WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has spent more than four years repairing one of its amphibious ships, blowing past its budget by at least $99 million. Yet, the ship is still not ready to deploy.
After pouring nearly $300 million into its repairs, the service says it would prefer to simply decommission the ship and move on.
In fact, the Navy would like to decommission the nine other vessels in this class of amphibious dock landing ships, all of which need significant repairs. Some have more than a decade of planned service life left, but the Navy says it would rather spend its money on other capabilities than attempt to repair them.
But the Navy isn’t the primary user of these amphibious platforms. The Marine Corps relies on these ships to carry its Marine expeditionary units, which are considered the nation’s crisis response force. But the Corps’ ability to keep forces spread across the globe and quickly react is at risk.
Only 45% of the amphibious ship fleet is ready today, compared to the Navy’s 80% readiness goal. And that fleet could shrink dramatically if the Navy gets its way.
The service may ask to decommission four amphibious dock landing ships — known as LSDs — in fiscal 2024, even though two congressional committees denied a similar request this year for four different LSDs. The Navy also plans to end construction of the Flight II San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, meant to replace the LSDs, after buying three of them.
The gap between the Navy and the Marine Corps over amphibious warfare mirrors a similar debate taking place between the Pentagon and Congress: How much should the military spend on precision missiles and sensors needed for a potential high-end fight with China, and how much money should go toward presence and deterrence efforts that could avoid that fight altogether?
The Marines argue amphibious forces are powerful deterrents; they spread out to put eyes and ears around a theater, they create goodwill among current and potential partners, and they can deescalate a tense situation as required.
But the Navy, facing a tight budget and large bills to restore these amphibious ships, would rather cut its losses and reinvest the money into creating a larger and more sophisticated inventory of weapons to win a potential fight against China.
The readiness problem
The Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ships were meant to operate for 40 years. These LSDs were built in the 1980s and 1990s by the now-defunct Lockheed Martin shipyard in Seattle, Washington, and the Avondale Shipyard in Louisiana for $150 million to $300 million a copy.
In FY23, the Navy requested to decommission four — Germantown, Gunston Hall, Tortuga and Ashland, each of which would be between 31 to 37 years old.
According to an FY24 Navy budget memo obtained by Defense News, the service wants to decommission four more in FY24 — Rushmore, Harpers Ferry, Carter Hall and Pearl Harbor, each of which will be between 26 to 33 years old. Pearl Harbor, the youngest on the list, is two-thirds of the way through its expected service life.
According to the memo, “these legacy ships are in poor material condition due to their age and require significant resources to continue to maintain and operate them. Shifting resources to other capabilities better supports the amphibious fleet, and provides more operational capability to the Navy and Marine Corps in support of the National Defense Strategy.”
The first four would cost about $150 million apiece to put back into the FY23 budget, and upward of half a billion dollars each to keep for five years, according to a second document obtained by Defense News.
The Navy doesn’t have cost estimates for the second batch of ships eyed for FY24 decommissioning. It never planned to perform maintenance on these ships, according to the second document, instead simply assuming it would be able to decommission them early.
“The substantial cost to retain these ships outweighs the potential warfighting contributions of these platforms over their limited remaining service life,” the document stated.
Tortuga illustrates the challenges the Navy faces in trying to return the LSDs to fighting shape. The ship, commissioned in 1990, contributed to the earliest days of the war in Iraq, helped rescue New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina and spent seven years operating out of Japan.
The ship was put into a service life-extension period in 2018, but that effort has exceeded its budget by at least $99 million. The Navy said in a May hearing the ship was about 80% complete and had already cost $200 million to $300 million to repair.
According to the second document, “Tortuga is currently unable to get underway and operate.”
Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Travis Callaghan told Defense News the amphibious ships have been in high demand. Over the years, he said, the Navy has deferred some maintenance to instead send the ships out on operations.
“An expected service life assumes a certain amount of regular maintenance, and when that maintenance does not happen, [that service life] is going to be negatively affected,” he said.
Rear Adm. Bill Greene, the fleet maintenance officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, told Defense News at a recent conference the Navy has created “self-inflicted pain.” The sea service has tried to decommission some of these LSDs before, but was halted by Congress. Even so, when the Navy eyes a ship for decommissioning, it removes it from the planning process for the next several years’ worth of maintenance.
Congress can force the Navy to keep the ships, but there’s then no money or dry dock space for them, meaning they forego major maintenance for a few more years.
“They live in this kind of purgatory where they’re on and off,” Greene said.
Though the Navy has struggled to maintain all its ships in recent years, it has particularly faced challenges with the LSD fleet, Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, the spokesman for Naval Surface Forces, told Defense News.
Naval Surface Forces life cycle heath assessments, which evaluate a ship’s technical health, found the percentage of the LSD fleet that meets a “satisfactory threshold” is 50% less than that rate in the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer fleet — another high-demand ship class.
Each maintenance period is growing longer and more complex as time goes on, Abrahamson said; the average depot maintenance period for an LSD from 2019 through this year is 461 days.
As a result, some LSDs have missed engagements. Harpers Ferry and Germantown had to cancel an appearance at August’s Seattle Seafair festival due to maintenance, according to a defense official not authorized to publicly discuss operations.
Furthermore, Rushmore was a week late in picking up Marines this summer due to maintenance, the official said.
