Light Amphibious Warships Face Survivability Questions

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Landing craft air cushions speed toward the well deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry.

Navy photo

The Department of the Navy is pursuing a new class of light amphibious warships that will be key to future operations in the Indo-Pacific region as the sea services work to counter China, experts say. But the platforms may need more defensive capabilities than some envision. 

The amphibious force of the future will be characterized by the importance of smaller vessels, including the light amphibious warship, or LAW, said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va. 

The platform will offer the military increased flexibility and allow it to be more distributed and deployed with smaller sized Marine Corps units, said Wittman, ranking member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces. 

That will ensure “that we can hold the Chinese at risk in various places, but also be able to move our assets around,” he said during an event hosted by The Hill in March. “We’ll still need the larger ships as logistical connectors, but … [we will] use amphibious platforms to be able to move equipment around, to be able to supply Marine Corps units.” 

Moving forward, the United States will not see the large-scale amphibious assaults that took place during World War II, he predicted. 

“That’s just not going to be the future,” Wittman said. “It’s going to be much more about how do we move things around, how do we increase the level of uncertainty with our adversaries?”

In a potential amphibious assault in the Western Pacific near China, the Navy and Marine Corps would face an environment saturated with a combination of anti-ship missiles, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, said Bryan Clark, director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute. 

Even with destroyer escorts, the threat would be more than a large amphibious warship could handle, he said in an interview. That currently leaves the service with few options. One includes using ship-based MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to fly in troops from hundreds of miles away, which would keep the big-deck amphibs at a safe distance but leave Marines vulnerable. 

However, a light amphibious warship could change that predicament, he said. 

The vessel “could carry troops and some of their gear ashore in smaller packages so that the larger amphibious warships will stay farther away,” he said. “For the Chinese, it may not be worth it to launch an anti-ship ballistic missile.” 

The ships would be harder to target and the cost exchange may not be ideal, he noted. 

“The hope is, well, maybe these small ships are not as attractive a target as a large amphibious warship so that we can stream a bunch of these in and deliver troops into the Philippines or to the southwest islands of Japan,” he said. “Then we can move them around in that environment at a lower risk, and even if the Chinese do attack a couple of them, the impact on the overall operation will be less than if we had driven that large amphibious warship close to shore.” 

Clark noted that while light amphibious warships will be important assets in future fights, one flaw is that they would have a limited ability to protect themselves if they do come under attack.  

“Because they’re not that big, they can’t carry a whole bunch of self-defense” systems, he said. “We’re going to have to ask the question: ‘Are we willing to accept the vulnerability of these ships?’ … Because the Chinese could decide, ‘Well, I’m not going to launch an anti-ship ballistic missile, but I’ll send a bunch of bombers over in that direction and I’ll attack these with cruise missiles or anti-ship missiles.” 

The Navy, which is currently mulling over the vessel’s requirements, may need to spend more money than originally anticipated to equip the ships with the necessary defensive weapons, Clark said.

The service is targeting a per unit procurement cost of $100 million to $150 million for the vessels, according to a Congressional Research Service report, “Navy Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) Program: Background and Issues for Congress.” 

“It might end up being a little more expensive” than that, Clark said. “If you put the rolling airframe missile on it, for example, that might be a $10 [million] or $15 million system ... but that’s probably a pretty good price to pay.” 

Clark estimated each platform might cost around $200 million in order to equip them with the necessary self-defense systems. While they won’t be invulnerable, such weapons would create dilemmas for adversaries such as the Chinese, he noted. 

“You might have to launch four or five missiles at it to take it out,” he said. “Now you get to the point where maybe the attack becomes either too expensive or too difficult.” 

The Navy and Marine Corps are considering how they can balance affordability with survivability, as well as operational and programmatic risks, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said.  

“Those need to be balanced against each other in a decade where we’re really trying to move fast and deliver,” he said in April during a Defense Writers Group event. 

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger called amphibious vessels a “Swiss army knife.” The service is eyeing somewhere between 30 to 50 light amphibious warships. That is in addition to the 10 big-deck amphibs and 20 San Antonio-class LPD-17s the service has previously identified as requirements. 

“That’s what the nation needs to maintain the forward presence to be able to react to a contingency quickly,” he said. 

Retired Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and vice director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said investment in newer, smaller platforms such as LAW is essential. 

