WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps planned to have its light amphibious warship on contract by now, ushering in a small ship that will move Marines around island chains and coastlines without relying on traditional, large ships.

But moving forward on the program and awarding that contract simply hasn’t been possible, after the effort was crowded out of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget two years in a row.

That’s put a damper on plans to use the ship to give small units of about 75 Marines the freedom to move quickly and discreetly while packing a big punch — carrying with them anti-ship missiles, reconnaissance drones, refueling and rearming materiel for friendly forces, and more.

The ship is pivotal to the Corps’ expeditionary advanced base operations concept, part of the overarching distributed maritime operations concept that’s driving how naval forces are modernizing this decade. Under the former concept, designed with China in mind, Marines will constantly move through contested areas, stopping to perform a mission and then moving again before they’re spotted or fired upon.

Though some units may use helicopters or other platforms, the Corps envisions the light amphibious warship as the primary way to move units from beach to beach while hiding in plain sight among similarly sized commercial ships.

The Marine Corps wanted to move fast, introducing the idea of the ship in 2020 as part of its Force Design 2030 overhaul and intending to get the new ships on contract within two to three years. But plans to buy the first vessels were initially pushed back to fiscal 2023 and then to fiscal 2025 due to large bills the Navy faces for submarines and other critical shipbuilding needs.

While the light amphib’s fleet debut is delayed, the Marines are using surrogate platforms to test concepts and tactics meant for the vessel, in the hope it’ll help the service efficiently use the new ships when they finally arrive. Nothing in today’s naval inventory offers the same combination of at-sea endurance and the ability to beach itself to load and unload gear ashore. Still, Marines were able to practice and refine aspects of expeditionary advanced base operations with other ships.

And top Marine Corps officials say the more they experiment with surrogates, the more confident they become that the light amphibious warship will be a vital tool to deter or defeat adversaries like China.

Ongoing experiments

Brig. Gen. David Odom, who leads the expeditionary warfare directorate on the chief of naval operations staff, told Defense News in a recent interview the Navy and Marine Corps are taking every opportunity to practice expeditionary advanced base operations, using the platforms on hand during routine exercises and pre-deployment training.

He said 3rd Marine Division and U.S. 7th Fleet used expeditionary sea base Miguel Keith — a massive ship with a large flight deck and internal mission bay used to launch small boats and unmanned craft — in the recent Balikatan exercise in the Philippines.

The same forces used landing craft to move the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and the Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System weapons during the fall 2021 Noble Jaguar exercise, he said.

During those two events, the units used a surrogate platform that is significantly larger and another that’s significantly smaller than the future light amphibious warship, Odom said. Though not reflective of the future ship’s size, the surrogates helped mature the concept and will make it easier to quickly introduce the light amphib, he added.

During the Noble Jaguar event in Japan, teams from 3rd Marine Division and 7th Fleet also experimented with an expeditionary fast transport, a 338-foot ship used for rapid intra-theater lift and of similar size to the light amphib.

“While we’re working together as a team here, with all partners and stakeholders to meet the commandant’s and the [chief of naval operations’] requirement for the light amphibious warship, the fleets concurrently are moving out at echelon with available existing craft — not in lieu of, but right now to get after it and iterate and experiment and learn together to keep advancing those concepts,” Odom said.

The basic requirement for the light amphibious warship is to haul 75 Marines and their gear at a speed of about 15 knots (17 mph), with the ability of moving shore to shore and beaching itself to offload the gear. The ship will be 200-400 feet long, displace up to 4,000 tons, have a maximum draft of 12 feet to access shallow waters, require a crew of fewer than 40 sailors, and have modest command-and-control and self-defense capabilities.

Marines’ role in battle

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson, who leads the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and its Futures Directorate, argued the ongoing experimentation continues to demonstrate the need for the light amphib as well as the applicability of expeditionary advanced base operations, among other related concepts.

Speaking on a panel at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference in April, he said the Marine Corps must be ready for a future conflict where the adversary gives little warning about its aggressive intentions and challenges the air and maritime domains all the way to the U.S. shoreline. Those conditions would mean that, “if America doesn’t already have forces in the relevant theater forward-deployed, then we may be challenged to get the combat power we need forward on an operationally relevant timeline.”

That’s where a new stand-in forces concept comes into play, based on the “idea of holding the access door open, as opposed to having to fight our way in from outside,” he said, noting that stand-in forces is an element of the broader joint warfighting concept.

If forces must live and operate inside the enemy’s home waters, then expeditionary advanced base operations is a way to make the Corps operationally unpredictable and capable in that high-threat environment, he added, and the light amphibious warship will enable that movement.

If America doesn’t already have forces in the relevant theater forward-deployed, then we may be challenged to get the combat power we need forward on an operationally relevant timeline.

—  Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson, head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory

The experiments, Watson said, have shown the concept and the ship will allow Marines to employ some effects that can only be done up close, and “fire effectively first” — meaning an advanced adversary like China would have to expend significant effort looking for these small units scattered around the Pacific Ocean.

The experiments are also expected to help work through the challenges of sustaining distributed forces in a contested environment, winning the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fights, and making sense of the theater for the joint force.

“All those provide some really rich areas for industry help ... going forward,” Watson said.

However, as the Marines wait to buy the light amphibious warship, there are concerns its price will become an obstacle.

The Corps initially targeted a price tag of $100 million per hull, but the Navy later cited a $130 million price. More recently, the Navy said it hopes to keep the cost under $150 million apiece.

The higher the cost, the harder it will be for the Corps to cram the ships into the Navy’s tight shipbuilding budget in the coming years.

Gen. Eric Smith, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said at the Sea-Air-Space conference that the Corps stands by its initial call for something in line with commercial standards — and lower commercial costs.

He argued the way the ships will be used will bolster their survivability, potentially staving off the need for expensive survivability upgrades.

“Survivability is not binary,” Smith said. “You use all the tools at your disposal to make things more survivable.”

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.