Marines Question the Utility of Their New Amphibious Warship

By Grace V. Jean

The words “amphibious assault” traditionally conjure up images of Marines storming the beach by hovercraft.

But with the introduction of their newest amphibious assault ship in 2013, Marines will be able to reach the shore only by air.

The new vessel, the USS America, is the first of four amphibious assault ships that will eventually replace the LHA Tarawa class. Unlike the other amphibious assault ships that the Marine Corps currently operates, the USS America will not send troops and vehicles ashore aboard large hovercraft because the vessel will not have a well deck.

Marines’ sole means of transportation will be aircraft.

Although Marines are enthusiastic about the new ship, many of them question the decision to build a $3 billion ship without a well deck. It’s been a point of contention between the Navy and Marine Corps for some time.

The aviation-centric design of the LHA replacement — or LHA(R) — also has raised questions about its long term usefulness. Considering that Marines require heavy trucks and armored vehicles once they reach the shore, most of that equipment can only be transported by hovercraft, not by helicopters.

“It’s been a long-running debate, and it’s still not settled,” says Robert Work, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. “There are a lot of questions on LHA(R). Will it become the standard, or will it become only a niche capability?”

There are five Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships, with three still in service. Two were decommissioned in recent years: USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3) retired in October 2005 and USS Saipan (LHA-2) in April 2006.

The USS America, designated as LHA-6, will be part of the Marine Corps’ amphibious assault echelon — a group of warships that would deploy along with Navy cruisers and destroyers for major contingencies. The next two LHA ships, to be funded in 2010 and 2014, are intended for the maritime pre-positioning force squadron — a logistics sea base for troops. The fourth and final ship, currently funded in the 2017 to 2018
timeframe, would also be part of the assault echelon.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway pressed for an increase in
the amphibious fleet and succeeded. The plan now is to build up to 11 “big deck” amphibious assault ships — eight LHDs and three LHA(R)s — and dedicate them all to the assault echelon.

There’s no clear plan yet on whether to put big decks in the logistics squadron — that decision will be deferred until after the fiscal 2010 budget, says Work. The Marines lately have been trying to make a case that they need three additional amphibious assault vessels, for a total of 14. “The chances of that happening, I think, are zero,” he says.

The LHA-6 hull is based on the design used in the USS Makin Island (LHD-8), which is the first gas-turbine ship in the Wasp class of amphibious assault ships. Both are under construction at Northrop Grumman Ship Systems in Pascagoula, Miss. The LHD-8 is expected to be completed in May.

An aviation-centric amphibious ship is not a new concept. In the late 1950s, the Navy built a class of amphibious assault ships called Landing Platform Helicopters, or LPH. These vessels carried Marines and rotory-wing aircraft. The only way to leave the ship was by air.

“That turned out to be largely a failed experiment,” says Work. In operations off the coast of Lebanon in the late 1970s, the ships’ helicopters encountered a significant air threat that resulted in the Marines being transferred to another amphibious ship to go ashore by sea.

“What we learned about the LPH is that we needed a well deck,” says Marine Col. Robert Coates, director of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s training and exercise group.

The United States in 1975 began building amphibious ships with both well decks and flight decks. The well decks on the Tarawa-class allowed watercraft and hovercraft, such as landing craft utility (LCU) and landing craft, air cushioned (LCAC), to float into the ship to load or unload Marines and cargo and transport them ashore.

“It was a tremendous success. The ship was extremely flexible. The Marines could get off either by sea or by air,” says Work.

The LHD Wasp-class ships are an improved version of the Tarawa-class. Aboard the sixth ship of the class, the USS Bonhomme Richard, Marine Lt. Col. Robert Rice comments on its versatility. “When you have a ship like the Bonhomme Richard that can do simultaneous well deck and flight deck operations, I think it represents a significant threat that can never be discounted,” he says.

With a wide flight deck that resembles that of an aircraft carrier, the LHD traditionally deploys in a trio of warships called an amphibious task force. The other two vessels commonly are the transport dock ship (LPD-class) and the dock landing ship (LSD-class). Collectively, the ships carry a Marine expeditionary unit and a wide range of aircraft, vehicles and watercraft. The total force is called an amphibious ready
group, or ARG. Depending on the missions that crop up, the units can stay together or operate separately.

Without a well deck, the LHA(R) might be more limited, Marines say. “If you’re tasked with a situation where there’s multiple tasks going on simultaneously, you have to split the ARGs up,” points out Rice. “That’s going to be tough to decide which ship goes where. If ships are limited in capabilities, then we’re limiting our options.”

During the early 2000s, the Navy adopted a position that future amphibious operations would be achieved through aerial maneuver. They feared future enemies would mine waters near shores and threaten ships sailing in coastal areas with missiles and other defenses to prevent Marines from coming ashore by sea.

This position was buttressed by the Marines’ pursuit of the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, an aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter, and also rotate its propellers to fly like a conventional aircraft. The tilt rotors on the V-22 must be locked in a vertical position in order for mechanics to work on it. That requires more hangar space than is available in the older LHD-class and LHA-class ships.

Though the Marines still insisted on maintaining the well deck capability, the Navy built LHA(R) as an aviation-focused vessel. “We’re still an amphibious assault ship, but we’re focusing on the aviation aspects,” says Michael Arnold, manager of the LHA-6 class at Naval Sea Systems Command.

Critics can’t help but associate the LHA(R) with the old LPH-class ships.

“There is some superficial resemblance because neither one of us has a well deck,” Arnold says. But the Marines abandoned the LPH-2 class because the ships were too small to be able to operate the airplanes that they wanted. “They couldn’t fit all of their airplanes on that ship,” he says.

