When they were built, they were the most heavily gunned ships in our surface Navy with three 5-inch/54 mounts and associated Mark 86 fire-control system. They carried four utility landing craft (LCUs) in their large well deck, and routinely embarked five different types of Navy and Marine helicopters. They also had an intriguing communications and amphibious command-and-control system, sewage treatment plants, Naval Tactical Data System, the SLQ-32 electronic warfare system, two Basic Point Defense Missile Systems, extensive two-dimensional and three-dimensional surface and air-search radars, and the SPN-35 air-control radar system. Finally, they had prodigious quantities of the traditional measure of U.S. Navy amphibious ships: troop bunks, vehicle square footage, cargo (ammunition, petroleum, lubrication fluids, parts, food, etc.) cube, H-46 helicopter-equivalent landing spots, and LCU well-deck positions. Storage space and over-the-side craning capability even existed on the flight deck aft of the island with cradles for two light personnel landing craft (LCPLs) and two medium landing craft (LCM-6) small craft!
The ships, unfortunately, came off the ways with a variety of class weaknesses that have been only partially overcome by ship alterations. These included additional flight-deck tie-down fittings and deck-edge wheel stops, addition of AV-8B Harrier and AH-1W attack helicopter avionics and ordnance-handling capabilities, 300 additional crew and Navy staff bunks, and the amelioration of some of the weight-and-moment stability problems. The automatic steam propulsion control system—including a ship's helm in the main engineering control room—was removed. Improved troop and crew habitability, communications and data processing facilities, vehicle and aviation support capabilities, and many other features have been removed or fitted over the years.
The ships, however, originally were designed for much smaller and lighter vehicles and aircraft, which have been replaced by Marine—and Navy—platforms such as the air cushion landing craft (LCAC), which require new support systems. They have tender, easily damaged bows, as well as many fuel and other piping systems that run at 90 angles throughout the main and auxiliary engineering spaces, which contribute to rapid pipe aging. The ships have thin flight decks, cramped command-and-control and berthing spaces, and numerous electric power distribution and control deficiencies.
Upgraded Tarawas probably can satisfy the new requirements, but the cost would be an estimated $1.2 to $2.5 billion per ship—well above their original cost—and we would gain only an additional 15 years of service. The final ship of the Wasp class (hull 7) is under contract, and this $1.7-billion ship certainly is a step above the capabilities of the first six ships of its class, let alone the Tarawas .
Several proposals provide the additional capabilities that the LHAs need to carry and operate the LCAC, MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the advanced amphibious assault vehicle (AAAV), 21st century command-and-control systems, and to improve the ships' overall stability. Extensive modification of the LHA well decks would be necessary to make room for more than one LCAC, let alone modify the cargo and weapons elevators presently rising through their center well deck islands. In addition, if these ships were taken out of service for these expensive and extensive alterations, we would lose their availability for more than two years per ship over a ten-year period, thus restricting our ability to maintain the mandated 12-ARG force with its 2.5-MEB lift requirement.
With judicious use of ship repair funds, we can keep the Tarawas on line until we replace them with LHD-8 through -12. We have given up relatively new Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigates, various nuclear-powered guided-missile cruisers, and many Spruance (DD-963)-class destroyers to recapitalize the surface Navy—we should do the same with our . . . From the Sea" amphibious assault command ships.
The late 1990s find us in a "strategic pause" in our National Security Strategy. The U.S. Navy must seize this opportunity to continue the ongoing LHD construction line to replace the LHA class with LHDs 8-12. Extending the production run of the $1.7-billion Wasp class should yield significant life cycle cost reductions and give us the opportunity to construct new hulls with gas turbines like those that power the new USS Supply (AOE-6) fast combat support ships.
These improved LHDs will be more adaptable to the newer requirements for troop lift, command-and-control, aviation support systems, and weapons that are being projected for the 21st century. The U.S. Navy's amphibious big-deck Ship Construction Navy (SCN) requirement is clear: Build improved Wasp -class LHDs to replace the dying Tarawa -class LHAs.
Captain O’Neil , a Surface Warfare Officer with extensive amphibious experience afloat and ashore, is the Commander, Training Command, and the Director of Tactical Training, Doctrine and Tactics, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.