NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Two key lawmakers support adding funds to keep an amphibious warship production line going, despite the U.S. Navy planning to end the ship class after fiscal 2023.
The Navy in its FY23 budget request asked to buy one last San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, LPD-32, and would then end the ship program at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi. The U.S. Marine Corps, on the other hand, included in its FY23 wish list $250 million in advanced procurement for LPD-33, a ship the Navy does not intend to buy.
The top Democrat and Republican on the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee both agreed they want to give the Marines that money this year, despite the Navy’s objections.
Rep. Joe Courtney, the subcommittee chairman, said April 4 at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference “that’s one of those items that’s going to change” once Congress starts drafting its own version of an FY23 spending plan.
“The Marine Corps leadership has made a really convincing case that LPDs have a mission, and [abruptly ending the production line] is going to deprive the country of a very valuable tool,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “Plus, cutting off shipyards really gives me hives, as someone who’s co-chair of the shipbuilding caucus, because when you talk about the workforce, supply chain, all the things that we need to build out [to grow the fleet in the coming years], that is poison in terms of the damage it can do to suddenly have a program fall off a cliff.”
“I don’t think you should build ships as a jobs program for local economies, but on the other hand, if the service can make a convincing case that the value is there, the mission is there, clearly we have to be very mindful of a cutoff or a cliff,” Courtney added.
Rep. Rob Wittman, the subcommittee’s top Republican, said during the same conference panel “we need to do advanced procurement on LPD-33 now.”
He argued that buying both traditional amphibious ships and the new light amphibious warship, still in development after the start of that program was pushed to FY25, is necessary to impose risk and uncertainty on China in the Pacific.
The Navy’s FY23 plan includes several items that generated concern for the Marine Corps and the shipbuilding industry.
The LPD line would be canceled. The America-class amphibious assault ship production line would be dramatically slowed, with LHA-10 being purchased in FY31, according to the Marines. That would put it a decade after LHA-9, despite manufacturer Ingalls Shipbuilding calling for these ships to be built at four-year intervals.
LAW, previously pushed from FY22 to FY23, would be delayed again to FY25. And the Navy’s Constellation-class frigate program, which previously could have brought in a second construction yard as early as 2025, wouldn’t see another yard added until FY28 or later.
Top Marine officials said these plans add risk to their mission. Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Capabilities Development and Integration Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl told Defense News in a statement April 4 “the Marine Corps has a requirement for absolutely no less than 31 amphibious warfare ships,” including 10 large amphibious assault ships and 21 LPDs.
Heckl said the proposed FY23 funding plan would shrink the amphib force to just 25 ships in the next five years, with the Navy planning to build two ships in 2023 but none in the rest of the decade. Four amphibious ships would be decommissioned in 2023 alone, he noted.
Coupled with the shrinking amphib force is the decreased readiness of those ships in the fleet, Heckl said.
“The 31 number is predicated on an availability of 80% as dictated in the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP). Currently the 10-year average availability is 63%, and recently it has been as low as 43%,” he said, arguing the Navy’s proposed plan would damage the Marines’ ability to keep two Marine Expeditionary Units deployed on amphibious ships at any given time and its ability to surge more forces forward in a crisis.
In an April 5 panel, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith addressed the divide between the two naval services, noting there are always arguments over how to spend limited funds, but that the Navy and Marines are approaching the issue respectfully and thoughtfully.
Smith said the Marine Corps has and will continue to have seven Marine Expeditionary Units. It requires 31 traditional amphibs and 35 LAWs to keep those MEUs afloat and allow separate Marine Littoral Regiments to have small ships to maneuver around the operating area. He said he doesn’t want amphibs and LAWs to be pitted against each other when the Marines need both to keep separate Marine formations in the fight.
For industry, the impact of the Navy’s FY23 plans could be just as significant. Ingalls Shipbuilding would be hit hardest: of the four ship classes it builds, one would be canceled and a second would be stretched out to a pace Heckl called “untenable” for industry. A third, the National Security Cutter for the U.S. Coast Guard, is winding down soon unless Congress intervenes.
To fill those gaps, Ingalls could have looked to the LAW or frigate programs, but the Navy has delayed those two key opportunities for shipyards to win new work.
Austal USA will this month open its steel production facility and is also counting on winning the frigate or the LAW programs to fill that capacity at the Alabama shipyard.
Bryan Clark, director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute, told Defense News April 4 the Navy’s FY23 request seeks some stability for upcoming Virginia-class attack submarine and Arleigh Burke-class destroyer procurement, “but the uneven plans for FFG and amphibious ships undermine the primes’ ability to make workforce and capital plans.”
“HII and Austal both have reason to worry,” he added.
For Ingalls, he said, “the shift from LPD to LAW could result in amphibious construction moving to smaller shipyards.” While “for Austal, the potential for no second FFG yard could be existential.”
Ingalls Shipbuilding President Kari Wilkinson at the conference spoke about the importance of preserving the workforce.
“In shipbuilding, we talk about centers and predictability and funding and acquisition strategy — these things are absolutely important. Some may think this is code for profit, but it’s absolutely not; shipbuilding is a low-margin business,” she said. “We talk about centers and predictability and funding and acquisition strategy because if we don’t get those things right, we lose people. And losing people damages capability, capacity and economies.”
If the workforce shrinks, “we lose our ability to perform and to surge in the event that it’s needed to support national security,” she said.
Asked afterwards about the LAW and frigate programs being pushed back, delaying the opportunity for Ingalls to bid on new work, she told Defense News, “right now, we’re very focused on executing on the programs we have.
“We’re privileged to have some backlog that takes us for a period of time,” she added. “We’re absolutely interested in what happens with frigate and these other programs because we’re going to be there to support our customers.”
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.