Sustaining Our Amphibious Capability

By Colonel David C. Fuquea, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

The Challenge

Yet wielding the “fleet-based amphibious power” required to compete in Huntington’s littorals has been undermined. The Navy’s amphibious ships have declined precipitously in the last 30 years, and fiscal austerity will further limit capabilities as higher priorities for carriers and submarines leave billion-dollar amphibious platforms sinking in their construction wakes. The Navy struggles to keep 300 ships, and its amphibious vessels have declined from 60 to less than 30. 8

Despite an agreement in the early 2000s between the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead and Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Conway that 38 amphibious ships were required to meet strategic requirements, Navy shipbuilding priorities only provided for 33 to be in the Fleet. By 2003, U.S. naval forces could only muster seven amphibious ships of the required 15 to 17 to move a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) from the East Coast to the Persian Gulf to support the invasion of Iraq. By the spring of 2013, only 28 amphibious ships remained in commission.

The Navy manages the number of ships in the Fleet through a 30-year shipbuilding plan. The current version should have rectified the naval services’ amphibious-shipping woes by increasing the number of amphibious ships in the Fleet above 33 within a decade. 9 But the plan, the “most ambitious shipbuilding program in decades,” is unrealistic in the face of current budgetary challenges.10 It requires $19 billion per year—$4 billion more than the historical annual average for shipbuilding. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) declared the Navy underestimated the cost and actually needs $22 billion. 11 The Government Accountability Office lent credence to the CBO by revealing that 15 “Navy-exclusive” major acquisition programs in 2012 exceeded the first full estimate cost by an average of 35 percent. 12 Representative J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) echoed Senator John McCain (R-AZ), proclaiming the Navy’s plan to be in “fantasyland.” 13 Ruled unaffordable, the plan will be revised and look nothing like its current incarnation. Amphibious shipping growth will be crushed as prioritized choices for funds are made.

The main concerns for all decision makers involved with Navy shipbuilding are carriers and submarines. Despite sequestration, Congress spared cuts to “several high-dollar aircraft carrier projects even while maintaining deep cuts to other federal spending programs.” 14 The House Defense Appropriations Bill maintained spending for submarine construction. “Sustaining the SSN fleet . . . must remain a top priority,” Forbes said. 15

A new ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) is the greatest need for combatant and service commanders. 16 Navy leaders admit the new SSBN will “push out necessary things” like guided-missile destroyers, cruisers, and amphibious transport dock warships (LPDs). 17 The 30-year shipbuilding plan schedules construction of lower-priority amphibious ships to coincide with the construction of higher-priority SSBNs. Over 40 percent of amphibious ships are to be built at the same time as 42 percent of the SSBN replacement fleet in a five-year period.

The (unaffordable) 30-year plan’s priorities guarantee $5.6 billion for a new SSBN, but not $1.6 billion for a new LPD. Amphibious ships will be delayed or cancelled. The amphibious fleet will decline to less than two dozen within 20 years. And even this number may be optimistic. The Navy currently plans to build 14 new amphibious ships by Fiscal Year 2032: three general purpose amphibious assault ships; two LPDs; and nine LX(R)s, a new class of ship to replace the current aging LSD class. In the same period, the Navy plans to finish the USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78) and build 3 more carriers, 33 attack submarines, and 9 of the 12 SSBNs. Any amphibious ship planned in FY 21 or beyond, the year the first SSBN is to be built, is at risk in the current paradigm. 18 The “fix” espoused by senior leaders within the Marine Corps, “build more ships,” has failed and will continue to fail. This capability must be improved and expanded despite fiscal challenges.

The Short-Term Blueprint

The naval services must revise the disjointed and misaligned paradigm that dictates the size of the amphibious fleet. The Marines’ demand for 38 ships is based on how many MEBs need to be lifted by amphibious ships. This is a specious metric. The number of MEBs that must be lifted has declined as precipitously as the Fleet, dropping from three during the Reagan era to 2.5 after Operation Desert Storm to the current standard of two. (Although as witnessed in 2003, the ability to even get a single MEB embarked aboard amphibious shipping is questionable.)

As indicated by having less than 30, the Navy prioritizes and builds amphibious ships when it can. The Service’s failure to provide enough ships raises the ire of Marines, and sailors in turn criticize Marines for their equipment, which has increased in weight and size exponentially over the last three decades. Even 38 amphibious ships are insufficient to lift two MEBs. The appetite for expanding equipment cannot be the driver for more and larger ships. The metric of having enough amphibious ships to lift MEBs is unrealistic and, therefore, divides rather than unifies the Sea Services.

