fire support for a major combat landing - opposed or not - should be wary of the benefits of a design with this little armor protection, until a better understanding of its performance in real combat conditions can be established.

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