And repair issues with Gunston Hall prevented the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit from accelerating their planned deployment to Europe as tension grew ahead of Russia’s eventual Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. The ship should have been out of maintenance and conducting pre-deployment training at that time, but its maintenance ran long, making a February departure impossible.
Navy leaders said U.S. European Command never formally asked for the ships to deploy early, but multiple defense officials not authorized to discuss operations with media told Defense News the request wasn’t made only because it was clear the full formation would not be available.
A barrier to Marine operations
Naval force-generation models call for three amphibious ready group and Marine expeditionary unit pairings to be at sea at any given time: two in the Pacific, and one in the European, African or Middle Eastern regions. Each provides about 2,200 Marines that can operate in the air, on the water and ashore; those service members also come with a trio of ships, which includes one amphibious assault ship to launch jets and two smaller vessels focused on helicopters and surface connectors.
Today, the Marine Corps can barely keep one ARG-MEU pairing at sea at any given time. Lt. Gen. David Furness, the deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for plans, policies and operations, told Defense News the Marine units are ready but don’t have ships on which to train and operate.
A Navy force-generation model assumes 80% readiness of all ship types. The 10-year average readiness of amphibs is 63%, Furness said, but readiness today is about 45%.
He said there are real consequences to not having enough amphibs available. When the Pacific island nation of Tonga experienced a major volcanic eruption in January, for example, “we didn’t respond. The [People’s Republic of China] did. That’s a huge [information operations] blow.”
Furness said these teams are critical to deterrence in the Pacific region.
“Your presence and your work with allies and partners consistently is part of the campaign that enhances deterrence and prevents any crisis from escalating out of control,” he explained.
The Corps has doubled down on this position, executing its Force Design 2030 modernization strategy aimed at helping the service cover more maritime terrain, partner with more nations and provide a presence more widely to monitor geopolitical relations. These dispersed Marine forces are slated to carry with them the sensing and shooting capability to respond to changes in the environment.
Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration who oversees Force Design 2030, said the Marine Corps is using its own budget to modernize its weapons, sensors and communications systems. But to get these newer, longer-range systems at sea, he needs amphibious ships and the connectors inside their well decks.
Though Congress has largely supported the Corps’ approach to deterring war with China, the plan requires the Navy’s support in the form of ship maintenance and new construction dollars.
Heckl said he understands the Navy faces significant budget pressure, particularly given the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program is slated to cost the Navy about $9 billion per year by FY26.
But “at the end of the day, we have a responsibility as a crisis response force for the nation and as the stand-in force for the joint force, for [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command]. We have responsibilities, and a lot of that pivots around amphibs.”
‘We just are out of resources’
If the Navy executed its current plans, its class of 12 amphibious dock landing ships would likely be gone by FY25. Two are decommissioned already; four were requested to be decommissioned early in FY23; four could be requested to be decommissioned early in FY24; and the Navy would likely eye FY25 for an early decommissioning of the two remaining ships.
The Navy also announced in its FY23 budget request it wants to buy one last San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock and then pause or end the class. That means the service would buy just three amphibious transport docks to replace all the amphibious dock landing ships.
This would leave the Navy-Marine team five amphibious transport docks short of its minimum requirement, as outlined in a recent amphibious warship requirement study.
The services are also short one big-deck amphibious assault ship due to the loss of the Bonhomme Richard in a 2020 fire. All told, if the Navy’s plans came to fruition, the fleet would drop to a low of 24 amphibious ships and only bounce back up to 26 — short of the minimum requirement of 31.
Callaghan, the Navy spokesman, told Defense News the service still agrees to this 31-ship minimum. An upcoming amphibious fleet requirement study and the 2022 National Defense Strategy will inform future requirements and budgets for amphibious ships, he said.
Shon Brodie, the director of maritime expeditionary warfare under Heckl’s directorate, noted the Pentagon is heavily focused on the Pacific theater — the largest theater that’s most naval in nature — but has maintained its traditional preference to allocate funds relatively equally among the departments of the Army, Air Force and Navy.
“What we’re talking about when we look at a map is a naval problem,” he said. “We’re trying to solve a naval problem with an equitable budget, and that’s wrong to start with.”
“The Navy and the Marine Corps are pretty well aligned; we just are out of resources,” he added.
There are signs the Navy and the Marine Corps are seeking a compromise when it comes to decommissioning LSDs in 2024. Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith told Defense News in a Sept. 30 statement that “the Navy and Marine Corps team at the highest levels of our services are making genuine progress to ensure that operational commanders have the amphibious ships they need to execute the missions they have been assigned.”
Congress, too, doesn’t appear willing to let the Navy shrink the amphibious force. Lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees are protecting the four LSDs in the FY23 budget and are inserting advanced procurement funds for a future amphibious transport dock they could force the Navy to buy in FY24.
Furness confirmed the ongoing discussions about decommissioning the remainder of the LSD fleet and said the Navy should instead choose a smoother transition away from these ships.
He suggested the service spend on their maintenance today, despite the risk of cost and schedule growth; buy amphibious transport docks in a block buy to help lower the $1.9 billion price tag; and only decommission the LSDs once there are enough amphibious transport docks in the water to make a one-for-one trade.
If the Navy doesn’t take this approach, it could end up stuck, forced by Congress to keep the amphibious dock landing ships, but without the ability to use them.
“Then you’ll have these ships in name only, and we won’t have any more capability,” Furness said.
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.