Fit to Fight!

By Captain Michael R. Graham, U.S. Navy; and Sam Samimi

Achieving the full service life of surface combatants is imperative to . . . achieve the Navy’s goal . . . In addition to the Navy’s aggressive surface ship acquisitions, it is necessary to implement programs aimed at maintaining and upgrading ships throughout the course of their expected service lives. 3

Plans call for reaching or extending the service lives of several classes, but the dock landing ship (LSD) 41/49 Class Mid-Life Modernization Program may be the most extensive and important upgrade that the Navy has undertaken in decades. The program, focused on the eight Whidbey Island - and four Harpers Ferry -class LSDs, comes none too soon: The average age of the 12 LSD 41/49-class ships in the Navy inventory was 19 years in the 2010. Shipbuilding plans envision these ships achieving service lives of 40 years, if not longer. This ambitious program has been one of the service’s best-kept secrets, but now it may become the best-practices model for other upgrades.

Expeditionary Workhorses

As is usually the case, these ships have carried out more missions and tasks than was originally intended when they were designed in the late 1970s and 1980s. Combatant commanders have found the class to be ideally suited for a wide range of jobs: support of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; disaster relief and humanitarian assistance; core ships in global fleet stations; and a host of others. As a result, their intense operating tempo has wrung much of the life out of them. Like overworked horses, they have been ridden hard and put away wet.

And the future will not likely be any less expeditionary. Indeed, both expeditionary strike groups (ESGs) and amphibious ready groups (ARGs) will be heavily tasked. As noted in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard’s Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower : “The expeditionary character and versatility of maritime forces provide the United States the asymmetric advantage of enlarging or contracting its military footprint in areas where access is denied or limited.” 4

Meanwhile, former Commandant of the Marine Corps General James T. Conway directed that the service “return to its expeditionary roots,” noting that the Navy-Marine Corps requirement for a 38-ship amphibious force will remain in place for a protracted period. 5 The 2010 “gator fleet” numbered just 31 ships.

Stepped-Up Marine Operations

Even as U.S. combat troops departed Iraq last summer, the surge in Afghanistan was driving a greater involvement of Marine forces. In late August 2010, General Conway cautioned: “Though I certainly believe some American units somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines. I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us.” 6

Further, all trends point to Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary forces becoming more involved in reacting to worldwide natural disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2010 Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods. Recent experiences underscore the contributions of our amphibious ships to such irregular challenges. 7

• The USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) was a key component of the ESG/ARG that responded to the December 2004 tsunami, delivering vital relief supplies as part of Operation Unified Assistance.

• The USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52) provided disaster relief as part of a multinational humanitarian effort to Pakistan in October 2005, following a devastating earthquake.

• The USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49) provided humanitarian and disaster relief in the Philippines after a massive landslide in February 2006.

• Closer to home, the USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41) and Tortuga (LSD-46) provided vital relief after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

• Four LSD-class ships—the USS Ashland (LSD-48), Carter Hall (LSD-50), Fort McHenry , and Gunston Hall (LSD-44)—constituted the sea base supporting Operation Unified Response after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

• In early fall 2010, the Kearsarge (LHD-3) ARG, including the Carter Hall , deployed for the waters off Pakistan to bring humanitarian supplies to that flood-ravaged country.

LSDs are in high demand for such missions for many reasons, chief among them their ability to carry large quantities of relief material, operate landing craft and helicopters, and provide extensive hotel facilities; and their relatively shallow draft, which allows them to get closer to shore than most other major ships. For the LSD, long the workhorse of our amphibious forces, the new strategic paradigm portends an even greater demand that will push them beyond their traditional roles. This mandates not only extending their service lives, but also providing the right technical upgrades to ensure they can fulfill all the missions and tasks in support of the tri-service maritime strategy.

Rear Admiral James McManamon, NAVSEA Deputy Commander for Surface Warfare (SEA 21), emphasized the importance of programs for this: “You can’t get there simply by buying a lot of new ships all the time. . . . Modernization of our current ships, keeping them viable and getting extended service lives out of the hulls is critical to the Navy’s future.” 8

The first of its class, the Whidbey Island entered service a quarter-century ago. The newest LSD, the Pearl Harbor , is more than a decade old. These ships were designed for 30-year service lives, which has been “administratively extended” to 40. When Navy leaders decided this, they also explicitly embraced the requirement for midlife modernization and upgrade.

