WASHINGTON — Hundreds of Americans trapped in war-torn Sudan last month needed a way out of the country, but the U.S. Marine Corps, the go-to service for such rescues, couldn’t help.

Typically, this kind of mission would be standard for the Navy and Marine Corps’ amphibious ready group and Marine expeditionary unit, made up of 2,300 Marines aboard three ships who are trained to fight their way into and evacuate citizens from dangerous locations.

Instead, as violence surged, the Pentagon relied on drones to monitor a 500-mile escape route from the capital of Khartoum to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan. For the Americans who fled to the coast, the Pentagon sent an auxiliary transport ship to shuttle them to safety in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

It was a complicated and risky self-evacuation.

At the same time, off the coast of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the Bataan ARG and 26th MEU were conducting a noncombatant evacuation simulation — training for the very operation Americans in Sudan needed. But the group stayed put because it wasn’t yet certified for global missions.

The Navy didn’t have another set of ready amphibious ships to deploy from the East Coast on short notice.

All of this followed a similar situation a few months earlier, when service leaders were unable to send a team to Turkey and Syria to provide aid after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the region.

Maj. Gen. Roger Turner, the Marine Corps’ operations division director, told Defense News the naval forces “have this razor-thin capacity” with amphibious ships, and when emergencies arise, “there’s no capacity to react.”

It’s a trend that could continue.

Today, the Navy has 31 amphibious ships — what the Marine Corps considers the bare minimum it needs — but the Pentagon plans to shrink the fleet below that number in fiscal 2024. As a result, Turner anticipates the Corps will be more challenged to respond to global crises.

Throughout last year and into this spring, that number — 31 — has been at the center of debates, as the Navy, Marine Corps, Defense Department, Congress and industry weigh in on how many amphibious ships the military needs, what they should look like and how much they should cost.

Now, the argument is about to come to a head.

In June, the Pentagon is expected to complete a study on whether to continue buying amphibious ships and, if so, what capabilities those vessels will have.

The final decision is expected to have major ramifications for the Marine Corps and defense contractor Ingalls Shipbuilding, a division of HII.

For example, the study might back a requirement for 31 ships and recommend continuing to build San Antonio-class vessels at a cost of about $2 billion each. Or the report could recommend a new design that would cost less per ship — an idea the Corps already rejected, and one that could disrupt Ingalls’ production line.

Or there’s a third option: The report could call for a continued pause in the Pentagon buying amphibious ships, which could force Ingalls to close its production line and would force the Marine Corps to reevaluate its amphibious operations plans.

But unless the Office of the Secretary of Defense approves the continued construction of ships, or unless Congress overrides the Pentagon, “trying to maintain even a minimal [amphibious] presence is going to be really difficult,” Turner said.

This comes at a time when he said “aggressive behavior of the [People’s Republic of China] is driving people to us; they want us to be the security partner of choice,” making American amphibious presence all the more important today.

Outsider observers like Mackenzie Eaglen, an expert in military readiness at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, believe the debate itself is problematic.

“Funding disagreements signal indecision to our adversaries on the role of this capability,” she warned.

A 31-ship requirement

For years, the Marine Corps had a requirement of 38 amphibious ships, with the caveat it would accept 34 in a fiscally constrained environment.

This requirement was based on the rationale that the service needed 38 ships to move two entire Marine expeditionary brigades into combat for a forcible entry.

In July 2019, Gen. David Berger took command of the service and quickly released a document titled “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” that backed away from the requirement of transporting those two brigades, saying the Corps would fight differently in the future.

Since then, a range of concepts have emerged, focused on the idea that small units would already be dispersed throughout the Pacific region to be able to tamp down an emerging conflict until additional forces arrive.

The Marine Corps began talking publicly about a 31-ship requirement in 2021, and the Navy acknowledged that requirement in 2022.

According to the director of the Maritime Expeditionary Warfare Division, Shon Brodie, the 31-ship figure is based on an idea that the fleet should do three things:

  • Keep two three-ship amphibious ready groups at sea at any given time.
  • Support contingency plans that call for five three-ship amphibious ready groups to deploy on short notice.
  • Allow for enough ready ships — those not tied up in maintenance — that some would be available for training Marines in events like fleet exercises.

The requirement is specifically divided up into 10 amphibious assault ships (made up of the America-class LHAs and Wasp-class LHDs that host fixed-wing jets like the F-35B), and 21 medium-sized amphibious vessels (either the aging Whidbey Island-class LSDs or the newer San Antonio-class LPDs). An amphibious ready group includes one amphibious assault ship and two medium-sized ships.

