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Amphibious Ships and the QDR

June 22, 2009
Bataan Amphibious Ready Group underway in the Atlantic Ocean.

Bataan Amphibious Ready Group underway in the Atlantic Ocean.

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.

USS San Antonio (LPD 17)

USS San Antonio (LPD 17)

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.

M80 Stiletto

M80 Stiletto

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.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 23, 2009 8:15 pm

    Very well put Solomon. I know some look at the small size of the platforms you mentioned and discount their usefulness in modern war. But by networking these ship, planes, and subs, you have a very effective and potent force, reasonably priced and fit to fight the wars of today or tomorrow. Call it surging or swarming, but the miniaturization of warfare thanks to the microchip will let us get away with building smaller platforms, that just might be effective as the much smaller force we have today.

  2. solomon permalink
    June 23, 2009 7:05 pm

    Well I wonder if the Admiral was speaking in terms of a Navy presence or a Naval Presence. Having ships sailing the “7 seas” is one thing but if you’re talking the Navy/Marine team then that “problem” has already been assessed and the problem found. Mini-ARG’s with a company sized detachment of Marines and Navy personnel along with Seawolf subs, P-3’s and DDG-51 from here to yonder. If smaller ships is the solution then scrap the DDG-51, the amphibs and the carriers. Buy Mistrals, Absalons and Fast Boat 90’s. But to be honest, I think the Admiral, while attempting to be foreward thinking is misguided. He thinks in 1980 terms when we’re in a new century. He fails to take into account the Maritime Patrol aircraft, subs, satellites and what their combined -networked if you will-capabilities bring to the table. Again the 600 ship fleet is a fantasy. Perhaps even a modern 313 ship fleet is too. Increased capability in platforms has always led to fewer of them. If Gates is wrong and Hybrid warfare isn’t the future, then our current fleet should give more than a good account of itself. I believe that it would win against a mythical future enemy that has a red flag and golden star on it.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 23, 2009 4:41 pm

    Solomon, in the Navy’s own words today they have a “presence deficit”, but they think they can change this by doing business as usual. Good luck but I don’t think so.

    Requirements Chief: Navy Has A ‘Presence Deficit’ Around The World
    (INSIDE THE NAVY 22 JUN 09) … Zachary M. Peterson

    The Navy is able to deploy ships to areas of its choosing, but the sea service has a “presence deficit” globally, which leaves commanders in regions such as Africa and South America desiring more ships to conduct various missions, Vice Adm. Barry McCullough, the Navy’s requirements chief, told lawmakers last week.
    “While the Navy can always be present persistently in areas of our choosing, we lack the capacity to be persistently present globally,” McCullough said at a Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee hearing June 16. “This creates a presence deficit, if you will, where we are unable to meet combatant commander demands.”
    The Navy currently has a fleet of 283 “battle-deployable” ships, according to the service’s Web site. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead has consistently stated future fleet plans begin with a 313-ship “floor,” or minimum number of vessels required to fulfill future mission requirements.

  4. Scott B. permalink
    June 23, 2009 3:06 pm

    Solomon said : “So instead of one LPD you make the point for 4 or 5 smaller ones?”

    Read again, carefully this time, because that’s NOT the point that was being made…

  5. solomon permalink
    June 23, 2009 2:44 pm

    So instead of one LPD you make the point for 4 or 5 smaller ones? You want the 600 ship fleet at any cost or is it your belief that quantity has a quality all its own? Kinda cold war thinking isn’t it? Your example of foreign Amphibs leaves out a very important fact. They’re a lot less capable and don’t have anywhere near the lift, the forcible entry ability or even the combat capability of our vessels. They’re built to mercantile standards, have extremely austere defense suites etc…They also don’t have the heavy lift helicopters that come with our ships and many don’t have to worry about launching AAV’s or the EFV’s of the future. If your aim is to disband the Marine Corps then say so but this backdoor attempt to do so by destroying the Gator Navy is ….unsettling. Remember the vaunted Absalon??? Its used as a OPV by some of our allies, but is definitely not an Amphibious Assault Ship! To even have it in this conversation is misleading. If we can do it better thats one thing but this is an argument that is currently made up of greener grass on the other side of the ocean and nothing more.

