Let The Marine Corps Build The New Light Amphibious Warship

The Pentagon’s proposed 2023 naval budget was a rude shock for America’s amphibious assault vessel industrial base. The new budget—such as it is—forces the Navy and Marine Corps to address some tough analytical realities. Until now, both the Navy and the Pentagon have refused to acknowledge the massive global growth in the number of large-displacement amphibious assault-ready vessels.

Nobody wants to say it, but the U.S. Navy no longer has a monopoly on massive blue water amphibious assault ships. With the world stepping up, it is time for the Pentagon to refocus on the emerging global shortfall in smallish amphibious assault ships.

That’s not bad news. A lot of U.S. allies are eager to support America’s amphibious fleet, employing their new amphibious assault platforms to help assume conventional amphibious taskings that, forty years ago, only America could handle. While the U.S. Navy touts the collaborations at sea, the U.S. Navy has simply refused to acknowledge the changing landscape; Marine Corps lift “requirements” have remained frozen over the past few decades while most of America’s friends built up big, blue-water amphibious assault fleets of their own.

In short, Marine Corps lift requirements have gone unchanged and unchallenged for far too long.

The current Marine Corps Commandant, General David Berger, and other foresighted Marine Corps reformers understand the changing amphibious landscape. While the global fleet of amphibious assault ships are bigger and better than ever, the free world’s fleet of small but versatile World War II-era tank landing ships have dwindled away, leaving an operational gap open for exploitation. It’s a perfect spot for the Marine Corps.

The new Pentagon budget should allow the Navy to move quickly in reliving the global shortage of smallish 2,000 to 4,000-ton amphibious assault craft. As Russia demonstrated earlier this year, small amphibious craft can punch above their weight.

The Pentagon’s Amphibious Budget Is A Middling Mess

In the new budget proposal, the Pentagon took direct aim at the Navy’s big 32-ship amphibious assault fleet, cutting four aging Whidbey Island (LSD-41) class dock landing ships. It also closes the San Antonio (LPD-17) class amphibious transport dock production line and delays a Marine Corps effort to quickly reintroduce a small, 4,000-ton “Light Amphibious Warship” or LAW. The budget proposal pushes back procurement of about 35 LAWs, a modernized version of the 2,000 to 3,000-ton World War II-era “Landing Ship, Tank,” or LST, by at least two years, with LAWs only arriving in the fleet by 2027.

The Pentagon’s FY 2023 budget proposal is something of a messy middle-ground. Congress can approve the budget and slam the door on the Marine Corps’ longstanding demand for a 38-ship amphibious fleet. If approved, the proposed budget irrevocably moves away from the longstanding “2.0 MEB requirement,” obligating the Navy to provide sufficient lift to land and support two heavy combat-ready Marine Expeditionary Brigades of about 14,500 troops. But, by delaying the LAW, the Pentagon’s budget proposal also hinders the Marine Corps effort to reinvent itself around smaller vessels and Navy-support oriented ground combat groups. It will likely force the Marines to use the Navy’s set of 15 unpopular Spearhead (EPF-1) class Expeditionary Fast Transports as surrogates.

As a package, the Pentagon’s proposed FY 2023 budget strikes fear into the heart of American shipbuilders. Eliminating the 38-amphibious ship goal puts Huntington Ingalls’ big Mississippi shipyard at risk, while pushing back LAW purchases endangers several of America’s smaller shipbuilders, all of whom were counting on the LAW’s quick progression into production to survive. Something will have to change.

Berger Is Breaking All The Right Rice-Bowls

America’s amphibious fleet is an enormous investment. Each big modern amphibious vessel can cost more that $3 billion, whereas the small LAW is projected to cost somewhere around $130-140 million. The entire fleet of 35 ships can be purchased for the price of less than two big amphibs.

The howls of protest are deafening. Political consultants, facing the potential collapse of longstanding and long-profitable rice bowls—in everything from shipbuilding to heavy tank manufacture, are rushing to defend the legacy Marine Corps organizational structure. Even retired Marine Corps generals—many tied fiscally to the companies most at risk of losing market-share—are dismissing the Marine Corps new focus on smaller ships and combat units, calling the new strategic template an under-analyzed risk.

These assaults are wrong.

The 2.0 MEB lift requirements are, in themselves, under-analyzed—a historical relic from when nobody else had big-draft, blue-water amphibious craft. America dominated amphibious lift for years. America’s analytical lift models have completely failed to acknowledge the massive global growth in amphibious lift. Until now, the Pentagon requirements dismissed the idea that America no longer has to do it all in the amphibious arena.

Others can—and will—do basic “block and tackling” amphibious missions just fine.

The growth in the global amphibious arsenal has been substantial. In the mid-eighties, of America’s Pacific allies, Taiwan had the largest tonnage of amphibious assault vessels in the region—a big fleet of cast-off US LSTs led by two old Casa Grande and Ashland class dock landing ships. Australia’s 6,000 ton HMAS Tobruk (L-50) was, by displacement, one of the largest amphibious assault ships in the region. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and others got by with World War II-era LSTs.

Today, that situation has entirely changed. In general, the LSTs have gone, largely replaced by big amphibious assault ships. Japan has big-deck helicopter carriers, three large 14,000 ton landing ships and a host of smaller craft. South Korea has an integrated amphibious fleet of big-deck helicopter carriers, advanced tank landing craft and other vessels. Singapore has four 6,000 ton tank carriers. Australia has two big 27,000-ton Canberra (L-02) class landing helicopter docks and a 16,000 ton Bay (L-100) class landing ship dock. Similar growth has occurred in the European theatre of operations as well.

The Marine Corps is on the right track. Every Navy can use LST-like ships. They’re useful, lend themselves to an array of forward missions, and are going to be missed now that they have pretty much vanished from the global fleet. The Pentagon did the right thing by funding the LAW, and Congress can help by accelerating these much-needed pint-sized amphibious assault craft into production.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/craighooper/2022/04/03/let-the-marine-corps-build-the-new-light-amphibious-warship/