Brodie told Defense News this 31-ship requirement is backed by studies undertaken from 2008 to 2022, and reflects ships’ recent maintenance readiness rates, which hover around 40%.

That rate means in a fleet of 31 ships, 12 or 13 might be available at any given time. If six are supposed to be deployed, and another six are getting ready to deploy next, that leaves little to no additional capacity for training or surging in response to natural disasters or conflicts.

This low readiness rate has complicated the discussion and is a key reason the Marine Corps considers 31 ships the bare minimum.

Bryan Clark, director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute think tank, said 31 ships is the right number, but noted “presence is now the driver, rather than warfighting lift requirements.”

While the amphibious ready group and Marine expeditionary unit, or ARG/MEU, team still can storm an island and take it from enemy forces, the group is most often used to train alongside partners and allies, respond to friendly nations after a natural disaster, or rescue American citizens trapped in dangerous countries.

Eaglen said this emphasis on presence as a means of deterrence has contributed to the disagreement with the Pentagon over the 31-ship requirement.

“The rub as I see it between the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Marine Corps is over amphib ship requirements for operational plans, versus the additional duties of crisis response (and to a lesser extent building partner capacity) the Marines have on a daily basis,” she told Defense News. “To me, the commandant is saying he wants and needs more ships for tasks scoped outside [of warfighting].”

Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation, acknowledged concerns over the amphibious ships’ survivability against Chinese anti-ship missiles, but said “large-scale combat operations against a highly capable enemy like China is only part of the story.”

“Much has been made about China being the most substantial security challenge for the U.S., but Navy-Marine Corps forces, made possible with Marines embarked aboard Navy amphibious ships, have repeatedly [proved] their worth across a range of small crises in various parts of the world,” he told Defense News.

Fleet under fire

Though the Marine Corps maintains it needs 31 ships, the Pentagon has not committed to that requirement.

DoD officials have not spoken publicly on the matter. Asked by Defense News whether the Office of the Secretary of Defense backs the 31-ship requirement, Pentagon spokesman Chris Sherwood said the requirement can’t be considered in isolation and the department is “focused on having the right mix of capabilities to meet the objectives of the 2022 National Defense Strategy.”

The Navy’s fiscal 2023 budget request, shaped by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the White House before going to Congress, called for truncating the San Antonio-class production line after one final ship that fiscal year. This move would end the San Antonio program after 16 ships, rather than the planned 26.

The FY24 request advances that plan, including no additional LPDs in the five-year spending plan.

With the Marine Corps and the Pentagon at odds, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the services are conducting a capability and cost analysis to consider alternative ship designs and acquisition strategies that might lower the cost of future amphibious ships. That study is set to conclude in June.

Marine Corps, and later Navy, leaders have pushed to buy these ships in multiyear procurement contracts, which must generate cost-savings as a condition of service secretaries approving them. These savings are often on the order of 10%. But a top Marine general told Defense News that the Office of the Secretary of Defense wants larger savings by paring down the ship design and capability.

Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, told Defense News in March that Pentagon officials had presented him with several rough drawings of ship designs that would be cheaper than the current LPDs.

“None of them are acceptable,” he said. “They’re trying to reduce cost by reducing my requirement. The answer to reduced cost would have been to exercise [two previous congressional authorizations for multi-ship contracts], one of which was a five-ship and would have saved the American taxpayers almost $900 million.”

Heckl, speaking at the annual Sea-Air-Space conference in April, said the Marines had in 2014 worked with the Navy to scale down the LPD design to the cheaper Flight II design, now under construction at Ingalls Shipbuilding. “We drove out cost. We’re done.”

Berger, who was part of that 2014 effort, made the same point in an April 18 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, saying that “every bit of efficiency [was] squeezed out” of the LPD design.

“If there’s another effort to reduce that further, I know that we went to the minimums in 2014,” the commandant added.

When Navy leadership first rolled out the plan to nix future LPDs, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said that as the service prepares for a potential fight against China, it must prioritize programs most relevant to that conflict.

But more recently, top Navy officials said they would like to continue buying LPDs. Gilday told reporters in early April: “We agree on the 31 requirement, we agree on leveraging the multiyear procurement in terms of doing a bundle buy, and hopefully this study that ends in June informs these next steps.”

Sherwood, when asked about the Pentagon’s commitment to restart LPD buys in FY25 and to use multiyear procurement authority, said the Office of the Secretary of Defense plans to ”address the next purchase in our FY25 budget.”

Lawmakers last year included a provision in the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act giving the commandant of the Marine Corps the authority to set the requirement for amphibious ships. That effectively makes the congressionally mandated requirement 31.

