Amphibious Ships and the QDR
The following are thoughts that began on another website, which I wanted to keep going here. As we predicted a while back, some are questioning the need for a Gator Navy of large amphibious ships in an age of increasingly austere defense budgets. The Navy Times reports than in preparation for next year’s QDR, force planners are desperately seeking new sources for cuts:
Navy and Marine Corps leaders won’t say much about the plans and programs they want in advance of the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon-wide reorientation the Defense Department is scheduled to deliver to Congress in February. Until the QDR redefines reality for the military, the service chiefs say, they won’t know how many or what kind of ships, aircraft or vehicles to buy.
But even as “we’re waiting for the QDR” has become a leitmotif for the Navy and Marine service chiefs, it also could be the beginning of a new chapter in the long-running saga of amphibious lift, one that could bring deep cuts to the gator fleet.
If you think about it, cutting the amphibious fleet is a sensible plan, if you want to build up ship numbers. Besides, as the British learned in the 1982 Falkland Islands Conflict, even a handful of Gator ships are better than none, and these, notably HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid proved very capable. What you have here essentially is “two navies“, one based on the aircraft carrier and the other on the Marine Navy, both of which needs enormous supply, support, and escort by major combatants like Aegis cruisers and destroyers. The submarines might be considered a third navy, aside from the fact they need no escorting and being all-nuclear, much less logistical support.
Who can afford two navies? There is no historical precedent for it, and the gold-plated San Antonio LPD’s are just a terrible design. Too big, too costly, shoddy construction, riddled with faults, built to fight an enemy that no longer exists (Japan, Germany, or Soviet Union, pick one). Handy perhaps, but we are building these very sophisticated, and technological wondrous warships to fight Somali pirates in speedboats, or even non-naval powers. There is no more justification for it. We can’t afford and even if we could we don’t need it. Here is what I wrote back in 2007 concerning these billion-dollar boondoggles:
First of all, the primary purpose of amphibious ships is to ferry troops from Point A to Point B, and to care for their needs while in theater. What we have here is a heavy cruiser that also carries Marines. This may explain the $350 million cost overrun.
As for the nuclear protection, wouldn’t a more likely threat be cruise missiles and mines from Third World countries, which it will doubtless operate against? Kevlar armor strategically placed, plus watertight doors should suffice, and greatly cut down on the price, perhaps allowing more storage for extra troops and their equipment.
The post also mentions “more firepower than most of the worlds frigates“. My thought is, isn’t this the purpose of frigates and destroyers (of which we soon will have 60 Arleigh Burke Aegis ships) to protect weaker vessels like amphibs? This putting all our eggs in one basket is a dangerous precedent, and was where the Aircraft Carrier was headed toward the end of the Cold War, ie. more defensive than offensive. So much was spent on protecting the flattops from the new cruise missiles at sea, with F-14 Tomcat superfighters, billion dollar anti-missile cruisers, and equally pricey Los Angeles class submarines, there was very little offensive punch left, that is until the advent of precision weapons in the 1990’s.
Summing up, the San Antonio class with so many add-ons distracts from the warship’s original purpose to carry troops, and has ballooned the cost of the program. Further, this likely is the cause of so many faults discovered in the design, thus delaying its entry into full service, and why we can only build 9 instead of the original 12.
It’s our entire naval strategy that is faulty, which gives us extremely expensive and technically complicated ships that are “not meant to fight”. Such exquisite vessels from aircraft carriers, to destroyers, to the San Antonio class amphibious ships are designed to contain traditional land powers like the Somali pirates or China in the littorals, but recent events prove our best laid plans are no longer feasible. As we have seen, these rising powers are not afraid of our giant warships as the old Soviet Navy. In recent years they have “assaulted their jailer” and since we have no small ships to hinder them, they slip through the cracks of our forward strategy based on a few massive hulls, threatening the freedom of the seas. Here’s Raymond Pritchett of Information Dissemination posting on this continuing deficit in our capability:
While the small boat pirate activity off Africa gets a lot of attention, (South America) is another area of small vessel activity that signals how the US is poorly prepared to deal with small vessel activity.
The answer to much of this is to reduce the size of our platforms. We already have the right strategy, just the type of ships we build were for another type of warfare, now gone with the Berlin Wall. Though such a drastic plan would not solve everything, it would be in keeping with the miniaturization of warfare in general, thanks to computer technology married to new weapons. By spending less on more spartan platforms, there will be more funds available for new sensors, robot vehicles, UAVs, and precision missiles. There would be more hulls in the water, spread around the globe, armed with the new weapons. It would enhance our global presence where some are declaring we are in decline. We disagree with this assessment as one that is inevitable. Ironically, smaller hulls would also give us a “lighter footprint”, a type of strategy deemed essential for containing insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. The result would be that the Navy’s favored goal of deterrence would actually be fulfilled in a new era, where it is currently crumbling around the globe, from North Korea to Africa.