  6. Scott B. permalink
    June 23, 2009 6:30 am

    Mike Burleson said : “You can maintain your capability by spreading it around in numerous smaller ships, which will also ensure some will survive when the blowup at sea comes.”

    1) You don’t have to make them smaller to make them less expensive : you simply have to make them less exquisite !

    2) If (a) you trash LCS and replace it with something like an Absalon on the one hand, and (b) trash the LPD-17-based LSD(X) and replace it with a robust yet simple $750 million design, you don’t just get more amphibious-capable hulls, you also save more than $20 billion.

    Food for thought…

  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 23, 2009 6:14 am

    Distiller said: “Don’t think the size of helicopter capable Amphib assault ships could be substantially reduced.”

    If we can’t change them then scrap them. I argued before that if only 100,000 ton carriers can carry naval airpower, then the conclusion can only be they are obsolete as a concept, because they drain precious funds from other important programs, including their own aircraft! This is nowhere more revealing than with the RN’s new carriers but it is happening with the USN as well. The circle must be broken somewhere.

    Back to helicopter carriers, the Brits have a 20,000 ton version with the Japanese deploying a 10,000 ton version. The Italians San Giorgio class is 7000 tons. You can maintain your capability by spreading it around in numerous smaller ships, which will also ensure some will survive when the blowup at sea comes. That is if you are building ships to fight.

  8. Scott B. permalink
    June 23, 2009 6:11 am

    Below are some recent Gators that cost less than $750 million per unit :

    * Bay-class LSD (UK – 16,160 tons fully loaded) : £496 million for 4 ships, i.e. $204 million per unit

    * LPD-2 Johan de Witt (Holland – 16,680 tons fully loaded) : €273.5 million, i.e. $380 million per unit

    * BPC Mistral (France – 21,300 tons fully loaded) : €420 for the 3rd unit (ordered earlier this year), i.e. $580 million per unit

    * Albion-class LPD (UK, 18,500 tons deep load) : £819 million for 2 ships (+ the associated landing crafts), i.e. $675 million per unit

  9. Scott B. permalink
    June 23, 2009 5:19 am

    How to save $20+ billion :

    1) Step 1 : Trash the $460+++++ million LCS seaframe, and replace it with a $230 million Absalon-type Station Wagon :

    Savings : 55 * (460 – 230) = $12.65 billion

    2) Step 2 : Trash the $1.5++++++ billion LSD(X) based on the LPD-17 hull that people like Mr. Raymond Pritchett keep pushing for, and replace it with a robust yet simple $750 million 20,000-ton LSD design :

    Savings : 12 * (1,500 – 750) = $9.00 billion

    Total Savings (1) + (2) = $21.65 billion

  10. Distiller permalink
    June 23, 2009 4:40 am

    The ability to put fighting troops on foreign shores and sustain them through prolonged times of combat is at the very heart of U.S. military capability. Cutting that would be much more than just cutting a few ships. And though the Corps should be radically downsized, it actually should get more, not less amphib assault platforms. And it also should get more compatible and combat zone capable reinforcement & sustainment platforms.

    Don’t think the size of helicopter capable amphib assault ships could be substantially reduced. To get some weight for the 3D assault, a certain number of helicopters have to leave deck at the same time, and then more in rapid succession. Needs deck space and needs pre-flight and maneuver space. Unbundeling the 2D and 3D assault components would only result in smaller 2D platforms, not really in smaller 3D platforms. And would cost a lot in operational flexibility and might hurt the cohesion of an assault. If anything, the Makin Islands should be optimized for the rapid launch of the assault wave and be built open end till about 18 of them are in the fleet.

