Low Inventory, Low Readiness Plague Amphibious Ship Fleet

By Valerie Insinna

Joint high-speed vessel

When Typhoon Haiyan rampaged through the Philippines last year, the Marine Corps should have had four amphibious ships ready to depart from Sasebo, Japan. All four were tied up in maintenance, and only two of those ships eventually deployed to the country. 

This scenario is emblematic of the Navy’s shortfall of amphibious ships, but it is just one of many examples, said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Robert Walsh, director of the expeditionary warfare division.

In order to meet operational requirements, the sea services are working to increase ship readiness and evaluating whether they can employ noncombatant ships to take on some of the roles of amphibs. But there are no easy short term solutions, Navy and Marine Corps officials told National Defense.

Amphibious ships are among the most highly demanded vessels in the Navy’s fleet, according to Expeditionary Force 21, the Marine Corps plan for its future force. They can support sailors and Marines for extended periods and are outfitted with flight decks and command-and-control infrastructure.

“Amphibious ships are more than transports. … They are versatile, interoperable warfighting platforms capable of going into harm’s way and serving as a cornerstone of America’s ability to project power and respond to a range of crises,” the plan states. “They are critical in providing seabased forces in theater to build partners and relations in key regions, deter aggression, defeat and deny sanctuary to terrorists, respond to crises and contingencies, and project power and influence.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has said the Navy would need more than 50 amphibious ships to meet all the demands of combatant commanders. The Marine Corps stated requirement is 38 amphibious ships, but the service has agreed to accept risk with a fleet of 33 warships with 30 operational, according to EF21. An inventory of less than 33 poses “unacceptable risk” to the service’s ability to maintain continuous presence.

The service has only 32 amphibious vessels currently, and will be down to 31 by the end of the fiscal year.

Fueled by the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and continued demands in the Middle East, Marines — and the amphibs that carry them — remain highly engaged in missions around the world, Walsh said.

The Marine Corps is needed for everything from disaster relief to training exercises, but few partner countries are open to the service establishing a permanent presence on their soil. “It’s kind of like, get in, get out,” he said. “The ships can do that very well.”

The Navy has enough vessels to support a four-ship amphibious ready group in the Central Command area of responsibility and a three-ship group for Pacific Command, Walsh said. An amphibious ready group typically comprises an LHA or LHD-class amphibious assault ship, LSD-class dock landing ship, LPD-class amphibious transport dock, a Marine expeditionary unit and a variety of aircraft.

Although Southern Command could use amphibious ships in the Caribbean and Central and South America, “we have not been able to meet that demand,” he said. “Same thing if you look in the Mediterranean. Years ago we had an [amphibious ready group] and a [Marine expeditionary unit] located in the Mediterranean, and because of ship numbers, we no longer have been able to meet that requirement.”

A low inventory is only part of the problem, Walsh said. Amphibious ships stay forward-deployed longer because of high demand, leading to missed or shortened maintenance periods where only a portion of scheduled work is completed.

Depending on the throughput at public and private shipyards, it could be six to eight years before ships receive heavy maintenance, he said. If a vessel has skipped maintenance before, it could need more work than was previously planned, meaning that it may not deploy on time.

“The ships have been run hard, and as you run them hard, you see the availability, the readiness rates start to go down,” Walsh explained. “It’s a vicious circle.”

The Navy is taking steps to increase amphibious ship readiness and ensure they meet their expected service lives, he said. Earlier this year, Adm. Bill Gortney, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, unveiled the optimized fleet response plan, which aims to standardize deployment and maintenance schedules. The hope is for increased oversight to ensure that vessels get necessary repairs and are not pulled out of maintenance early.

Solving the Marine Corps’ shortage during a budget crisis necessitates innovative thinking about expeditionary warfare, said Rear Adm. Larry Jackson, deputy commander of Military Sealift Command. MSC officials have offered a number of noncombatant ships that could be deployed to support seabasing or other missions routinely done by amphibious ships.

“MSC’s vessels are not going to replace amphibious assault ships. We complement them. In some cases we enable them. Landing Marines on an opposed beach is not going to be a mission for Military Sealift Command that I foresee, but we do have a lot of ships,” he said. “We have at our disposal at any given day 110 ships in active service … and another 60 or so in short notice, hot standby.”

Greenert has directed a board of three-star flag and general officers from the Marine Corps and Navy and the CNO staff to evaluate the effectiveness of how MSC ships can be used, what modifications would be valuable, how much such changes would cost, and to develop a concept of operations, Walsh said.

Noncombatant ships have large spaces meant for cargo that can be adapted for other operations.