It “is critically important when we look at not just today, but the future and how we’re going to do distributed operations,” he said during The Hill event. “In the future [it] is going to be important to have these smaller platforms with smaller units that can … operate both with Marines and probably special forces.” 

He noted that commandos such as Navy SEALs can operate from amphibious platforms.

The Navy is working closely with the requirements community in the development of the vessel, said Tom Rivers, executive director for amphibious, auxiliary and sealift in program executive office ships. 

“The Navy is accelerating delivery of this critical capability by adapting commercial vessels and design standards,” he said during remarks at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference in January. 

The service is taking an “evolutionary” approach as it pursues the acquisition, he said.

“The Navy initiated initial industry studies to perform the early market survey activities and these efforts are informing the top-level requirements, the technical risks and the cost estimates,” he said. 

The service plans to award a contract for the lead ship’s construction in the fiscal year 2022 timeframe, he added.  

A request for proposals is expected to be released soon. Gilday said more information about the effort will likely coincide with President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2022 budget proposal, which is expected to be released in May or June. 

“As part of the ‘22 budget review, we are taking a deep dive into shipbuilding,” he said. That plan is grounded in the Future Naval Force Study that was released last year. 

The intent “is to deliver a shipbuilding plan with the budget this year to the Congress,” he said. That document will shed more light on future plans for amphibious vessels, including LAW, that support Berger’s “vision for the Marine Corps to be more expeditionary in the littorals, supporting sea denial and sea control.” 

The light amphibious warships are envisioned as having a length of 200 to 400 feet, a maximum draft of 12 feet and a displacement of up to 4,000 tons, according to the CRS report, which was written by naval affairs specialist Ronald O’Rourke. It will have a transit speed of at least 14 knots and preferably 15 knots. It will be able to operate within fleet groups or deploy independently and is expected to have a 20-year service life. 

The Navy’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget requested $30 million in research-and-development funding for initial industry studies and concept design work. Congress appropriated $24 million.

Vice Adm. William Galinis, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, said the vessel’s smaller form factor compared to traditional amphibious ships could allow for more industry participation in a competition.

That “opens up the aperture in terms of the yards that would have an opportunity to build this type of platform,” he said during a Defense Writers Group meeting in November. “As we continue to evolve this concept, I can easily see a little bit of an expanded part of our industrial base” that could get the job done.

The Navy received 13 responses from firms, including nine shipyards, following an initial request for information for the program, according to the CRS report. 

“There are a lot of yards that could do this that don’t usually get an opportunity to build ships for the Navy,” Clark noted.  

On the Gulf Coast, in particular, there are a number of smaller shipyards that build vessels for the Coast Guard — such as the Fast Response Cutter or the Offshore Patrol Cutter — as well as other government customers such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he said.

For “these smaller shipyards, or non-military shipyards, ... it’s a tough business because they get these sorts of episodic orders from the government and then otherwise, they’re building ships for the Jones Act fleet domestically,” Clark said. 

The Jones Act — which refers to Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 — stipulates that ships transporting cargo from one U.S. point to another U.S. point be U.S.-built, and owned and crewed by American citizens.

The commercial fleet that is subject to Jones Act rules “just went through a big recapitalization, so that demand is going to be tailing off for about five or six years at least,” Clark said. “These shipyards could really use the additional business that would come from the light amphibious warship.” 

While larger yards may be interested as well, it may not be as economical for them to pursue the program because their overhead and infrastructure is designed around building larger, more sophisticated ships, he explained. 

The Navy may also decide to offer contracts to multiple yards due to the less complex nature of the vessel, Clark said. 

“It’s a ship that you could reasonably expect multiple yards to build, and it would be a good way to help out multiple yards that are going to be needing business,” he said.

— Additional reporting by Meredith Roaten

Topics: Navy News, Marine Corps News, Maritime Security, Shipbuilding

Comments (8)

Re: Light Amphibious Warships Face Survivability Questions

The standard combination of Phalanx and Rolling Airframe Missile would probably do the trick.

Brian Bartlett at 5:20 PM
Re: Light Amphibious Warships Face Survivability Questions

Everyone needs to read "The Utility of Force" by Gen. Rupert Smith. Modern warfare is already too expensive to fight. A rough rule of thumb...for every Infantryman calculate one million dollars per casualty, for every modern fighter aircraft calculate forty million per plane plus one million per crew member per plane lost, for every ship calculate five hundred million plus one million per crew member and for capital ships one to ten billion plus one million per crew member lost. Now think about those numbers every time someone suggests anything that might increase the loss rate.

