Stop Fighting And Build The Light Amphibious Warship

If the U.S. Navy fights China half as hard as it is currently fighting the U.S. Marine Corps over the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) program, Americans can sleep soundly.

A skeptical Navy has taken a reasonable Marine Corps proposal to build 35 austere, 3,000-ton landing craft—a modest modern update of the once-ubiquitous World War II-era Landing Ship, Tank (LST)—and gold-plated the whole thing. What should be a simple effort to buy a basic fleet of slow-moving transport ships is becoming an epic struggle as the Navy, drawing from the same bureaucratic playbook it used to fatally wound the Littoral Combat Ship concept, maneuvers to keep the LAW out of the combat fleet.

With an original per-unit price target of $100 to $130 million, the Navy’s “well-intentioned” efforts to add protection and self-defense measures are set to push the estimated per-unit price to over $350 million—a heck of a price increase for a mere transport. Given the current estimated per-ship price, the vessel may now never get built, sunk by the Navy’s insistence on pricey gear and other design tweaks meant to keep the landing boat afloat.

The LAW has obviously hit a sensitive nerve somewhere in the naval industrial complex. From the moment Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger proposed the procurement of 35 LAWs, misguided critics started blasting away at the LAW’s use case, railing about the vessel’s sailing limitations, and airing concerns that the new ship offers an existential challenge to the Navy’s super-sized amphibious ship fleet.

America shouldn’t waste more time debating the LAW. Every Navy needs a handful of small transports. As originally conceived, a cheap Light Amphibious Warship—capable of carrying between 75 to 125 Marines and their heavy gear—is tremendously useful. A brace of new LSTs would be a great investment for the nation—and when we are done with them, plenty of allies will be glad to pick up a used one.

But it is pretty clear the Navy wants nothing to do with the LAW.

The Problems With An Enormously Useful Large, Slow, Target

The LAW’s use case is simple—it is enormously useful.

That’s it.

Despite the utility of the craft, there are plenty of reasons for the Navy to hate the ship. No matter what kind of war you are in, any landing ship tank (LST)-like platform is going to be vulnerable. Called “large, slow targets” back in the day, the old-school warfighters of World War II realized the LST’s utility outweighed their vulnerabilities. During—and long after—the war, the commodious and tough landing ships served not just as big, flexible landing craft, but were pressed into service as floating hospitals, machine shops, command vessels, small aircraft launchers, radar pickets, refueling stations, and basic transport for everything the war effort needed in theatre. For almost 40 years, if a field commander needed something done or moved at sea, an LST would probably be tasked to go do it.

LAWs are not the dashing and glamorous surface combatants from the Navy’s stockpile of great sea stories. At best, they’re grubby functionaries. With a modest compliment of 40, traditionally led by a lieutenant and seven other junior officers, the simple ships fill a vital utilitarian niche—nothing more, nothing less.

LAWs are also plodding low-speed sailors, ungainly at sea. Flat-bottomed, they offer uncomfortable rides, rocking and rolling in the high seas.

Not very lethal in themselves, the crews have no real hope of earning glory in battle and must be contented with the boring but necessary work of facilitating lethality elsewhere.

But those qualities are, at their foundation, merely matters of taste. What really kills the LAW is the ship’s reliance on low-ranking officers. Running afoul of the Navy’s inflexible personnel management infrastructure makes the concept unworkable. In essence, the LAW disrupts the natural order of things. With five or six big billion-dollar amphibious ships slated to get sacrificed for platforms full of low-ranking ensigns, the Navy’s delicately balanced array of command opportunities for mid-career officers seeking higher-level posts will shrink. A big brace of 35 LAWs—if commanded by lieutenants—will hoover up around around 280 junior officers—junior officers the Navy is already struggling to recruit.

Then there is the pesky problem of advancing a big herd of junior officers who started their careers outside the traditional surface combatant ecosystem. Instead of a responsibility-building stepping-stone to becoming Chief of Naval Operations, simple ships like the bare-bones LAW concept are, today, basically considered career-killers. Without opportunities to train and qualify on subsystems systems that are aboard more complex combatants, LAW sailors will be out of synch with their peers who spent their first years learning how to sail and fight a destroyer, cruiser or other combatant. It’s one of the reasons why the Navy wants to install a pricey combat system and other unwieldy gee-whiz gimmickry on the LAW.

The ossification of the Navy’s personnel infrastructure around large ship systems is a real problem. At one time, an opportunity to be an officer in of the Navy’s hard-hitting small craft attracted some of the Navy’s best young sailors. Today, young ensigns are offered few opportunities to serve in a small ship after graduation. At the 2023 Naval Academy ship selection night, the smallest and simplest vessels open to graduating ensigns were on Littoral Combat Ships, and, of the few spots available, they were either picked late or went unfilled.

Rather than figure out how to make the square pegs from the “small and simple” patrol boat world fit into the round hole of the Navy’s larger expectations for personnel development, naval administrators chose to help kill of the Navy’s once voluminous fleet of simple craft. The last class of boats young Navy lieutenants could command, 40-foot Mark VI patrol boats, are all out of U.S. service and are being transferred to Ukraine—a sorry coda for an array of smaller Navy craft that once helped young officers like Lt. John F. Kennedy learn to lead.

