Congressional decision-makers are working with the Navy to explore massively speeding up construction of its emerging fleet of new amphibious assault ships --- as part of an urgent push to expand the overall fleet faster and address an enormous deficit of available amphibs.
A July 3 Congressional Research Service report, titled " Navy LPD-17 Flight II (LX[R]) Amphibious Ship Program: Background and Issues for Congress," says the currently proposed Navy plan to buy the second LPD-17 Flight II Amphib in 2020 may need to be accelerated to fall within the services' 2019 budget.
The Navy currently has slightly more than 30 amphibious assault ships the fleet, and plans to reach 38 in coming years; However, the current plan still falls short of meeting the global requirements of combatant commanders, Navy leaders say.
While Navy officials are clear to tell Warrior Maven that the service does not comment on pending legislation related to Congressionally-authorized funding, service leaders have been quite vocal about the Navy and Marine Corps need for more amphibs for many years now.
"Navy and Marine Corps officials have testified that fully meeting U.S. regional combatant commander requests for day-to-day forward deployments of amphibious ships would require a force of 50 or more amphibious ships," the Congressional report states.
The first LPD-17 Flight II ship, formerly called the LXR, is being acquired this year. Speeding up procurement of the second ship of this new class of amphibs helps address the Navy's shortage of amphibious assault ships and further expedites the Navy's planned fleet expansion to 355-ships.
The Navy plans new LPD-17 Flight II amphibs to replace its current fleet of Dock Landing Ships, or LSD 41s, which have functioned for years as a support ship in an Amphibious Ready Group. This strategic move to replace Dock Landing Ships with an LPD 17-like hull seems to speak to a Navy effort to expand amphibious capability to adjust to a new, fast-changing threat environment.
The demand for amphibs is in part so great, because the versatile ships are needed for combat and a wide range of humanitarian and non-combat missions.
"Although amphibious ships are designed to support Marine landings against opposing military forces, they are also used for operations in permissive or benign situations where there are no opposing forces. Due to their large storage spaces and their ability to use helicopters and landing craft to transfer people, equipment, and supplies from ship to shore without need for port facilities," the CRS report writes.
New Navy LPD-17 Flight II - Future Amphib Strategy
The Navy hopes to add much greater numbers of amphibious assault ships to the fleet while simultaneously adjusting to a modern threat landscape which will require more dis-aggregated operations - and require single Amphibious Ready Groups to perform a much wider range of missions. Modern near peer adversaries increasingly possess long range sensors and precision-guided munitions, a phenomenon which will require much more operational diversity from ARGs.
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 fewer amphibs overall. As a result, the Navy needs more ships that have the technological ability to operate independently of an ARG if need be.
The modern threat environment contains a wider range of contingencies to include counterterrorism operations, counter-piracy, humanitarian missions, disaster response and, of course, full-scale amphibious combat operations against near-peer adversaries. This requires that the three ships in an ARG have an ability to disperse when necessary and operate independently. The Navy and Marine Corps increasingly explains that modern missions require more split or dis-aggregated operations.
A lead Amphibious Assault Ship, a Dock Landing Ship, or LSD, and the San Antonio-class LPD 17 amphibious transport dock are both integral to an Amphibious Ready Group, which typically draws upon a handful of platforms to ensure expeditionary warfighting technology. The ARG is tasked with transporting at least 2,200 Marines and their equipment, including what’s called a Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU.
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, or Dock Landing Ship, 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. However, the LPD17 weighs close to 25,000 tons and the LSD is only 16,000 tons.
The 1980’s-era LSD dock landing ships consist of eight Whidbey Island-class 609-foot long ships. The 15,000-ton ships, configured largely to house and transport four LCACs, are nearing the end of their service life, Navy developers say.
While the mission of the existing Dock Landing Ship (LSD) is primarily, among other things, to support an ability to launch Landing Craft Air Cushions, or LCACs, for amphibious operations, the new LPD-17 Flight II ship will have an expanded mission to include more independent missions. LCACs are ship to shore connector vehicles able to transport Marines and equipment from ship-to-shore beyond the horizon. LCACs can even carry M1 Abrams tanks over the ocean.
An Amphibious Transport Dock, or LPD, is designed to operate with greater autonomy from an ARG and potentially conduct independent operations as needed. An LSD is able to operate four LCACs and the more autonomous LPD 17 can launch two LCACs.
Developers explain that the LPD-17 ship will have a much wider mission set than the fleet of LSD ships it is replacing.
As a result of this wider mission requirement for the LX(R), the ship is being engineered with greater aviation and command and control technologies that the LSD 41 ships it is replacing.
Additional command and control capabilities, such as communications technologies, will allow the ship to reach back to the joint force headquarters they are working for, stay in with the parent ship and control the landing force, Navy and Marine Corps developers added.
Having more amphibs engineered and constructed for independent operations is seen as a strategic advantage in light of the Pacific rebalance and the geographical expanse of the region. The widely dispersed territories in the region may require a greater degree of independent amphibious operations where single amphibs operate separately from a larger ARG.
At the same time, Navy and Marine Corps leaders are quick to acknowledge that there is a massive shortfall of Amphibious Assault Ships across the two services. In recent years, senior service leaders have said that if each requirement or request for amphibs from Combatant Commanders worldwide were met, the Navy would need 50 amphibs.
The Navy currently operates only roughly 30 amphibs and plans to reach 38 by the late 2020s.