    For all the stuff other-than-war a handful of refurbished and modded small container ships (max 20.000ts, best as LASH carrier) classified as T-A… might be a good idea. But the fighting force has to be designed for forcible entry, otherwise it’s a waste of resources.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 22, 2009 9:56 pm

    Solomon, there are incredibly expensive warships whose main reason for being seems, as you said disaster relief and soft power missions. This is a function an auxiliary ship or a Coast Guard cutter can do. I’m all for soft power missions and showing the flag, but a Navy should be built to fight first, with everything else secondary. We build such exquisite ships because in peacetime you can fit so many capabilities more economically on a larger hull. But in wartime you don’t think economics but survival, and the more hulls you have the better your chances.

  12. solomon permalink
    June 22, 2009 7:36 pm

    Good to hear Mike…but the question remains. Outside of all out naval warfare, the Gator Navy has seen more usage than the Carrier Battle Group. Its not just the actions against the pirates but their utility when responding to natural disasters, soft power exercises like the training of foreign forces etc…with the strategy being outlined by Naval planners the Carriers should be mothballed and airgroups combined to get 90 plus airplanes per ship on a reduced fleet of say 7 active carriers with the rest in standby mode with skeleton crews. The escorts used for those carriers can act as independent strike groups and would be built around a DDG-51 acting as flagship or even those ships acting alone as a one ship- sea control ship to monitor particular areas and only being reinforced when trouble rears its head. Still my point is …Amphibs are low hanging fruit because they don’t have the advocacy group INSIDE the Navy that the other factions do. As a matter of fact to have Surface Navy Officers serve on those vessels (not sure of their exact designation) might be the problem…time to have an independent rating for Officers assigned to the Gators????

  13. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 22, 2009 7:13 pm

    Solomon, we have been having the discussion here about the carrier force! All for equal opportunity here. Going after the surface navy next week!

  14. solomon permalink
    June 22, 2009 4:04 pm

    My question is why aren’t we having this discussion about the Carrier force? If anything the Gator Navy has proven that it is more functional and perhaps more relevant than those vaunted sea going fast jet airfields. Is this bias against or a reasoned debate about the utility of this part of the fleet?

  15. Scott B. permalink
    June 22, 2009 3:04 pm

    leesea said : “The answer is NOT to reduce the hulls, it is to reduce the cost & complexity of amphib hulls.”

    In Mr. Raymond Pritchett’s world, a gator cannot cost less than $1.5 billion, while a small *mothership* cannot cost less than $700 million.

    Once you start with this kind of fallacious assumption, either you advocate building only LPD-17 and LCS at the expense of everything else (Mr Pritchett’s POV) or advocate building small ships that are supposed to cost less only because they are smaller (Mr Burleson’s POV).

    Now, if when you take some time to look around, you quickly realize that :

    1) A 6,000-ton *mothership* can be had for about $230 miilion : that’s what the Danes paid for the Absalons.

    2) A 6,000-ton frigate can be had for about $600 million : that’s what the Dutch paid for their LCF, what the Norwegians paid for their Nansens, and what the French / Italians are expecting to pay for their FREMMs.

    3) A 20,000-ton gator can be had for about $600 million : that’s what the French are going to spend for their 3rd Mistral LPD.

    Once you realize that, you quickly understand that, as leesea said, the answer is NOT to reduce the hulls, it is to reduce the cost & complexity.

  16. leesea permalink
    June 22, 2009 12:31 pm

    The answer is NOT to reduce the hulls, it is to reduce the cost & complexity of amphib hulls. Simpler less costly designs exist in other than RN foreign navies. That does NOT infere smaller ships either. There is a lot of tactcal equipment and sustainment materials to go ashore either in an assualt or after or even inland.

    There HAS to be a balance of warships for assualt and sealift ships for sustainment. Fewer of the expensive former types and more of the less costly later types.

    The problem is as stated exquisite ships. Another bigger problem is lack of proper lighterage and/or assualt craft.

    I won’t go into the whole need for forcible entry argument – too devisive.

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