NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are nearing agreement on the requirements and cost of the Landing Ship Medium program, formerly called the Light Amphibious Warship, after the services previously diverged in their visions for this program, officials said.
The capability development document for the program has been drafted and is working its way through the approval process now, Brig. Gen. Marcus Annibale, the director of expeditionary warfare on the chief of naval operations’ staff, said Tuesday at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference.
Annibale called this a “chief procurement goal” for his office, which would serve as a “key maneuverability capability for a Marine littoral regiment or stand-in forces” operating in the Pacific. He’s aiming to award a contract and get the LSM program into construction in fiscal 2025.
The Marines originally envisioned a vessel that would each carry about 75 Marines and their gear, would resemble a commercial vessel and could beach itself for shore-to-shore operations. The service was looking to buy 35 units for about $100 million to $130 million apiece starting in FY22.
The Navy — which must manage and buy this shipbuilding program despite it being a Marine Corps priority — postponed the start of the program to FY23 and then to FY25, at first citing a too-tight shipbuilding budget and then citing a need to reconsider the survivability and lethality of the ship, which would support Marine Corps operations but be crewed by Navy sailors. Amid this debate over requirements, the cost ballooned to perhaps $350 million a copy.
Vice Adm. Scott Conn, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities, said during the same panel discussion that there had been a “healthy friction” over the requirements and cost of the ship but that “there is no daylight between us” on the importance of getting this small ship out to the fleet.
Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for combat development and integration, said during the panel discussion that his office, working with Conn’s and Annibale’s teams and the Program Executive Office for Ships, “found some pretty good middle ground on recoverability and vulnerability additions we’re going to put into the medium landing ship, LSM, that I think are going to be very helpful.”
“A very large part of the concept initially was, low cost, large numbers, hide in plain sight. We did not want to look like a military vessel. We’re talking about the most traversed maritime lanes in the world; we needed to look and sound like other vessels, to make it a little more difficult” for China or other adversaries to detect Marines on these ships.
Though the discussions with the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense had previously led to much greater requirements for capability and survivability, and therefore much greater cost, “we’re coming back around to the size and correspondently the cost … where we initially had our sights,” Heckl said.
Conn acknowledged that this back-and-forth delayed the program and “it will be late to need.” The Marines’ specialized stand-in force unit, the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment, is on track to hit initial operational capability in September, years ahead of the 2028 first delivery of the LSMs they’ll operate from.
Still, Annibale said his directorate is working to ensure the program can move quickly from here, awarding a contract in FY25 and preparing industry to hit the ground running.
The Navy awarded five concept design study contracts for the program to begin a dialogue with builders, though the detail design and construction contract will be open to any company.
Annibale said PEO Ships commander Rear Adm. Tom Anderson will host an industry engagement day after the capability development document is signed. He hopes this will be a chance for the Navy and Marines to explain what they want to do with this ship and why, which may inspire better ideas from engineers than will the thick stack of paper outlining the formal requirements.
Maj. Gen. Roger Turner, the director of the operations directorate at the Marines’ Plans, Policies and Operations, explained during the discussion the need for the Landing Ship Medium.
The laydown of forces in the Indo-Pacific is vastly different today than just a few years ago; the service is currently conducting or recently held major exercises in the Philippines and Japan, respectively; Marines have rotated into Australia for the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin six-month deployment; for the first time in 22 years, the Southern California-based Marine expeditionary unit spent its entire deployment in the Pacific instead of passing through en route to the Middle East; and Marines are focused on areas like Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and the South China Sea.
To support all this movement to and from Pacific islands, the service needs traditional amphibious warships, and it needs the Landing Ship Medium — a requirement that will be filled in part by a surrogate stern landing vessel until the LSM program delivers to the fleet.
Turner said the change in laydown is partly due to strategy but also drive by “the bad behavior of the [People’s Republic of China] in that they are basically frightening everybody in the region with their behavior and the like. So the allies and the partners are thirsty for American security partners, and they’re looking to build trust and capabilities integrated with our capabilities” — and for smaller navies that spend their time operating in and out of archipelagos, the LSM program is just what the Marines need to do this job, 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.