WASHINGTON — The commandant of the Marine Corps on Thursday defended amphibious warships, even as the Pentagon’s fiscal 2024 budget isn’t likely to offer much support for these platforms.
Gen. David Berger, while speaking to a friendly crowd of industry and congressional leaders, said critics of the ships make two incorrect arguments: that the ships aren’t needed under the National Defense Strategy, and they aren’t survivable in high-end conflict.
Since the Biden administration released its National Defense Strategy last year, Berger said, he’s faced the same questions: “Are they still viable? Do we still need them? Should we be buying them? Their survivability, their cost, we’ve heard all the arguments before. Are they really useful in deterring? Are they really useful in winning a conflict?”
“The amphibious fleet is exactly the right tool to deter our competitors,” he answered.
Berger said the fleet is critical to deterring the Chinese, but the Pentagon isn’t giving the Navy and Marine Corps a sufficient budget to support that amphibious deterrence.
Last year, the fiscal 2023 request called for decommissioning four Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships and truncating production of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks meant to replace them. It also raised questions about the viability of the America-class amphibious assault ship production line, scheduling procurement of the next ship for FY31, 11 years after the previous one.
Berger said Thursday the budget should fund a 31-ship amphibious fleet, which the Navy has today but would mean not decommissioning Whidbey Island LSDs until their replacements are built. He also urged buying San Antonio LPDs with a multi-year contract, as well as procuring LPDs at two-year intervals and America-class LHAs at four-year intervals, which industry has said is the optimal rate.
The Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition, which hosted the event where Berger spoke, agrees.
With advance procurement funds, block buys and the right procurement intervals, industry can cut the total cost, said Dave Forster, the chairman of the coalition.
He criticized recent budget requests, which have not provided clear future plans.
“What that creates is: difficult to retain and train the workforce, because you want to invest in your workforce but you do that not knowing what the future holds. It creates an environment where our industrial base will hold back perhaps on investment, as new machines or new processes or new inventions” come along, he said. That’s “coupled with inflation, so you have the inflationary pressures which drive your profit margins thinner.”
AWIBC, which represents 614 companies in 38 states, recently polled its members and found the top concerns of its suppliers are inflation, fluctuations in demand for new ships, difficulty in hiring and retaining qualified workers, challenges from supply-chain disruptions, and the ramifications of build intervals that are longer than industry’s ideal ones.
Berger also called the criticism that amphibs aren’t survivable in a shooting war with China an “empty argument.” He said wargames generally show that China could sink a whole range of Navy ships, but those production lines are slated to proceed.
The FY24 budget, which the Pentagon will release March 13, is not expected to include significant funding for amphibs. Even if the Navy recommitted to two- and four-year intervals for ship procurement — there’s no indication it has — those production timelines wouldn’t call for the Navy to buy either an LPD or an LHA in 2024. While Forster said industry will be looking for advance procurement and other signs of commitment to amphibious ships, they’re not likely to see much: Navy leadership has said it’s taking a “strategic pause” from buying LPDs.
Berger said the pause would shrink the fleet inventory, which would create a problem if a conflict or humanitarian crisis emerges and amphibious ships with embarked Marines aren’t ready to respond.
“31 is the floor, operationally and by statute. You can’t do it with one less,” he 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.