SEA-AIR-SPACE NEWS: 31 Amphibious Ships are ‘Not Enough,’ Expert Says (UPDATED)
NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Despite the Navy pushing to decommission amphibious ships, Congress backed up the Marine Corps’ desire to maintain a fleet of at least 31 amphibious warships in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. However, even that number of vessels is not enough, an expert said Apr. 5.
The 2023 NDAA “changed the mission of the Navy,” FerryBridge Group managing director Bryan McGrath said during a panel discussion at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exposition. “It made the peacetime security and prosperity and the protection thereof co-equal to combat operations at sea.”
Amphibious ships can provide support in crisis response scenarios, and despite maintaining a 31-ship fleet for the last two years, the Navy and Marine Corps have missed opportunities to deploy vessels when crises arose, he said.
“31 amphibs are not enough,” he said. “We missed when [U.S. European Command] wanted amphibious ships … before the start of the Ukraine war. The commandant himself has said he wished that he had ships available to help in the Turkish earthquake. So, there’s a utility argument” for more amphibious ships.
In its fiscal year 2024 budget request, the Navy proposed reducing its amphibious fleet to 29 ships, delivering one amphibious transport dock and retiring three dock landing ships. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Expeditionary Warfare Conference in February that the service is “taking a strategic pause to take a look at the mix of large deck and small deck amphibs this year.”
Senior analyst for naval forces and weapons at the Congressional Budget Office Dr. Eric Labs said during the panel at the Sea-Air-Space exposition: “Clearly, there's a debate going on between OSD, the Navy and the Marine Corps on the size and number of the large and mid-size amphibs. OSD seems to think that we need a lot less of them because they're focused on the western Pacific, and they don't think that they need a lot for them to do that particular mission. The Marine Corps is paying attention to the fact that there [are] a lot of other things that the Navy has to do in this world today … and the Navy is kind of somewhere in between.”
And saying 31 is the fleet requirement and then funding to that requirement are “two entirely different things,” he added.
“What is Congress going to do? I think Congress has indicated in the 2023 budget that they want to continue funding [amphibious transport docks],” he said. “Whether they choose to do more money towards that prospect in 2024 or wait until 2025, I don’t know, but I feel confident — based on their own history — that they’re going to do that.”
Since 2013, Congress has added a total of $8.7 billion to the Navy’s budget that the service did not request for amphibious transport docks and assault ships, Labs said. “So, the Congress has been signaling for a decade their emphasis” on the importance of amphibious vessels.
Meanwhile, the Navy and Marine Corps are working to procure a light amphibious ship called the Landing Ship Medium. The service “envisions procuring a class of 18 to 35” ships, with delivery of the first vessel scheduled for fiscal year 2025, according to a December 2022 Congressional Research Service report. However, McGrath said he “can’t yet pin the Marine Corps down on its use case.
“When they talk about it in the fight, they talk about how it’s going to get out of the way,” which would prove extremely difficult in a real war-time situation, he said. “The lieutenant general who runs this program talks in several directions about how this [ship] is going to be used. I think a 3,500-mile range on this thing, it boggles my mind. … I think the Congress should look really carefully at it.”
While McGrath argued the sea services need more amphibious ships, when it comes to combat operations, the Marine Corps has “been less than convincing on the role of amphibs in the future fight,” said Dr. Jerry Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute.
“Joint forcible entry operations, amphibious assault, those ships are custom-made for when we come to the table — whether it's in a wargame or whether it's in a conference place,” he said. “No one has really made the sale about where that's going to happen, outside of beaches on the Korean Peninsula. No one tells me where they're going to be doing the amphibious assault into Taiwan, or how it's relevant to the European situation.
“I'm not here to tell you to get rid of amphibs,” he continued. “I'm here to tell you, tell me why they're important … so that I can figure out what the argument is.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the Congressional Research Service report as a Congressional Budget Office report.