The Pentagon‘s proposed 2023 naval budget was a major shock to America’s industrial base for amphibious assault ships. The new budget — as it is — is forcing the Navy and Marine Corps to confront some difficult analytical realities. So far, both the Navy and the Pentagon have refused to acknowledge the massive worldwide growth in the number of large displacement amphibious assault-ready ships.
No one wants to say, but the US Navy no longer has a monopoly on massive blue-water amphibious assault ships. As the world strengthens, it is time for the Pentagon to refocus on the emerging global shortage of small amphibious assault ships.
That’s not bad news. Many US allies are eager to support America’s amphibious fleet, using their new amphibious assault platforms to take on conventional amphibious tasks that only America could handle forty years ago. While the US Navy has been promoting maritime cooperation, the US Navy has simply refused to acknowledge the changing landscape; The Marine Corps’ aerial platform “requirements” have remained frozen for the past few decades, while most of America’s friends have built their own large, blue-water amphibious assault fleets.
In short, the Marine Corps lifting requirements have remained unchanged and unchallenged for far too long.
The current Marine Corps commander, Gen. David Berger, and other forward-thinking Marine Corps reformers understand the changing amphibious landscape. While the global fleet of amphibious assault ships is bigger and better than ever, the free world’s fleet of small but versatile WWII-era tank landing ships has dwindled, leaving an operational gap for exploitation. It’s a perfect location for the Marine Corps.
The new Pentagon budget should allow the Navy to quickly relive the global shortage of small 2,000 to 4,000 ton amphibious assault vehicles. As Russia demonstrated earlier this year, small amphibious vehicles can punch beyond their weight.
The Pentagon’s amphibious budget is a mediocre mess
In the new budget proposal, the Pentagon directly targeted the Navy’s large 32-ship amphibious assault fleet and cut four aging ships Whidbey Island Dock Landing Ships of the (LSD-41) class. It also closes the San Antonio (LPD-17) class amphibious transport dock production line and delays the Marine Corps’ effort to rapidly reintroduce a small, 4,000-ton “light amphibious warship” or LAW. The budget proposal defers the procurement of about 35 LAWs, a modernized version of the 2,000 to 3,000 ton World War II-era “Landing Ship, Tank” or LST, by at least two years, with LAWs not arriving in the fleet until 2027.
The Pentagon’s proposed budget for fiscal 2023 is something of a messy middle ground. Congress can approve the budget and slam the door on the Marine Corps’ longstanding call for a 38-ship amphibious fleet. If approved, the proposed budget will irrevocably move away from the long-standing “2.0 MEB requirement,” which obliges the Navy to provide sufficient buoyancy for landing and to support two heavy combat-ready naval expeditionary brigades of approximately 14,500 troops. But by delaying LAW, the Pentagon’s budget proposal also hampers efforts by the Marine Corps to reinvent itself around smaller ships and naval support-oriented ground combat groups. It will likely force the marines to use the marine set of 15 which is unpopular spearhead (EPF-1) class Expeditionary Fast Transports as a replacement.
Taken as a whole, the Pentagon’s proposed fiscal 2023 budget strikes fear in the hearts of American shipbuilders. The elimination of the 38 amphibious ship target endangers Huntington Ingalls’ large Mississippi shipyard, while the rollback on LAW purchases endangers several of America’s smaller shipbuilders, all of whom counted on the LAW’s rapid transition to production to survive. Something will have to change.
Berger breaks all the right rice bowls
America’s amphibious fleet is a huge investment. Each large modern amphibious ship can cost more than $3 billion, while the small LAW is expected to cost around $130-140 million. The entire fleet of 35 ships can be purchased for less than two large amphibians.
The howls of protest are deafening. Faced with the possible collapse of long-standing and long-profitable rice bowls – from building ships to making heavy tanks – political advisers rush to defend the Marine Corps’ old organizational structure. Even retired Marine Corps generals — many tax-locked to the companies most at risk of losing market share — dismiss the Marine Corps’ new focus on smaller ships and combat units, calling the new strategic template an under-analyzed risk.
These attacks are wrong.
The 2.0 MEB buoyancy requirements themselves are under-analyzed—a historical relic from a time when no one else had raised blue-water amphibious vessels. America dominated the amphibious lift for years. America’s analytical buoyancy models have completely failed to recognize the massive global growth in amphibious buoyancy. So far, the Pentagon requirements have dismissed the idea that America no longer has to do everything in the amphibious arena.
Others can – and will – perform simple “block-and-tackle” amphibious missions with ease.
The growth of the global amphibian arsenal has been significant. Of America’s Pacific allies in the mid-1980s, Taiwan had the largest tonnage of amphibious assault ships in the region – a large fleet of discarded US LSTs led by two old ones Casa Grande and Ashland class dock landing ships. Australia’s 6,000 ton HMAS Tobruk (L-50) was one of the largest amphibious assault ships in the region after displacement. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and others got by with WWII-era LSTs.
Today this situation has completely changed. In general, the LSTs have disappeared, largely replaced by large amphibious assault ships. Japan has large-deck helicopter carriers, three large 14,000-ton DropShips, and a variety of smaller ships. South Korea has an integrated amphibious fleet of large-deck helicopter carriers, advanced tank landing craft, and other ships. Singapore has four 6,000 ton tankers. Australia has two large 27,000 ton canberra (L-02) class landing helicopter docks and a 16,000 ton aircraft bay (L-100) class DropShip dock. Similar growth can also be seen in the European area of application.
The Marine Corps is on the right track. Any navy can deploy LST-like ships. They are useful, capable of a range of forward missions, and will be missed now that they have all but disappeared from the global fleet. The Pentagon did the right thing by funding the LAW, and Congress can help by speeding up production of these much-needed tiny amphibious assault ships.