WASHINGTON — A House panel wants to protect the amphibious fleet from cuts the Navy planned to make and bolster the sealift fleet in its proposal for the fiscal 2023 defense authorization bill.
The House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee would recommend saving four aging amphibious dock landing ships from retirement, continuing the production line of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock despite Navy plans to end the line after FY23, mandating a minimum of 31 amphibious warships in the fleet, and authorizing a block buy of 25 amphibious connectors, a committee aide told reporters ahead of a June 8 subcommittee markup of the language.
A rift between the Navy and Marine Corps over the size of the amphibious ship fleet got the attention of lawmakers. Throughout 2021, HASC and Senate Armed Services Committee members questioned Navy officials on why they hadn’t executed a multi-ship buy across two classes of amphibious ships, which the committees had laid the groundwork for in the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act. The Navy said at the time it didn’t want to commit to buying four new amphibs until it completed another look at its requirements for amphibious warships.
That study wrapped up this spring. Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger told HASC in May Navy “Secretary [Carlos] Del Toro, the [chief of naval operations] and I all agree that 31 L-class traditional amphibious warships is the minimum that the nation needs.”
But the FY23 budget indicates otherwise.
The Navy’s spending request, released in late March, would end the San Antonio class after 16 ships, instead of a planned 26 ships. It would retire four Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships early, after the Navy struggled to keep them seaworthy. The ships have a planned service life of 40 years, and the four ships considered for early retirement are 30 to 36 years old.
Ultimately, the FY23 budget proposed cutting the amphibious ship fleet to about 24, compared to the Marines’ stated minimum requirement of 31.
But the HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee language would make that 31-ship floor law — though the Navy in the past hasn’t always maintained inventories of aircraft carriers and battle force ships above congressionally mandated minimums.
A committee aide said “there’s consensus [and] strong support for the commandant of the Marine Corps’ assessment that he needs no fewer than 31 amphibious ships, and so prohibiting retirement of the LSDs certainly gets after that plan for that program.”
The aide also noted a provision in the subcommittee’s language “requires the Secretary of the Navy to consult with the commandant of the Marine Corps on all major decisions directly concerning amphibious force structure or capability.”
It would also add advanced procurement funding for the next San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, potentially paving the way for Congress in the FY24 bill to force the Navy to continue the production line at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi.
The committee aide said the subcommittee would also ask the Government Accountability Office to conduct a holistic analysis of the amphibious fleet, to include “analysis of their current fleet; Navy-Marine Corps future plans; [and] assessment of costs for building, maintaining and sustaining that fleet.”
In addition to blocking the Navy from retiring the four aging Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships, it would stop the Navy from retiring one of the five cruisers proposed for decommissioning: the Vicksburg, which is 30 years old and has a planned service life of 35 years.
Committee aides said the Navy has told HASC the ship is about 85% through a massive modernization and repair period and there was consensus among committee members to save the ship rather than throw away the recent investment. The Navy has argued the upgrade is running well over budget and behind schedule and it could use the money to buy missiles and other technology that will bring more lethality to the fleet.
The subcommittee’s portion of the FY23 NDAA does not address the retirement of four other cruisers that have reached the end of their service lives.
The subcommittee also remains mum on a hot-button issue: retiring nine littoral combat ships.
The Navy had proposed decommissioning a total of 24 ships in FY24, 16 of which would be retired early compared to their expected service life. Of those 16, nine were Freedom-variant LCSs.
The aides said the subcommittee weighed in where there was consensus, which included Vicksburg and the four amphibious ships. Where there isn’t consensus, such as over the fate of the LCSs, the full committee will take up the matter in the markup this month.
The subcommittee’s section of the NDAA draft also aims to strengthen the sealift fleet. The bill would provide full funding for the Maritime Administration’s Maritime Security Program and would direct MARAD to complete the design and construction of 10 sealift vessels in U.S. shipyards for use in the National Defense Reserve Fleet.
Overall, the seapower and projection forces subcommittee recommends the full committee include funding for eight ships: two Virginia-class attack submarines, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, one Constellation-class frigate, one San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, one John Lewis-class oiler and one towing, salvage and rescue ship. This is in line with the Navy’s request — the Navy said it asked for nine ships total, including an America-class amphibious assault ship, but Congress has determined the ship was technically procured in a previous year, even though it continues to be funded through an incremental funding approach allowed for the Navy’s largest ships.
The subcommittee would also authorize the service to enter into a new five-year contract for up to 15 destroyers, up from the Navy’s plan to ask for nine guaranteed ships with an option for a 10th.
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.