As the U.S. Navy’s investments and planning point towards a shrinking
fleet, it remains unclear how the downsizing will affect the Marine Corps and
its ability to carry out expeditionary warfare missions.
Cutbacks in the number of amphibious ships, particularly, are of great concern
to the Marine Corps, whose requirement for sealift assets is based on the need
to transport 2.5 Marine expeditionary brigades. A MEB is an air-ground task
force comprising 15,000 Marines.
Although no decisions have been announced yet, the Navy is expected to move
away from its original goal of deploying 12 expeditionary strike groups and
consider dropping the number to eight or 10. The ESGs are the service’s
new operational concept that augments traditional amphibious ready groups with
cruisers, destroyers and submarines.
Amphibious ships are the central piece of the traditional deployment posture
of the Marine Corps. An amphibious ready group typically includes an LHA or
LHD big-deck amphibious assault ship, one or two LPD amphibious transport dock
ships and sometimes an LSD dock landing ship. An amphibious ready group often
deploys with a carrier battle group.
If the number of ESGs is reduced, it would be almost certain that the Navy
would scale back the 12-ship San Antonio class of new LPD amphibious transport
Proponents of the cutbacks argue that the Marine Corps could fulfill its lift
requirements with fewer ships, because future planned vessels are far more capable
and roomier than the current platforms. They point to the future replacement
of the LHA, the LHA-R, and the future maritime pre-positioning cargo ship, the
MPF-F, as examples of future ships that will dramatically enhance the Marine
Corps’ expeditionary capabilities.
Neither the LHA-R nor the MPF-F, however, will be available for many years.
Both programs remain in the concept development phase, and funds have yet to
be allocated for construction.
Even though the Navy claims that capabilities are more important than numbers,
the Corps still needs to know that it will have a certain number of hulls available
to deploy its forces, Lt. Gen. Robert Magnus, the service’s deputy commandant
for programs and resources, told reporters.
“If you don’t own the beach, there’s no other way to get
there,” he said. “They’re asking for Marines and amphibious
forces to go to the fight.”
Magnus recognizes that new ships such as the LPD-17 amphibious transport dock,
are “a hell more capable than ships that are out there right now. If we
think the better ships will allow us to use less force, then we’ll continue
to buy LPD-17s and large deck amphibs, and just retire some of the older ships
But trimming the number of ARGs could have significant implications for the
Marine Corps, given that even the current 12 cannot accommodate 2.5 MEBs, noted
retired Marine Maj. Gen. William Whitlow, a former director of naval expeditionary
“If we can’t get our forces to the objective area expeditiously
and in sufficient quantity to win, then we are relegated to a long, protracted
attrition type of conflict,” he told National Defense.
Beyond the sealift capability, the Marines need the infrastructure, offered
by amphibious ships, to sustain prolonged operations, Whitlow said.
“The Navy is building less and the Marines are sitting by,” he
Another trend in the Marine Corps is the increasing reliance on air support.
That is why the LHA-R is expected to carry more aircraft than any other amphibious
The Marines agreed to give up the well deck in the LHA-R design to make room
for 23 Joint Strike Fighters, 28 MV-22 Ospreys, or a combination of aircraft.
Giving up the well deck means no air-cushion landing craft or amphibious assault
vehicles can be launched from the ship.
“Not having the well deck basically gives you more volume for the major
mission equipment,” said Arnie Moore, chief engineer with Northrop Grumman
Ship Systems. The company is working on the design of the LHA-R.
“It’s a long, very large space, and it’s not subdivided into
a number of smaller spaces,” he said. “I believe that they’re
going to have a lot of capability there to support the air wing that they don’t
currently have now.”
Without a well deck, the LHA-R will have to join other vessels for amphibious
assaults, according to the Navy. The LHA-R is meant to replace the existing
four LHAs in the fleet.
Nevertheless, insiders say the Marine Corps will not want more than two ships
without a well deck. The first LHA-R could just be an intermediate step towards
a new class of ships.
“The LHA-R should be capable of handling legacy air assets and future
ones that are different size and weight,” said Whitlow. “It should
have the ability to switch out modules to convert into a command and control
ship. It should not be a single-purpose ship.”
An aviation-only capable ship would be “very short sighted,” Whitlow
added. Any future ship should be built “from the keel up to be able to
adapt to a myriad of capabilities.”
That also should be the case with the MPF-F, intended to replace the current
fleet of 18 pre-positioning cargo vessels. The Navy and the Marine Corps have
not settled yet on a design.
Options could range from a ship comparable to the current Bob Hope class, to
a much larger ship, or a family of dissimilar ships.
But if the program does not get under way next year, the Navy will not be able
to have the MPF-F by 2010, when it would be needed, according to Whitlow. “That
is a charade,” he said.
Marines are “not astute at watching” the discrepancy between rhetoric
and action when it comes to shipbuilding, said Whitlow. “They trust the
Even though recent conflicts validated the need for more sealift and support
vessels, the Navy continues to wrongly focus its investments on destroyers and
submarines, said Whitlow.
The Navy should recognize there is a limited role for cruiser destroyers with
anti-aircraft capabilities, or for a $4 billion submarine program—the
advanced SEAL delivery vehicle— to transport the Navy Sea, Air and Land
teams, he said. That is a “pretty expensive platform, and the SEALs can
get there in other ways,” he said.
Should the U.S. military have to reposition forces to handle another contingency,
it would have to take “huge risks,” in the absence of sufficient
Without enough amphibious ships to carry and sustain three MEBs, the service
will lose its ability to gain unencumbered access to the battlefield, said Whitlow.
Under the worst-case scenario, he noted, if there are insufficient ships, the
Marine Corps may have to consider downsizing its own force.