The press for big Navy to enact rigid training requirements and strict personnel development pipelines is now, in essence, baked into Navy culture, and, as such, it is an unrecognized constraint on naval ship design and Navy force structure. If a notional Navy ship disrupts the existing billeting structure, has no combat system or lacks other organizational analogues to a complex, likely Aegis-based surface combatant—the Navy is going to do everything it can to either make it unmanned, send it to the civilian-operated Military Sealift Command fleet, or kill it outright.

Lay Down The LAW Today

The LAW’s use case rests in providing cheap utilitarian support. The ship’s primary strategic value is derived from the platform’s capability to help shape the environment before a crisis—delivering small, cohesive teams to remote locations with far less cost and bureaucratic bother than any other form of transport currently available to the Marine Corps.

Critics of the LAW overlook the fact that the Light Amphibious Warship opens the Pacific up to the Marine Corps, allowing Marines the freedom to move about the theatre and work with partners. With no LAWs, the Marine Corps have few options to move away from their remote island bases.

Instead, LAW critics want to put Marines at the mercy of America’s 31 huge, overtasked—and often-broken-amphibious vessels. Sure, the big “amphibs” might take a few Marines to an exercise on a small island someplace once every decade, but the big multi-billion dollar amphibious warships are rarely available for small-unit operations necessary to work with the strategic island democracies of the Pacific. Using aircraft to bring in a Marine unit can be done, but air transport is enormously expensive, and few airports in the Pacific can accept a heavy BoeingBA
C-17 Globemaster III. Another alternative is to wait for technology, but unmanned options are unready for the mission, and it would be foolish to wait for DARPA to develop, test, and procure a cutting-edge confectionary like the ground-effect Liberty Lifter X-Plane. In the end, most of the new tech on tap will cost more and be far less operationally effective than the LAW.

Instead of waiting around, stuck on Guam, Hawaii, Australia or other Pacific garrison, Marines should have the ability to get their equipment aboard an in-theatre LAW and get going whenever they want. And while the Marines won’t go anywhere too fast in a LAW, the Marines will be able to visit far more strategic places in the Pacific far more frequently. At this point, the frequency of visits are what matters.

Aside from allowing the Marine Corps to move everything—from small units to heavy gear—through the Pacific, critics overlook the fact that the LAW can help the Marine Corps avoid Pacific ports and commercial shipping..

Forcing the Marines to rely on some kludged—and often Chinese-controlled—commercial supply chain for mobility takes time—contracts don’t write themselves—and can be a real threat. The Singapore Armed Forces learned this lesson the hard way. In 2016, as an APL commercial freighter made stops in China, Chinese authorities detected, boarded, and impounded nine Terrex Infantry Fighting Vehicles as Singapore was shipping them back from an island exercise. The armored vehicles were held hostage for about two months.

Critics also fret that the Marine Corps’ distributed island strategy, “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations” is unsustainable. The strategy, envisioned as an effort to distribute small, hard-hitting trip-wire units throughout the Pacific is smart. Both World War II and the modern-day Ukraine War demonstrate that small leave-behind units are really useful to have. In 1942, a small Marine Corps team, left behind on the isolated Wake Atoll, inflicted disproportionate costs on the attacking Japanese—sinking two destroyers, a submarine, and several other smaller craft before surrendering. In Ukraine, small units operate behind Russian lines, building targeting networks and carrying out attacks.

In the Pacific, actionable intelligence is as valuable today as it was in World War II when Coast Watcher teams played cat-and-mouse with occupying Japanese forces. Left behind enemy lines, Coast Watchers either supplied themselves or were resupplied via a range of different platforms. If Coast Watchers needed to evacuate, they’d melt away, often using civilian craft to leave the area. Those same tactics can work today.

Certainly, nobody expects LAW to get into the middle of a high-end fight and survive. The Navy, attempting to strip the vessel of any warfighting role, is attempting to rebrand the LAW as a “Landing Ship, Medium” or LSM, opening an option to hand the vessel over to a civilian Military Sealift Command crew. But that, too, is a mistake. The LAWs, like their LST forebears, must be able to change their mission to fight—either firing things off the cargo deck, launching combat-ready drones, laying mines or handling combat tasks ill suited for non-commissioned ships with civilian crews.

Being a non-traditional combatant does not discount the LAW’s utility. Used in the right way, the small ships have geopolitical heft. Russia’s sortie of six light amphibious warships to the Black Sea in January 2022 raised blood pressure throughout Europe, induced several countries to undertake troop movements, hurried deployments of high-value escorts, overflights and make a number of other security-building steps as the ships lumbered past.

Russia’s modernized LSTs are proving the critics right in one aspect. They are vulnerable. At least one has been sunk in port—targeted after Russian media reported on the vessel’s operations—but most of Russia’s Ropucha-class landing ships are believed to still be operating in the background, moving supplies and ground assets back and forth across the Azov and Black Sea.

Put bluntly, the LAW is a useful little ship. They’re critical before a battle starts, and after a battle gets going, at some point, when the missiles run out and communication nets degrade, light amphibious warships will find their way into the front lines—and they will be extremely useful when they do.