The Money

The LSD 41/49 Mid-Life Modernization Program is under the stewardship of PMS 470, a program office in SEA 21 that has direct access to best practices of other upgrade and modernization programs, such as that of Aegis cruisers and destroyers. SEA 21/PMS 470 established the program in response to a Navy staff requirement outlined in the Fiscal Year 2004 program objective memorandum. Funding first appeared in FY 06 and is now firmly in the Navy budget, with approximately $1 billion allocated to the program. This represents a major commitment for the Navy and significant time off line for these ships, despite the high demand for their services. But the results are well worth the investment.

The Navy awarded contracts to begin work in July 2008 on the Gunston Hall at Metro Machine Corporation, Norfolk; and in December 2008 on the Germantown (LSD-42) at General Dynamics/NASSCO, San Diego. Through fall 2010, they and the Whidbey Island had completed their midlife modernizations, and the Fort McHenry and Rushmore (LSD-47) were in the yards.

The other seven ships in the class are scheduled, and the program will be completed in 2014. This disciplined process ensures that the ships will remain capable assets able to meet amphibious mission requirements through 2038.

Ultimately, all 12 LSD-class ships will undergo 12-month availabilities that include major upgrades to the ship-control system, local area network, and machinery-control system, as well as replacement of boilers and evaporators with all-electric systems. This last initiative will erase the need for costly maintenance and support of legacy steam systems fitted with copper piping that have had significant corrosion and leaking issues. 9 The figure shown here illustrates these upgrades.

The program addresses two particularly critical issues for the Navy: total ownership cost and corrosion. For example, by replacing obsolete, circa 1975-80 hull, mechanical, and electrical systems with new computerized controls, this upgrade program reduces workload for highly burdened Sailors and reduces LSD total ownership cost by providing more reliable, higher-efficiency equipment requiring less maintenance.

NAVSEA officials have identified corrosion on ships as an enormously expensive issue, accounting for as much as 25 percent of the Fleet’s total maintenance budget and costing well in excess of $2 billion each year. 10 This longstanding challenge has also generated attention outside Navy circles. The Government Accountability Office has published a series of reports highlighting how much money the Navy spends fighting shipboard corrosion, for example, Defense Management: Observations on DOD’s Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Request for Corrosion Control GAO-09-732R.

Defense media have widely reported on ship corrosion. 11 In June 2009 NAVSEA Commander Vice Admiral Kevin McCoy identified corrosion as the number-one issue for the Fleet and highlighted NAVSEA’s efforts against it, many of which were instantiated in the LSD 41/49 Major Upgrade Program. 12 Ways in which that program addressed those challenges include:

• Replacing corrosion-inducing steam equipment with all-electric systems

• Conducting extensive preservation work on areas of the ship from the superstructure to freeboard to well deck to more than two dozen tanks and voids

• Painting the LSD’s two massive propellers with an anti-fouling coating developed by the Naval Research Laboratory

• Using single-coat paint for tanks and voids, which saves manpower and costs while increasing life-cycle effectiveness

The LSD 41/49 Mid-Life Modernization Program continues the Navy’s anti-corrosion efforts. They alone will result in substantial cost reductions Navy-wide.

A Model for Best Practices

The design of the program to modernize LSDs is a model for all similar Navy programs. It offers a revealing look at how the service decides exactly what needs to be upgraded and modernized.

The program represents a total team effort by a wide array of stakeholders: NAVSEA, PMS 470, type commanders, amphibious groups, squadrons, port engineers, the planning yard, Navy Surface Warfare Center Carderock, and industry partners. This team initially met in 2002 to finalize the program. First they examined years of Board of Inspection and Survey data in search of areas that had consistently been identified as degrading LSD performance. They devised potential ways to correct each deficiency.

