PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Marine Corps leaders have stepped up pressure on the Navy to increase the size of the amphibious vessel fleet. They contend that the Navy is not buying sufficient numbers of ships to meet the Corps’ future needs.
Amphibious vessels, say officials, are essential to the Marine Corps’ ability to respond to contingencies worldwide and to ensure that troops can reach war zones from the sea.
The warships are employed to land and support ground forces on enemy territory. While they resemble aircraft carriers, the role of an amphibious assault ship is fundamentally different. Its aviation facilities have the primary role of hosting helicopters to support forces ashore rather than to support strike aircraft.
The Navy currently operates 28 amphibious ships, and two are under construction. Navy officials believe a fleet of 30 ships would be sufficient for future expeditionary operations. However, the Marines say they need 34 to properly carry out their missions.
To support the deployment of two Marine expeditionary brigades in 2015 will require 17 ships for each brigade, Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, told a National Defense Industrial Association expeditionary warfare conference.
Although the Corps has determined that it needs 34 ships, the Navy’s long-term plan calls for 31 ships. According to the Navy, that is all it can afford.
“There are some cases where the ship mix varies from the desired force structure, largely due to the resource constraints under which the Navy must operate,” said Lt. Clay Doss, a Navy spokesman.
But the budgeted 31 ships is the minimum number needed for amphibious assault, Marine officials insist, because all the ships wouldn’t be available all the time.
“You need 33 or 34, because you have to apply an 85 percent availability factor against that,” said Conway.
“If we had to fight today … we’d have to take all our amphibious ships,” said Capt. Edward Barfield, head of the Navy’s amphibious warfare branch. “I think we’re going in the wrong direction in amphibious ships. We need to be going the other way — we need to be going up instead of down,” he told conference attendees.
With fewer ships, Marines would have to cut back on the equipment they take to war, officials said.
“When you go from 17 to 15, you’re leaving about 38,000 square feet of equipment on the pier side,” said James Strock, director of the sea basing integration division at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.
That will impact what the Marines call their “assault echelon” — the “trigger” forces, those combat and civil support units that would secure objectives ashore and sustain troops in follow-on operations.
Moreover, if amphibious forces were needed during that time for another contingency, the nation would lack the appropriate ships to deploy the Marines.
“Inside the beltway, we have analyzed ourselves to death on how many ships we need to fight a major combat operation. But we don’t have very good algorithms or templates to figure out the day-in, day-out shipping requirement for everything else,” he said.
Having more ships would enable the Corps to respond to multiple contingencies, such as disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions. Strock said studies concluded that the minimum requirement is 11 big deck amphibious ships, 11 amphibious transport dock ships and 11 dock-landing ships.
But in today’s fiscal environment, it is unlikely that the Navy will get additional monies to boost the number of amphibious ships, analysts said. Further complicating matters is that the Marine Corps is reviewing the force structure that will deploy from those ships in the future.
The current plan supports a Marine expeditionary brigade with a baseline of 14,484 people. But that number is out of date because it was based on 2001 data, said Strock.
In recent years, equipment has become heavier because so much armor is being added to trucks and combat vehicles.
“The medium tactical vehicle, a 7-ton truck fully dressed out, is showing up at the pier for embarkation in excess of 50,000 pounds,” said Strock.
As a result, 55 percent of the amphibious ships are exceeding weight and stability limits. Another 16 percent exceed only stability limits.
Navy warships are designed to withstand certain amounts of damage to their hulls and still remain afloat.
However, if they carry more weight than they were originally designed for, their stability and their survivability are affected.
“It is critical that Navy ships maintain their damage stability criteria,” said Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor at the Shipbuilders Council of America. Most warships are designed with 15 percent error margins to accommodate weight changes during construction. During the course of a ship’s service life, materials tend to accrue on board the vessels, nudging them closer, and in some cases over, the weight and stability limits.
That 55 percent of the amphibious ships are above those limits isn’t surprising, said Carnevale. “The question is by how much, and whether that dramatically affects the ship’s survivability,” he said.
Next generation weapon systems, such as the joint light tactical vehicle, are expected to weigh even more than current equipment.
“Maybe we ought to think about taking the L’s out of that name, because the lightest version is 14,000 to 15,000 pounds,” said Strock.
Amphibious ships are built to accommodate certain numbers and types of equipment and supplies. The problem with vehicles becoming heavier is that the ships can carry only so much extra weight.
“The number of aircraft, tanks and rolling equipment you can put on an amphibious ship is already fixed. You can’t jam a lot more equipment on that ship than what it was designed for,” said Carnevale.
Future weapons systems in all categories are expected to be heavier than current technologies. Increasing the number of ships to accommodate more of those technologies may be one of the only solutions.
During the Cold War, the amphibious fleet size held between 61 and 65 ships. In response to changing strategic conditions, the fleet dropped from 53 to 38 ships in the early 1990s.
“We should be more concerned about capability than the number of ships,” said Navy spokesman Doss. Even though there will be fewer ships in the future amphibious fleet, those ships will be more capable than the Cold War era warships, and they will have a similar loading capacity, he said.
Strock said Marine officials are working with ground mobility experts to rework the baseline standards for a Marine expeditionary brigade. They are looking at notional loads of various armory mixes that can be anticipated for future operations, he said.
The new baseline numbers for a Marine brigade are expected in the summer. Because the results could alter the capacity requirements for ships, the team plans to meet with procurement officials to discuss any changes to the current and future fleet.
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