The naval services must jointly identify the real impetus for amphibious ships: keeping an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) deployed from each coast simultaneously, with an additional ARG/MEU in a ready state in the Far East. The ability of the ARG/MEU to be the ultimate “rapid-reaction force” for the United States cannot be denied. Whether the mission is combat operations, humanitarian assistance, or engagement, the potent combination of the two naval services is without equal in terms of capability and self-sustainability.

The number of amphibious ships in the Fleet to support ARG/MEUs must be sacrosanct. The Navy cannot syphon them off to meet other requirements to the detriment of the ARG. The ARG maintenance requirements must be prioritized so the amphibious ships planned to execute a deployment can actually do so. This precept would reduce the “required” number of amphibious ships from the Chief of Naval Operations/Commandant of the Marine Corps demand of 33 to a more affordable 27. Twelve ships on either coast would allow nine ships in the “getting ready to deploy, deployed, just returned from deployment” cycle with three in various stages of maintenance. The remaining three forward-deployed ships should stay at the same varying levels of readiness that the services have maintained for decades. These numbers should be established now as the “red line” below which the Fleet cannot drop.

The bitterly divisive and unrealistic paradigm of an amphibious fleet welded to lifting a number of MEBs must be revised. Other solutions can deliver greater combat power with larger formations. Changing the paradigm will reduce the number of required amphibious ships. Then reducing the costs of individual ships will provide a short-term pathway to a sustainable amphibious capability.

The leading choice for the future generation of amphibious ships is the San Antonio -class LPD, but the $1.5 billion per copy cost is unsustainable. 19 Singapore’s Endurance class, a smaller version of an LPD, could be an alternative for our Navy. At just under 500 feet in length, it can carry 18 M1A1 tank equivalents and 20 light trucks, plus 350 Marines for extended deployments. 20 These ships conducted multiple deployments to the Persian Gulf, operating landing craft and unmanned surface vessels from the well deck and air groups from the flight deck. 21 The crew is less than 100, or one-fifth the size of the crew for a San Antonio -class LPD. In addition to having a sizeable well deck, the Endurance class can carry up to six landing craft in davits on the main deck. A total of eight landing craft and two embarked helicopters on a single ship means a much more rapid transfer of combat power from ship-to-shore than a U.S. Navy LPD.

The Thai Navy recently purchased one of these ships from the builder, ST Engineering, which included two large and two small landing craft, for only $135 million, or less than one-tenth the cost of a U.S. LPD. 22 A reduction to the size of Marine Corps equipment would make the ship even more effective.

New Equipment

Marines can indict sailors for not building enough amphibious ships, but they ignore the fact that the Corps has been building exponentially larger equipment over the last 30 years. The tanks and trucks they use today exceed their predecessors by at least a third in weight. The primary tactical vehicle of the Corps, the HumVee (HMMWV), exceeds its precursor’s weight by over 4,000 pounds. The Corps plans to spend $5 billion on the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), which is double the weight of the HMMWV. Based on its equipment, the Marines cannot refute former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ remarks that the Corps is essentially a “second land army.” A sustainable amphibious capability requires smaller, lighter equipment. 23

Companies have developed alternatives to the HMMWV and JLTV that are small enough to be carried internally by the MV-22 and loaded onto any Navy ship. Air-lifted ground forces with vehicles for mobility, sustainability, and heavy weapons would reestablish a long-absent “vertical envelopment” capability from hundreds of miles offshore. Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has built a Type 10 tank that has the same firepower as the M1A1—and weighs 27 tons less. Modern landing craft can deliver this heavy weapon system from over the horizon at 50 knots or more. Less expensive amphibious ships and smaller, less expensive equipment would guarantee a sustainable amphibious capability and open the window for the Navy to transition to revolutionary STSM.

Despite the threat in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment, our current amphibious capability requires ships to stay in visual distance of the beach to land forces. Ship to Objective Maneuver, the ability to move forces directly from at-sea platforms to the objective being attacked or seized, and Over the Horizon (OTH), the ability to deliver forces from their sea-based platforms to their objectives with the ships’ landing sites “over the horizon” and therefore out of visual range for targeting, are not possible; STSM relies on the anachronistic Marine assault amphibious vehicle and Navy landing craft utility (LCU) that deliver cargos at the same six to eight knots as their predecessors from 70 years ago. No one would advocate that the Air Force downgrade from the F-35 to 1944’s P-51 Mustang. But the replacement programs for both of these STSM vehicles propose a slow speed and limited range that would make amphibious operations vulnerable to A2/AD weapons.