Today’s plan

The Navy’s FY24 long-range shipbuilding plan, released April 17, envisions a dwindling amphibious fleet unless a compromise can be reached on building a future LPD-like ship.

Until the amphibious ship study determines the future of the San Antonio program — whether to continue or truncate it; whether to buy ships one at a time or commit to a multi-ship buy; whether to keep the Flight II design or pare it down further — the Navy’s existing long-range plan does not include buying medium amphibious ships.

It continues retiring the aging Whidbey Island LSDs, though, calling for six of the 10 remaining ships to be retired from FY24 to FY26.

Under the baseline plan — the long-range ship plan includes three potential options — the fleet of 31 amphibious vessels today would sit at 29 in a decade, 24 in two decades and 19 in three decades.

If the Navy were to continue buying the San Antonio-class LPDs every other year, for about a billion dollars a year, the fleet could instead sit at 34 in a decade, 34 in two decades and 33 in three decades.

Clark said the Office of the Secretary of Defense may not want the Navy to spend $2 billion every other year for a ship it doesn’t highly value right now, particularly because that cadence would generate a fleet slightly larger than the Corps’ 31-ship requirement.

On the other hand, if the Navy stops the production line, lets the fleet size shrink and then later opts to restart the production line, the cost might be exorbitant — if Ingalls could even reconstitute its workforce and supply base.

“Are you better off buying those ships? Is that actually cheaper in the long run than it would be to stop the production line and turn around and restart it?” Clark said. “It may be that it almost becomes a wash.”

That’s the case with aircraft carriers: The Navy essentially pays HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding to keep the production line “activated and fully manned” in order to keep the sole builder of nuclear-powered carriers viable, Clark said. The line isn’t perfectly optimized, as that would create a larger fleet than the Navy needs, but it delivers a new ship every five to six years, and the Navy retains the industrial base to produce these complex ships.

This arrangement “ends up being slightly cheaper than if you started and stopped and started the construction line multiple times,” Clark explained. “The question is: Does Congress or [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] — mostly Congress — want to take that longer term view and say, ‘We’re just going to keep building LPDs on two-year centers because in the end it’s cheaper than to stop and start this line, unless you don’t think you need LPDs [for future operations]?’ “

Several experts expressed concern the Pentagon won’t take long-term measures, like approving multi-ship contracts, to build and maintain a 31-ship fleet.

Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at the Heritage Foundation, told Defense News that the Office of the Secretary of Defense and its Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office “don’t see value in amphibs in a China fight, and therefore [they are] not worth the money.”

Eaglen added that the the Office of the Secretary of Defense “is concerned some amphibs are too slow and therefore easy targets after the shooting starts” with China, despite the Marine Corps seeing amphibious ships and the surface connectors they haul as “critical to fighting inside the First Island Chain using Marines as a stand-in force.” (The first island chain stretches from Japan’s East China Sea islands through the Philippines.)

“Ultimately, Congress will be the adjudicator, and they will again side with the commandant,” she predicted.

The cost of falling short of a 31-ship fleet

Berger told the Senate committee that not having enough ships puts at risk Marines’ ability to deter or win a war, plus their ability to respond to global crises.

“You have to be there with allies and partners because they have to believe that the United States is not running away from them, is going to be there even when things get tough,” he said.

The commandant added that “if you still believe … three amphibious ships loaded up with 2,300 Marines, if they have a deterrent value, and I think they do, then you want them right in the adversary’s grill, right in their face where they can see them all the time. … Can we afford conventional deterrence? Absolutely yes, because the alternative is a lot worse.”

Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith during a panel discussion at Sea-Air-Space said the service is providing as much airlift as possible for its forces in the Pacific, allowing Marines to get to exercises and respond to problems.

But there are still gaps when no ARG/MEUs are patrolling the Pacific, and Smith warned those would increase if the fleet size decreases.

If Americans traveling or working abroad find themselves in the middle of a violent uprising, “you better hope it’s in the months that we have an ARG/MEU ready to come get you. If you’re a combatant commander and somebody tries to close down a SLOC, a sea line of communication, you’re going to want to hope that’s during the months that we’re there.”

Calling the ARG/MEU the “crown jewel of our expeditionary crisis response capability,” Turner said “with the minimum of 31 ships that has been established and the readiness challenges that we’re facing that we discussed, really the confluence between capacity and readiness has pinched that capability in ways that are really not helpful.”

If the Navy continues down its path of decommissioning the old LSDs and not replacing them with new LPDs, “trying to maintain even a minimal ARG/MEU presence is going to be really difficult.”

“At a time that we should be adding capability, we’re actually reducing capability,” Turner 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.