One such platform is the joint high speed vessel, a medium-sized cargo ship based on the design of a commercial ferry and crewed by civilians. The ship was outfitted with adaptive force packages — nonstandard equipment or passengers, such as Marines — during a recent deployment to Africa and Europe.

“We took a bunch of Marines and said, ‘Let’s experiment with doing a noncombatant evacuation operation. Let’s experiment with operating an [unmanned aircraft]. Let’s experiment with conducting surveillance operations,’” Jackson said.

“Do you want to insert a couple of hospital modules aboard the joint high speed vessel and create a small rapid response” ship with a significant medical capability? he asked. “We could probably do that.”

During further testing this summer, sailors on the JHSV launched and recovered Northrop Grumman Bat and Aerovironment Puma unmanned aircraft while deployed to Southern Command. It also deployed a tethered aerostat, according to a news release. Further experiments are planned for September.

Walsh likened the joint high speed vessel to the littoral combat ship, which is intended to be outfitted with a variety of equipment allowing it to tackle specialized operations such as anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures.

“We’re experimenting with lots of different missions on that platform that are completely different than we would have ever dreamed of when we were just using it as a capability to move passengers and cargo back and forth,” Walsh said.

Other Military Sealift Command ships can be used in similar ways. Mobile landing platforms were originally designed as a transfer point to move cargo from large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships, or LMSRs, to landing craft air cushions that would ferry those supplies ashore. They could also be outfitted with additional billets to house Marines or modified with a crane to launch and recover rigid-hulled inflatable boats, Walsh said.

The first mobile landing platform, USNS Montford Point, recently finished initial testing, Jackson said. The ship is expected to be fully operational in fiscal year 2015. The third and fourth vessels will be purpose-built as afloat forward staging bases meant to support low-intensity missions such as counter piracy, humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

“The first one, the USNS Lewis B. Puller is being built out at NASSCO right now, and it’s fairly far along,” Walsh said. “That’s going to give us … that long-term persistent presence that can be out there.” The Puller is scheduled for deployment in the Persian Gulf for mine countermeasure and special operations missions. 

TAK-E dry cargo ships are already outfitted with commercial broadband satellite communications and are linked to the Navy’s secret internet protocol network, making them a good option for command-and-control operations, Walsh said. MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft can also operate from a TAK-E without any modification needed to the deck.

Although the vessel was not designed to store an Osprey, it could accommodate one after structural modifications to its hangar bays, Jackson said. “At the moment, no one is paying to do that, but I expect that at some point in the future, if money becomes available or the need is deemed to be great enough, that someone will turn to us.”

The large deck on LMSRs could also be converted to a flight deck for Ospreys, Jackson said. “Then, you’ve got yourself a significant platform that can operate off the coast of a country with significant endurance.”

If a noncombatant ship can help take the load off of more expensive naval surface ships, investing in modifications could ultimately be cost-effective, he said.

Such options “not only answer the need for significant capabilities in the relatively near term at a reasonable cost, but also have the added benefit of optimizing the use of the higher combatants that are available to the Navy and Marine Corps,” Jackson said. “It’s a win on multiple different levels.”

The services are considering employing two or three of these Military Sealift Command ships to support a new rotation of about 1,100 Marines conducting training and regional outreach in Darwin, Australia, Walsh said. The unit will not have access to amphibs until 2018, when a big deck amphibious ship USS Tripoli comes online, but using vessels such as the mobile loading platform and TAK-E could function as a stopgap.

The Navy is also working closely with industry to keep amphibious shipbuilding plans on track, he said. “That means bringing different shipbuilders together to collaborate on … [getting] costs down on our ships.”

The shipbuilders and their suppliers, for their part, are eager to sell more amphibs. Citing the shortfall of ships, a lobbying group called the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition is advocating to keep landing platform dock production lines active to build a 28th ship. Production is scheduled to end after the delivery of LPD-27 USS Portland in 2017.

Funding an additional ship would allow companies to retain their workers and supply chain as the Navy gears up to buy a new class of dock landing ships, called the LX(R), said Brian Schires, chairman of the coalition and vice president of naval marine programs for Rolls Royce Marine North America. LX(R) procurement is scheduled to begin in 2020.

“As suppliers, if we have sustained funding and predictability, that allows industry to better manage our workforce, keep our trained personnel in place, plus build affordable equipment that is delivered on time with the requisite reliability and quality,” he said.

For Rolls Royce — which builds the controllable pitch propeller systems aboard the LPD 17 — production of a 28th LPD would allow the company to retain its employees, he said.  “We’d like to continue to build the same capability in the LX(R) without having to stop and later restart the casting, machining, assembly and testing process” which could impact cost and delivery schedules.

Photo Credit: Navy

Topics: Defense Department, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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