Light amphibious warfare ship delayed, but Marine Corps has temporary solution

WASHINGTON — The United States Marine Corps planned to have its light amphibious warfare ship under contract by now, ushering in a small vessel that will move Marines around island chains and coastlines without relying on traditional large vessels .

But advancing the program and awarding that contract simply hasn’t been possible, after the effort was squeezed out of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget for two years in a row.

This put a damper on plans to use the ship to give small units of around 75 Marines the freedom to move quickly and unobtrusively while packing a big punch – taking with them anti-ship missiles, reconnaissance drones, supply and rearmament equipment for friendly forces, and more.

The ship is critical to the Corps’ Expeditionary Forward Base Operations concept, part of the overall concept of distributed maritime operations that is shaping how naval forces modernize this decade. Under the old concept, Designed with China in mind, Marines will constantly move through contested areas, stopping to complete a mission and then moving again before being spotted or fired upon.

Although some units may use helicopters or other platforms, the Corps envisions the light amphibious warfare vessel as the primary means of moving units from beach to beach while hiding in plain sight among commercial vessels of similar size.

The Marine Corps wanted to move fast, introducing the idea for the ship in 2020 as part of its Force Design 2030 redesign and aiming to get the new ships under contract within two to three years. But plans to purchase the first ships were initially pushed back to fiscal year 2023 and then to fiscal year 2025 due to large bills the Navy faces for submarines and other critical construction needs. naval.

As the light amphib’s fleet debut is delayed, Marines are using surrogate platforms to test concepts and tactics for the ship, in hopes it will help the service effectively utilize the new ships. when they finally arrive. Nothing in today’s naval inventory offers the same combination of endurance at sea and the ability to run aground to load and unload gear ashore. Still, the Marines were able to practice and refine aspects of expeditionary forward base operations with other ships.

And senior Marine Corps officials say the more they experiment with surrogates, the more confident they become that the light amphibious warfare ship will be a vital tool in deterring or defeating adversaries like China.

Current experiments

Brig. Gen. David Odom, who leads the directorate of expeditionary warfare within the chief of staff for naval operations, told Defense News in a recent interview that the Navy and Marine Corps take every opportunity to practice the expeditionary forward base operations, using the platforms at hand during routine exercises. and pre-deployment training.

He said the US 3rd Marine Division and 7th Fleet used the Miguel Keith Expeditionary Sea Base – a massive vessel with a large flight deck and internal mission bay used to launch small boats and unmanned craft – during the recent Balikatan exercise in the Philippines.

The same forces used landing craft to move the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Vessel Interdiction System weapons during the Navy’s Exercise Noble Jaguar. fall 2021, he said.

During both of these events, the units used a significantly larger surrogate platform and a significantly smaller surrogate platform than the future light amphibious warfare ship, Odom said. Although they do not reflect the size of the future vessel, the surrogates have helped mature the concept and will facilitate the rapid introduction of the light amphib, he added.

At the Noble Jaguar event in Japan, teams from the 3rd Marine Division and 7th Fleet also experimented with Expeditionary Fast Transport, a 338-foot vessel used for fast intra-theater transport and similar in size to the light amphib.

“As we work here as a team, with all partners and stakeholders to meet the demands of the commander and the [chief of naval operations’] requirement for the light amphibious warfare ship, the fleets move simultaneously to echelon with the existing gear available – not in place, but right now to pursue it and iterate and experiment and learn together to continue to advance these concepts,” Odom said.

the basic requirement for light amphibious warfare ship is to transport 75 Marines and their equipment at a speed of approximately 15 knots (17 mph), with the ability to move from shore to shore and beach to offload equipment. The vessel will be 200 to 400 feet long, displace up to 4,000 tons, have a maximum draft of 12 feet to access shallow waters, require a crew of less than 40 sailors, and have modest cargo capabilities. command and control and self-defense. .

Role of the Marines in the Battle

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson, who directs the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and its future direction, argued that ongoing experimentation continues to demonstrate the need for the light amphib as well as the applicability of expeditionary forward base operations. , among other related concepts.

Speaking on a panel at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference in April, he said the Marine Corps must be prepared for a future conflict where the adversary gives little warning about its aggressive intentions and challenges the air and sea domains to the bitter end. to the American coast. These conditions would mean that “if America has not already deployed forces in the relevant theater, we could be challenged to obtain the combat power we need within a relevant operational timeframe”.

This is where a new concept of replacement forces comes into play, based on “the idea of ​​keeping the access door open, instead of having to fight your way in from the outside”, he said. he said, noting that replacement forces are one element of the larger concept of joint combat.

If forces must live and operate inside enemy territorial waters, then expeditionary forward base operations are a means of making the Corps operationally unpredictable and capable in this high-risk environment, he added. , and the light amphibious warfare ship will allow this movement.

If America does not already have forces deployed in the relevant theater, we may be challenged to obtain the combat power we need within a relevant operational time frame.

Major General Benjamin Watson, head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory

The experiments, Watson said, have shown the concept and the ship will allow Marines to employ certain effects that can only be achieved at close range, and to “effectively fire first” – meaning an advanced adversary like China should exert considerable efforts to seek them out. small units scattered around the Pacific Ocean.

The experiences should also help meet the challenges of maintaining distributed forces in a contested environment, winning reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance combat, and making sense of the theater for the joint force.

“All of these provide very rich areas for industry assistance… going forward,” Watson said.

However, as Marines wait to purchase the light amphibious warfare ship, there are fears that its price may become an obstacle.

The Corps initially targeted a price of $100 million per hull, but the Navy later cited a $130 million price tag. More recently, the Navy said it hoped to keep the cost to less than $150 million each.

The higher the cost, the more difficult it will be for the Corps to cram ships into the Navy’s tight shipbuilding budget in years to come.

Gen. Eric Smith, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps, told the Sea-Air-Space conference that the Corps is sticking to its original call for something to commercial standards — and at lower commercial costs.

He argued that how the ships will be used will enhance their survivability, potentially obviating the need for costly survivability upgrades.

“Survivability isn’t binary,” Smith said. “You use every tool at your disposal to make things more viable.”

Megan Eckstein is a naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported on four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.

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