Air-supported vessels (ASV), which use mature diesel-engine and water-jet technologies, are an option for upgrading Navy STSM. Norwegian builder Effects Ships International can provide landing craft that scream to the beach at 50 knots from ranges of over 200 miles. Air injected into the space under the rigid hull lifts 85 percent of it out of water, reducing drag and fuel consumption at higher speeds. Drafts of less than two feet put these landing craft on par with landing craft air cushions. Smaller designs mounted in davits can carry a platoon of Marines. Larger designs offer an LCU replacement to deliver an LAV-25 light-armored vehicle or full company of Marines at over 45 knots from hundreds of miles off shore. The Russian Navy already operates the Dyugon-class ASV, which matches U.S. Navy LCUs in dimension and cargo but boasts fully loaded speeds of 50 knots.

ASV landing craft can provide multi-mission capability to any naval commander. Task forces would have the organic capability to fight off massed small-boat attacks from distances well away from the slower-moving, large ships. Maritime-interdiction operations would also be within the portfolio of any Navy ship carrying these landing craft in davits. Any operation currently contemplated by the Navy Expeditionary Combatant Command would benefit. Most important, this revolutionary approach to STSM would allow the naval services to return to past synergistic relationships.

“A ship without Marines is like a garment without buttons,” Admiral David Dixon Porter once said. But his view of the relationship between the naval services no longer applies. The last Marine detachments left aircraft carriers by the late 1990s. Today’s Navy embarks only transient units on board large amphibious ships. Marines want nothing more than to get off to train rather than be part of the weapon systems of those ships, but they lack utility to the rest of the Fleet. STSM can only be executed from the huge well decks of multi-billion dollar (unaffordable) amphibious ships. A sustainable amphibious capability can be achieved with davit-mounted ASV landing craft; lighter-smaller Marine Corps equipment; and the MV-22 making every ship an amphibious platform, providing every naval commander with greater mission capability. 24

A Long-Term Plan

The ability to aggregate ARG/MEUs with every other Navy platform and deliver Marines from over the horizon at high speed to nearly any shoreline would be unstoppable by all but the largest military threats. Few believe a repeat of Iwo Jima is in the future. However, the ability to deliver MEB-sized units from naval platforms will remain a key facet of Huntington’s vision. Building more amphibious ships is an unrealistic solution. Commercial shipping is the realistic one.

Many nations, including our own, have done this before. The 1st Marine Division rode to Inchon in a fleet manned largely by Japanese sailors. Great Britain fought the Falklands War with a fleet filled with hastily converted merchant ships. While neither event exemplifies how to best execute this approach, the long-term sustainable amphibious capability of the U.S. Navy must come from an existing merchant fleet that can be quickly integrated for large-scale amphibious operations from over the horizon.

The U.S. government maintains a fleet of over 60 ships in various states of readiness that could be employed. The voluntary intermodal sealift agreement program partners with more than 50 shipping companies to provide shipping to the Department of Defense to support the U.S objectives. Many of these ships offer great operational capability. With four gas turbines, the Royal Caribbean Radiance-class cruise ships can carry over 2,500 passengers at speeds 50 percent faster than current amphibious ships. 25 Davits already carry lifeboats of similar size and weight to ASV designs for landing craft. 26 Like the British assets for defending the Falklands, however, none of the ships is configured for amphibious operations. The ships cannot execute STSM and require a port offload.

An STSM paradigm shift would permit commercial shipping to be integrated quickly and efficiently. Commercial ship davits should be capable of carrying ASV landing craft. Helicopter decks or open deck spaces should be reinforced to be able to receive the MV-22. Container ships could land several MV-22s on their decks. A Royal Caribbean cruise ship could be outfitted with ASV landing craft in days, as compared to the weeks it took the British in 1982. It could deliver two battalions of Marines into theater faster than Navy assets. Marines would conduct STSM from over the horizon using ASV landing craft and MV-22s with no requirement for any other offload assistance. The cost of cooperating with commercial shipbuilders for these types of modifications or building them in from the “keel up” are minascule as compared to the cost of building a $1.5 billion amphibious ship. This is a cost-effective method to ensure that large-scale amphibious capability can be sustainable as well as available quickly.