Brian Foley at 12:47 PM
Re: Light Amphibious Warships Face Survivability Questions

Agreed. That was my first thought when I heard of the LAW.

The Mk 38 MOD 2 or MOD 3 25mm autocannon, with or without 7.62mm chaingun isn't enough to target, attack, and destroy anything that the LAW is tasked to do! The LAW is not a Coast Guard boat. The Mk 38 has no Anti-missile defense and positioned at the bow, it can't cover the beach landing.

Precision guided missiles---that is what is needed---JQL/JAGM, SeaRAM, SPIKE NLOS, Iron Dome/ AIM-9X/MML, etc. are required. Having a "gunboat" won't work in the age of Anti-Ship missiles, torpedoes, and naval bombers.

Ceneabr at 3:49 PM
Re: Light Amphibious Warships Face Survivability Questions

So if it is too unsafe to bring the large Amphibious ships close to the beach for unload and support, then how is it ok to bring in an UNARMED LAW to unload, and it have no method of response?

Curtis Conway at 12:07 PM
Re: Light Amphibious Warships Face Survivability Questions

Even if the issue of survivability could be saved, there is the matter of the operational range of the ship. The ship would need to have space for fuel and munitions for whatever weapons that it has, while also having space to hold the troops and the supplies that the troops and the crew need. Being small is going to make space optimization a headache for the designers.

Then there is the matter of offloading troops and supplies when the ship does reach its destination. Without piers and jetties (assuming that the ship makes an amphibious landing), the ship would need some means of offloading stuff quickly, if the idea is for the establishment of a beachhead.

JackWT at 6:57 AM
Re: Light Amphibious Warships Face Survivability Questions

The concept is flawed far beyond just the individual survivability of the LAWs themselves. We have some of the greatest military technology and brilliant minds in the world within the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Airforce and we still can't solve the tactical, operational, strategic and huge logistical problems (same ones the Japanese faced in the 1940s) that comes from distributive operations across the Pacific AOR. Technologies change but geography doesn't which is why most wars in human history take place on the same terrain century after century. Also why the Pacific AOR is so hard to control and protect.

First we don't have enough amphibious surface connectors to put men and equipment ashore or pull from shore back to ship rapidly without great risk to the ARG in a contested environment. We haven't got enough LCASs, LCUs or AAVs/ACVs nor the ships with the welldeck space to launch, recover, store, transport, repair and sustain them.

Second we have a false sense of confidence in our NGF, long range precision fires, Armed UAVs, EW and CEW capabilites. Some of those capabilites are still maturing while others are just not realistic in an AOR with 300-500 plus miles between island chains.

Third despite the fact that we have super fast and even stealthy fighter aircraft with cool capabilites they still need places to land or at minimum refuel and the bad guys can find our tankers and airfields to target easily making air supremacy a thing of the past against near peer adversaries like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. All of our FW/RW assault support aircraft have short legs, long maintenance cycles and need places to land and refuel. The keys to successful combat operations are communication and logistics which require supply chain security, secure connecting files and lines of communication. If we can't solve that problem the new LAWs with or without extra armorment won't matter.

And the final cherry on top is we keep assuming that we can just go into these remote islands and hold terrain with smaller units using stealth, low EM signature and hide our long range precision fires among the jungle island terrain, but we have no viable plan to resupply and support (most places mutual supporting islands is a dream) the Marines and sailors on those islands and prevent the local population on the islands from destroying them long before the enemy does.

It took the US military roughly hundreds of ships, thousands of amphibious connectors, thousands of planes and 17million men and women to take those same islands from roughly 8-9million Japanese with hundreds of ships, thousands of planes with will that took two atomic bombs to break. If we think it won't take the same to break the will of the Chinese if they dedicate themselves to war over resources and control in the pacific, we are fooling ourselves.

James McGilton at 7:17 PM
Re: Light Amphibious Warships Face Survivability Questions

Might as well armor them up and run them straight at the beaches like an LST if the plan is for them not to survive.

Maui at 10:42 AM
Re: Light Amphibious Warships Face Survivability Questions

This sounds like a slightly smaller version of a Landing Ship, Tank (LST) that the Navy decommissioned several years ago.

Michael Berry at 9:54 AM
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