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Navy designs new amphibious assault ships

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 (U.S. Navy)

The Navy is evaluating designs, costs and specifications for a new class of amphibious assault ships designed to replace the current fleet of cargo-carrying LSD 41/49 dock landing ships, service officials said.

The existing fleet of dock landing ships, which function in a key cargo-carrying capacity as part of an amphibious ready group, will be nearing the end of their expected 40-year life span in coming years, said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Robert Walsh, director of the Navy’s expeditionary warfare division.

“It is not often you replace a ship class,” he said.

Slated to be procured in 2020 and enter service by 2026, the new LXR amphib will need to function with more autonomy than its predecessor and be able to conduct what’s called disaggregated operations apart from an amphibious ready group.

'It is not often you replace a ship class.'

- director of the Navy’s expeditionary warfare division

The LXR will need more aviation, command and control and medical technologies compared to existing LSDs, Walsh explained.

“The LSD’s we’re replacing were meant to be the trucks – heavy cargo capability for the [amphibious ready group]. It has a landing platform but it doesn’t have a hangar and an aviation deck,” he said. “Due to the concept of operations we are under today, it needs independent capability. It needs to have aviation capability and be able to go somewhere and take helos with it. It needs an aviation detachment and be able to do the maintenance.”

The Navy used to be able to deploy up to five ARGs at one time, however the fleet is no longer the size it used to be in the 1980s and the service is working on a strategy to get by with fewer ARGs and as few as 33 amphibs overall. As a result, the Navy needs more ships that have the technological ability to operate independently of an ARG if need be.

“When it comes to amphib forces, quantity does matter. We’ve got to have the numbers to be able to do the things we want to be able to do. We are trying to recapitalize the LSD force,” Walsh said.

The Navy is working on its initial capabilities document for the LXR and recently finished an Analysis of Alternatives, or AoA, wherein service engineers, experts and acquisition professional explore options for the ship.

Results of the AoA determined that the Navy is considering basing the construction and design upon the existing LPD 17 amphibious transport dock hull – or designing and entirely new ship altogether.

Walsh explained that the AoA wound up reducing the alternatives or options for the LXR from eleven different options down to two options.

Designed to serve alongside 400 sailor-strong LDS dock landing ships in the ARG, the amphibious transport docks, or LPD 17s, carry up to 700 sailors and have a higher degree of aviation and command and control technologies for independent operations, Walsh explained.

The new LXR will need to have the command and control and aviation technology to operate independently while still remaining true to its cargo-carrying mission and be less expensive than an LPD 17.

The 684-foot long LPD 17s can hit speeds of 22 knots and carry four CH-46 Sea Knights or two MV-22 Osprey aircraft. The LSD also travels around 20 knots, however, it is only 609-feet long and not equipped to house aircraft.

Both the LPD 17 and the LSDs have well-decks for amphibious operations along with the ability to launch Landing Craft Air Cushions, or LCACs. The LPD 17 weighs close to 25,000 tons and the LSD is only 16,000 tons. The Whidbey Island class of LSDs can carry and launch up to four LCACs.

The new ship now in development, the LXR, will likely wind up drawing upon elements of both of these amphibious assault ships as the Navy seeks to maximize the performance of the ship while keeping its cost well below $2 billion, the approximate cost of an LPD 17.

“The LPD 17 is just too high-end cost wise when you are looking at replacing the LSD class. We’re working with industry to look at lowering costs for the ship,” Walsh explained.

The Navy has recently awarded two “design for affordability” contracts to two shipbuilders, Huntington Ingalls Industries and National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, or NASSCO. The contracts are aimed at exploring design specifications and technologies best suited for the LXR with a mind to lowering costs while maximizing technical capability, Walsh explained.

Walsh said the Navy is integrating the requirements work with cost analysis in order to ensure that cost goals are not compromised by growing requirements.