Planning a Sustainable Future

Amphibious capability will remain a requirement for the United States to achieve its goals. The current approach of justifying more amphibious ships to lift MEBs is flawed and will fail in the economic environment of the next 30 to 40 years. The amphibious paradigm must change. The potent ARG/MEU combination must be the “red line” to which both naval services orient. Cheaper, highly capable amphibious ships are essential to maintaining ARG/MEUs. The Marine Corps must reorient equipment procurement and invest in gear that can effectively be transported ship-to-shore. The Navy must change the STSM system and move to high-speed, shallow-draft landing craft instead of anachronistic, “legacy” systems that mirror 70-year-old capabilities. The resultant synergy would make any ship STSM capable. Marines could execute amphibious operations with their Navy brethren from any platform. A sustainable amphibious capability can be created through an immediate short-term reprioritization of the most important mission for amphibious ships and purchasing less expensive ships; a transition to a cost-effective, yet high speed, STSM system lifting lighter equipment; and the long-term integration of commercial shipping assets to conduct amphibious operations.

But integrating commercial shipping for large amphibious operations cannot be a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis. It must be systematically developed and become the proverbial force multiplier with modifications to allow new STSM systems from all platforms. Amphibious capability does not need to continue the precipitous decline of the last 30 years; it must remain a critical and essential element of America’s success in the 21st century.

1. Samuel P. Huntington, “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 80, no. 5 (May 1954).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Benoit Faucon and Keith Johnson, “US Redraws the World Oil Map,” Wall Street Journal , 13 November 2012, .

5. Air-Sea Battle Office, Air-Sea Battle, Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access and Area-Denial Challenges (Washington, DC, May 2013).

6. COL T. X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.), “Offshore Control is the Answer,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 125, no. 12 (December 2012), 22-26.

7. CAPT Jeffery Kline and CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., USN (Ret.), “Between Peace and the Air-Sea Battle,” Naval War College Review , Newport, RI, Autumn 2012.

8. Rep. Randy Forbes, “The Conservative Case for American Seapower,” Real Clear Defense , , 24 July 2013.

9. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, Washington, DC, 9 August 2012, 9.

10. Grace Jean, “USN’s Submarine Programs Remain on Course, but Sequester Would Disrupt Shipbuilding Plans,” Jane’s Navy International , 21 February 2013, .

11. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr, “Navy’s Ray Mabus: ‘Sequestration Looms Over Everything on Shipbuilding,’” Breaking Defense , 24 April 2013, .

12. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Defense Acquisitions, Assessments of Selected Weapons programs,” Washington, DC, March 2013.

13. Freedberg, “Navy’s Ray Mabus.”

14. Michael Welles Shappiro, “Effort Afoot in the House to Preserve Carrier and Submarine Spending,” Newport News Daily Press , 6 March 2013, .

15. Joe Courtney and Randy Forbes, “Save Our Subs: Prioritizing the Attack Submarine,” Breaking Defense , 9 April 2013, .

16. Jen DiMascio, “STRATCOM Chief Prioritizes Ohio Sub Replacement, USAF Tanker,” Aviation Week , 6 March 2013. This statement was from an interview with GEN Robert Kehler, USAF.

17. Jean, “USN’s Submarine Programs.”

18. O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure,” 7.

19. Christopher P. Cavas, “Different Missions Might Await New USN Amphib,” Defense News, 12 November 2012, . Michael Hoffman, “Amos: Replace LSD Amphib Fleet with LPDs,” DOD Buzz , 9 April 2013, .

20. LTC Frederick Chew, Republic of Singapore Navy, “Reflections on Operation Blue Orchis(Sea),” Pointer Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces , vol. 34, no. 2, 24 April 2010, .

21. LTC Richard Lim, Republic of Singapore Navy, “Operation Blue Sapphire: Reflections,” Pointer Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces , vol. 36, no. 2, 16 December 2010, .

22. “Thailand’s New LPD: Singapore’s ST Wins Contract for Ship, Landing Craft,” Defense Industry Daily , 23 April 2012, .

23. For a more detailed review of Marine Corps equipment challenges, see author’s article “An Amphibious Manifesto for the 21st Century,” Marine Corps Gazette , December 2012.

24. See MAJ John Jordan, USMC, “Every Marine a Rifleman, Every Ship and Amphibious Ship, Meeting Low Intensity Challenges,” Marine Corps Gazette , January 2013. His prescient vision cannot be attained without a Ship-to-Shore-Movement capability designed for the 21st century.

25. Richard Wagner, “The Need for Speed: Today’s Fast Cruise Ships,” The Porthole , World Ship Society, Port of New York Branch, September 2011.

26. “Mega Lifeboat,” Royal Institution of Naval Architects, .

Colonel Fuquea retired from the Marine Corps in 2010 with over 29 years of active service as an infantry officer. In addition to three tours of duty with the Navy, he also completed multiple deployments on board ship with Marine Expeditionary Units from the East and West Coasts. He is currently a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.


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