WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have finessed their requirement for amphibious ships and are now asking for 28 to 31 traditional amphibious ships that could flow in to support other expeditionary forces already operating during a conflict.
The Marines had long held on to a requirement for two Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEB) that could fight their way into enemy territory – which led to the service having a stated requirement for 38 traditional amphibious warships to carry the two MEBs until 2019.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger backed away from the two-MEB requirement in his initial Commandant’s Planning Guidance after he took command in July 2019. He noted that “we will no longer use a ‘2.0 MEB requirement’ as the foundation for our arguments regarding amphibious shipbuilding, to determine the requisite capacity of vehicles or other capabilities, or as pertains to the Maritime Prepositioning Force. We will no longer reference the 38-ship requirement memo from 2009, or the 2016 Force Structure Assessment, as the basis for our arguments and force structure justifications. … The global options for amphibs include many more options than simply LHAs, LPDs, and LSDs.”
Since that time, the Navy and Marine Corps have embraced new concepts like Distributed Maritime Operations and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, and they conducted a new integrated naval force structure assessment that led to a Pentagon-level look at Navy and Marine Corps future fleet needs.
Now, the Marines are looking at a one-MEB lift requirement to move in Marines that would augment and back up those already deployed and operating in a given region, Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Combat Development and Integration Lt. Gen. Eric Smith explained during a June 17 House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee hearing.
“The requirement, based on a study that [Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfighting Requirements and Capabilities Vice Adm. Jim Kilby], my friend Jim, and I did together was you need 31 traditional amphibious ships in the appropriate mix, which is 10 big decks, LHA/LHD, and 21 LSD/LPD,” Smith said, with the LHAs and LHDs being the America-class and Wasp-class amphibious assault ships, respectively, supplemented by San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks (LPD-17s) and their Flight II variant that will replace the aging Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships (LSD-41/49).
“The low end of that study is 28, and the difference in those three is that there’s additional risk in arrival times,” he continued. “And that’s based on a single MEB, Marine Expeditionary Brigade, forcible entry, and our expeditionary units that are out always, and our forward-deployed naval force in Japan.”
In the past, having just one MEB to flow in behind any deployed or forward-deployed Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) would not be enough – but now, those deployed MEUs will be supplemented by 35 Light Amphibious Warships with about 75 Marines and heavy weaponry on each hull, meaning there will be much more combat power already scattered across contested waters and therefore less need for a massive two-MEB follow-on force.
During the hearing, subcommittee ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., asked about the LAW design and requirements, and specifically whether it would be built to military or commercial standards.
Jay Stefany, the acting Navy acquisition chief, said the commandant wants a capable ship but also one that’s affordable.
“Commercial standards with specific Navy features is the way we need to go for this ship, and what those features are needs to be worked out with the Marine Corps,” he told Wittman.
“Adm. Kilby and I sit on the requirements evaluation team for that, the RET. So we are in lockstep, there’s zero daylight between Jim and myself on that. It needs to be something that is, as Sec. Stefany said, affordable so we can get it in numbers, and it has to be something that looks like everything else that’s out there,” Smith said. “You protect the cargo, meaning the Marines and sailors that are on it, for a limited period of time in order to be able to evacuate them – that is the purpose that ship. I know that’s not a loved sentiment, but that cargo is precious to us. So it has to go off, but it has to be affordable in large numbers and has to look like everything else.”
Though the LAW is expected to have some minimal self-defense capabilities, its ability to blend in with commercial traffic in the water is itself a defense mechanism, keeping the ship from being detected by an adversary seeking military targets to hit.
Kilby added that LAW will need some added survivability built into the hull in case it were to take a hit, so that sailors and Marines could survive and safely evacuate from the damaged ship. But it won’t be a surface combatant that’s expected to take a hit and keep on fighting, which will contribute to its lower cost and the ability to field nearly three dozen of them on a fairly rapid timeline.
The Navy had previously stated it wants to buy the first 10 LAWs between FY22 and FY26.
In its recent fiscal 2022 budget request, the Navy did not ask for money to begin procurement in FY22, though. Navy spokesman Capt. Clay Doss told Defense News the program would begin acquisition in FY23 if Congress funds the Navy’s request for just research and development funds in FY22 to prepare for acquisition in FY23. He said the decision to slow the program down was a fiscal one, not a sign of engineering or other challenges.
The traditional amphibious ship programs may also take a hit due to fiscal uncertainty around the shipbuilding budgets for FY22 and beyond. Stefany said in a June 8 hearing that a deal to buy four ships – one LHA and three LPDs – from Ingalls Shipbuilding had been worked out between the Navy and the shipyard but that top Navy and Pentagon leadership did not seem interested in committing to so many amphibious ships up front.
“The initial indications we’re getting from the department is that they would like to defer this decision” until they complete a force structure assessment associated with FY23 budget planning. The analysis will take place throughout the summer and fall, making it unlikely the Department of the Navy would be ready to make a decision before the multi-ship procurement authority that Congress gave the Navy before this contract expires at the end of the fiscal year, on Sept. 30.
In the June 17 HASC subcommittee hearing, Stefany added that negotiations between the Navy and Ingalls showed that the four-ship purchase would have saved 7.1 percent of the total cost of the four ships, or about $700 million.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.