Next the team examined historical casualty-report data, looking specifically at “C3/C4” reports, which represented the most severe degradation in ship capability. (C3 indicates a deficiency in mission-essential equipment; C4 is worse, causing the loss of at least one primary mission. Any equipment malfunction or deficiency that cannot be corrected in 48 hours reduces the unit’s ability to perform primary or secondary missions.) In many regards, this was the most important information studied, as it came from the deck plates.

The group then determined a disciplined and repeatable process of requirements, including mapping the Board of Inspection and Survey and casualty-report data against longstanding LSD deficiencies that had been identified by amphibious-warfare operational advisory groups. This information was presented at a series of LSD Mid-Life conferences where all stakeholders­­—especially LSD commanding officers and chief engineers—were represented. The result was a prioritized list of candidate LSD systems needing upgrading and modernization, which enabled Navy leadership to design an ambitious but affordable program to add years to the life of these ships as well as making them more capable of meeting tomorrow’s threats.

A Smart, Hi-Tech Move

“Forward access is less certain than in the recent past,” noted Robert O. Work in The U.S. Navy: Charting a Course for Tomorrow’s Fleet (Washington, D.C., Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2008). “The insertion of ready-to-fight combat forces from the sea . . . will remain an important capability. The best platforms to support naval maneuver in the contested littorals, or joint WMD elimination operations against coastal powers, remain purpose-built amphibious ships.”

The LSD 41/49 Mid-Life Modernization Program is on course to extend the life of these crucial ships, modernize them to meet and defeat tomorrow’s threats, and usher in initiatives such as new technology. This is important for a Navy increasingly populated by millennial-age Sailors. The program will make the ships better able to perform their missions while significantly reducing total ownership costs.

It is a cost-effective way for the service to deal with threats in an era of flat or potentially decreasing defense budgets. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead cautioned in his 2010 “Posture Statement”:

Last year, I stated our risk was moderate trending toward significant because of the challenges associated with Fleet capacity, increasing operational requirements, and growing manpower, maintenance, and infrastructure costs. This risk has increased over the last year as trends in each of these areas have continued. We are able to meet the most critical Combatant Commander demands today, but I am increasingly concerned about our ability to meet any additional demands while sustaining the health of the force, conducting essential maintenance and modernization to ensure units reach full service life, and procuring our future Navy so we are prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow. 13

Ensuring that the LSD ships are fit to fight is an essential element in the Navy’s ability to support national strategies––and it meets Secretary Gates’ implicit call for both quantity and quality.

1. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, D.C., Congressional Research Service, April 2010), p. 3.

2. Quoted in Navy Program Guide 2010 (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 2010), p. 4.

3. On Watch (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command, 2009), p. 22.

4. A Cooperative Strategy for 21 st Century Seapower (Washington, D.C., Department of the Navy, October 2007), p. 6.

5. U.S. Marine Corps Concepts and Programs 2010 (Washington, D.C., Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 2010), pp. 1-5, 11-13.

6. European Stars and Stripes , 25 August 2010, p. 3.

7. ADM Gary Roughead, The U.S. Navy’s Vision for Countering Irregular Challenges (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 2010).

8. Otto Kreisher, “Navy Modernization Program Keeps Aegis Cruisers, Destroyers in the Mix,” Seapower , 10 December 2009.

9. SEA 21: The Bridge to the Fleet (Washington, D.C., Naval Sea Systems Command, 2009), p. 10.

10. On Watch 2009, p. 24.

11. Christopher Cavas, “U.S. Navy Finds Glaring Flaws in Surface Ships,” Defense News , 20 April 2009.

12. “NAVSEA Commander: Corrosion No. 1 Issue for Fleet,” Inside the Navy , 15 June 2009.

13. Statement of CNO ADM Gary Roughead before the House Subcommittee on Defense, Committee on Appropriations, 11 March 2010, p. 3.


Captain Graham is Program Manager, PMS 470, Mine/Amphibious/Auxiliary/Command Ships Program Office, Office of the Deputy Commander, Surface Warfare (SEA 21), Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA).

Mr. Samimi is Deputy Program Manager, PMS 470B.


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