Buried in the navy’s shipbuilding plan for fiscal year 2022, is a major disruption to the amphibious fleet and its industrial base.
The Navy will build whatever Light Amphibious Ships (LAWs) it wants, but there is a trade-off. The number of large amphibious ships will decrease from five to nine – 15% to 27%. The Marines and others expected the LAWs to be added to the total number of large amphibious ships, without forcing a cut. The change is good news for midsize shipbuilders who could build LAWs, but it’s bad news for Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), which builds large amphibious ships.
It’s also a warning to the Marine Corps: if you can’t explain why you want multi-billion dollar ships, then you probably won’t get them.
The planning collapse of amphibious ships
For decades, the requirement for amphibious ships was stable at 38. The math was simple. The war plans required two Navy expeditionary brigades to conduct an amphibious operation. Each amphibious brigade needed 17 amphibious ships for embarkation (assault echelons only follow-up echelons have gone into commercial shipping.) At any given time, around 10% of the fleet is unavailable due to maintenance at long term. Therefore, the full requirement for amphibious ships was 2 x 17 = 34 x 1.1 = 37.4 38. The Marine Corps and Amphibious Defenders agreed to a “limited resources” level of 33/34 ships, although the Trump administration’s “355-ship fleet” has the full target of 38 amphibious ships. The mix of amphibious ships included LHD / LHAs with a large flight deck, LPDs with a mix of aviation, cargo, troops and landing craft capability, and LSDs with a large well deck and large cargo capacity. All of these large vessels were 25,000 tonnes to 41,000 tonnes (full load).
Then, in July 2019, the newly installed Marine Commander General Berger released his Commander’s Planning Guide, which oriented the Marine Corps towards an island campaign of small units and long-range fire in the Western Pacific. . Large amphibious ships, vulnerable and few in number, did not adapt well to this new concept.
Thus, the guidelines announced: “We will no longer use a ‘MEB 2.0 requirement’ as the basis for our arguments regarding amphibious shipbuilding…. We will no longer refer to the 38 ship requirement … as the basis for the force structure justifications. The guidelines provided that “the current force structure assessment 2019 will inform amphibious requirements based on these guidelines,” but no new amphibious fleet sizing methodology has yet emerged. What has emerged is a requirement for a Light Amphibious Vessel (LAW) that the captain requested in his directives.
LAW: Complement or competitor?
Navy and Marine Corps documents envisioned the LAW as a vessel that could transport small groups of Marines around the islands of the western Pacific for distributed operations against the Chinese. Because these forces would be small, a large ship was not necessary. Because these operations would occur in an adversary’s “arms engagement zone” (the Marine Corps’ name for the defensive bubble around the Chinese homeland, what others called a no-go zone. access / area), a small vessel was easier to risk. LAW’s total numbers had to be in their twenties or thirties.
The Navy is still working on the design of the ACT. The first concepts envisioned a ship with “a minimum length of 200 feet, a crew of no more than 40 sailors, boarding for at least 75 Marines, a minimum speed of 14 knots … missions of 11 days”. This would make them the size of a WWII landing craft. Infantry (LCI), much smaller than the De Soto County (LST) class tank landing ship of the 1960s to 1990s and even smaller than the WWII LSTs. Whatever configuration the Navy chooses, the ship will be too small and uncomfortable for extended global deployments. Instead, LAWs will move small marine units from one regional location to another, for example, from Okinawa to a wartime location in the South China Sea.
The Marine Corps and amphibious advocates were adamant that the LAWS would be added to the large amphibious ships. For example, the fleet proposed by former Defense Secretary Mark Esper in December 2020 numbered 61 to 67 amphibious ships.
The Navy’s 2022 shipbuilding plan
The Navy is required to publish a 30-year shipbuilding plan with every budget and has complied with this requirement for fiscal year 2022. However, this plan is truncated, showing only the shipbuilding budget for the fiscal year. 2022 and a range for the total size of the fleet. Details on the fleet structure and the long-term shipbuilding plan will be released next year after the administration completes its strategic reviews.
Nevertheless, even this truncated plan contains useful information about the future amphibious fleet. The key idea is that the targets are below expectations: eight to nine LDA / LHD and 16 to 19 “large amphibious warships”, presumably the LPD / LSD. This represents a total of 24-28 large amphibious ships, well below the previous target of 38 (33/34 limited resources) and the current fleet of 33 ships. The plan is also speeding up the decommissioning of LSD 41 Whidbey Island.
News for the LAW (referred to as “small amphibious warships” in the plan) is mixed. The class has a safe place in the plan but with a wide range of 24 to 35 ships in total. The plan notes that LAWs “complement a smaller number of traditional amphibious warships”, showing that the reduction of large ships is intentional.
Budget 2022 contains only a small amount of money for amphibious ships (LPD Flt II $ 61 million, LHA 9 $ 69 million) and no authorization for new vessels. The LAW does not yet appear in the shipbuilding budget, with the main ship now scheduled for fiscal year 2023. The budget has $ 13 million for development.
Impact on the shipbuilding industry
At the lower end of the range, the Navy would stop building LHDs for about a decade because the current inventory is sufficient. At the high end, the Navy would build an LHD every four to five years. Neither level requires a replacement for the Bonhomme Richard LHD-6), which was destroyed in a fire. It’s just a loss for the fleet.
The plan involves reducing the LPD-17 Flight II program to three to six ships, well below the expected 13 ships. Indeed, at the lower level, the Navy would build only one LPD-17 II flight, more and more of the two already under construction.
This is bad news for HII, which builds both LHDs and LPDs. The company wisely proposed a multi-year LPD and LHD purchase, seeking to lock in programs in the short term. In the long term, the Navy’s plans could change, allowing for a larger total purchase. This approach worked brilliantly with HII’s 2019 proposal to build two aircraft carriers, which set aircraft carrier construction for a decade, regardless of the shipbuilding plans considered for an aircraft carrier inventory at long term.
The new shipbuilding plan is good news for mid-tier builders, who can build a vessel the size of the LAW (2,000 tonnes?) But not a ship the size of an LPD (17,000 tonnes?). empty). Nine shipyards responded to the Navy’s request for information.
Impact on Navy and Marine Corps operations
For decades, the Navy and Marine Corps had an established approach to amphibious ships and amphibious operations. The wartime requirement would determine the total size of the fleet. However, this fleet was large enough to maintain a continuous forward presence for crisis response, humanitarian assistance and exercises with allies and partners in three theaters: the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe. . This construction is now broken. The smaller fleet of large amphibious ships involves a reduced level of forward deployments. LAWs are too small to fill. (Even the fleet of 33 ships was too small to meet all the demands of regional commanders. This requires “nearly 54” amphibious ships.)
The Navy and Marine Corps could argue that the daily force requirements are sufficient to justify the higher requirement of large amphibious ships. The services have justified elements of the military force structure, particularly the aircraft carrier fleet, in this way in the past. General Berger recently appeared to contradict the shipbuilding plan by calling for “no less than 31 traditional amphibious ships: 10 LHD / LHA and 21 LPF”. (He also asked for 35 LAWS.) Nonetheless, researching ships without a solid rationale for combat will be a tough sell.
The amphibious fleet is in an awkward place, with no stated justification for its more expensive elements and strong conceptual support for its less expensive and less capable elements. The Biden administration could take a different direction when it releases the comprehensive long-term shipbuilding plan, but for now, the future of the amphibious fleet does indeed look stormy.
Mark Cancian, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, was a Marine Colonel and a senior official in the Office of Management and Budget before joining CSIS.