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Marines Worry About Future Shortage of Navy Ships
When the USS Nassau was put in mothballs last month, the Marine Corps was left with the smallest fleet of amphibious assault ships it has seen in several decades.

“We are down to 29 ships,” said Commandant Gen. James Amos.

The Navy has assured the Marine Corps that it will bulk up the fleet back to 33 ships over the next five to 10 years. Thirty-three is the number that the Corps says it needs to satisfy U.S. military requirements for 11 "amphibious ready groups." But budget analysts predict that, based on the Navy’s funding projections, it is more likely that marines will end up with an even smaller fleet of big-deck vessels, which can cost upwards of $2 billion apiece.

“Even though you agreed to 33, it doesn’t mean you are going to get 33,” Eric Labs, senior naval analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, told Marine Corps officials last week at a conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by Tufts University’s Fletcher School of international security studies.

Rising ships costs and projected flat budgets for Navy programs portend a “decline in the capability of the amphibious force over the next 30 years,” Labs said.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said he expects shipbuilding budgets to average $14 billion a year for the foreseeable future. CBO analysts estimated that $20 billion is needed to implement the Navy’s plan to expand the fleet from 286 to a minimum of 313 ships by 2040.

The Navy’s ship budgets should be a major concern to the Marine Corps, said Ronald O’Rourke, national security analyst at the Congressional Research Service. That is because the biggest funding gaps in the Navy’s shipbuilding plans are in cruisers and destroyers, and attack submarines. Amphibious ships are next.

Amphibious ships are the “third biggest projected shortfall in the shipbuilding plan,” O’Rourke said. “Number one is cruisers and destroyers, number two is attack submarines.” Marines may be falsely assuming that if ships are going to be added to the long-term budget, that it will be amphibious vessels. “That’s not necessarily going to be the case,” he said. “There are bigger force structure shortfalls” that, for the Navy, take priority over amphibious ships.

In anticipation of further shrinkage in the fleet size, the Marine Corps should consider alternatives, such as using smaller vessels as temporary substitutes for big-decks, Labs suggested. “What kind of force packages can you put together using the LCS [Littoral Combat Ship] or the JHSV [Joint High Speed Vessel]?”

Amos said that is not an acceptable option. The LCS has “limited capacity” and cannot accommodate marines and their equipment, he said. “We want to put marines on LCS,” but that would be only 30 to 100, for small-scale operations. By comparison, an amphibious ship carries 2,500 marines with 30 days worth of supplies. Marines also prefer amphibious ships as a launch pad for their tactical aircraft.

Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler, Marine Corps deputy commandant for programs and resources, insisted that neither LCS nor JHSV are adequate alternatives to amphibious ships. “The JHSV is a super capability that we have used in the Pacific for years. But it doesn’t have the persistent presence that you have with an amphibious ship,” he said. “LCS may provide some forward presence. But, for now, there is no marine module or money in the budget for one. … There isn’t anything on the drawing board … but even if there were, there is limitation in size and physics,” Wissler said.

O’Rourke urged Marine Corps leaders to be more vocal about the need for amphibious ships. He noted that the Corps several years ago decided that it needed 42 ships to meet global deployment commitments. It later reduced the number to 38, and then to 33. With the current fleet at 29, the trend is not good for the Marine Corps, he warned. “You’re already taking some risks,” O’Rourke said. “In this new budget environment, you want to show all the sacrifices you’ve already made.” Marines also should articulate more clearly the consequences of having fewer ships, suggested O’Rourke.


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