The V-22 is significantly larger than the helicopter it replaces and the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B Joint Strike Fighter also is larger than the AV-8B Harrier that it will replace. They require larger flight decks and hangar space and more fuel and storage capacity, all of which are found on the LHA(R) — a much larger vessel than the LPHs. “It’s that kind of thinking that drove us to LHA-6,” says Arnold.

On an LHD, the well deck resides at the aft end of the ship. It’s an open void that can be flooded with water to allow landing craft to float directly in and out of the ship. By closing off the well deck, designers have rearranged that area into other spaces on the LHA(R), says Capt. Jeff Riedel, program manager of NAVSEA’s amphibious ships

“The ability to provide more aviation maintenance capability on the ship is a very desired asset for the Marine Corps,” he says. To accommodate the specific needs of the V-22 and the F-35B, naval designers have put in additional hangar space and aviation maintenance shops.

“We moved some of those shops that were around the hangar in the LHDs down into what used to be the well decks, so that allowed us to grow the hangar size,” says Arnold. “We’ve got larger shops that are better optimized for the aircraft maintenance, and then we have additional store rooms for aircraft repair parts.”

Because there is no well deck, there is no longer a requirement to ballast the ship. “We’re able to convert the ballast requirements into the ability to carry more JP-5 fuel for our airplanes,” says Riedel.

It’s about twice the amount that an LHD would carry. The ship also has an additional magazine and a cargo hold for aviation ordnance and gear.

Recent operations have indicated that there is still a need for aviation-centric warships, Navy officials say. At the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, the USS Bataan (LHD-5) and the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) were loaded up solely with Harrier fighters.

The LHA(R) is designed to carry half of an aircraft carrier air wing’s worth of Joint Strike Fighters. A carrier air wing will have 44 F-35s. The LHA-6 will be able to carry about 22.

“Once it gets into service, will the Marines and Navy come to the same conclusion that they did when they had LPH — that it’s not really that flexible?” Work wonders. The ship is generally a repeat of the LPH, but instead of helicopters, it has V-22s, he points out.

How the ship is employed will determine whether the services continue to build LHA(R)s, or switch to some other type of amphibious assault ship, such as the LHD.

“There’s going to be a debate about whether to go back to LHD-X,” Work predicts.

At more than $3 billion apiece, says Riedel, the LHA(R) ranks among the Navy’s most expensive ship procurements in recent years.

Should the Navy and Marine Corps decide that future amphibious assault ships require well decks, the program office could revert to the LHD-8 design, which is comparable in cost. But it may be harder to build another LHD-8 because the design will be 10 years old by the time the Defense Department makes the decision, says Arnold. Many of the
components may no longer be manufactured.

Riedel says the Navy and Marine Corps are studying alternative designs that incorporate well decks.

Naval commanders see a greater need for ships that have both water and air transport capabilities, particularly in non-combat operations such as disaster relief.

“What you get with a well deck is stamina and endurance and power,” says Royal Australian Navy Capt. Peter Laver, commander of the Australian Amphibious Task Group. The Australian navy is procuring two amphibious warships that will resemble the U.S. Navy’s LHD-class ships — with well decks. “There’s so many things we need for disaster relief — bulldozers, heavy engineering equipment — that you just cannot air
lift them.”

Capt. John Funk, executive officer of the USS Bonhomme Richard, agrees.

  “When I think about the enormous amount of equipment that we’re capable of holding in our vehicle storages on board, I’m challenged to see how we could actually move that magnitude of equipment ashore with the helicopter capability that exists on board today.”

Even with the V-22’s speed and range, troops still might be challenged to transport that much equipment by air, he says. Having hovercraft and watercraft in the ship’s well deck gives the force a “double punch.”

“If we have weather conditions that prevent movement of the aircraft, we may still have at least a surface capability with which we can put the Marines and the equipment ashore,” says Funk.

During the Rim of the Pacific exercise in July, the remnants of a hurricane off Hawaiian shores produced bad weather and rough sea states that delayed or prevented some operations from the ship.

“We’ve had some events that demonstrate that we can’t necessarily always do it just via air, or just via surface,” says Funk.

During a simulated non-combatant evacuation exercise at Marine Corps Training Area-Bellows on Oahu, Marines from the 3rd Combat Logistics Battalion arrive on the beach aboard three hovercraft LCACs from the USS Bonhomme Richard. They unload trucks, humvees and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles.

LCACs are the only means to get large trucks, such as the MTVRs, off the ship, says 2nd Class Petty Officer Jeremiah Goff, a construction mechanic with Beachmaster Unit One based in Coronado, Calif.

“LCACs have better tolerance to sea-state and weather, as we found out. They can have that throughput ashore when you need it,” says Lt. Col. Jeffrey Holt, operations officer for the 3rd Marine Regiment at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

If the Bonhomme Richard were an LHA(R), its accompanying ships would have to increase their well deck capacity because the mission would still require moving heavy equipment ashore, says Funk. “The Marines have a pretty large footprint to meet their 30-day ashore mobility requirement.”

In his office aboard the Bonhomme Richard, commanding officer Capt. Neil Parrott says amphibious big decks are not just ships of war. They have participated in many humanitarian missions, such as Hurricane Katrina, when the USS Iwo Jima served as the flagship and headquarters for the relief operations. “The ship is utilitarian,” he says.

His own ship transformed temporarily into a mine-hunting vessel in February when explosive ordnance disposal teams kept their trained dolphins in four pens in the well deck.

The LHA(R) is expected to have a 40-year life cycle once it enters the fleet.

Work believes that the Marines will always argue for a mix of LHD and LHA(R) ships. “So the question becomes: what are the roles and how will they be interchangeable,” he says. “That’s the debate that continues now.”         

Topics: Expeditionary Warfare, Marine Corps News, Navy News

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