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The Future of Amphibious Lift Pt 1

November 9, 2009
091102-M-6539J-002

The amphibious dock landing ship Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) New York (LPD 21) has 7.5 tons of steel from the World Trade Center in her bow and will be commissioned Nov. 7 in New York City.

First of all, this ^ isn’t it

Thanks to a timely media blitz, the Navy’s newly commissioned amphibious supership the USS New York is getting much favorable attention, probably ensuring purchases of this class will continue for some time. First off, we love ships and can think of no better way to honor the fallen of 9/11 than to build a floating memorial to the courageous of New York. Wikipedia capably details her story:

7.5 short tons (6.8 t) of the steel used in the ship’s construction came from the rubble of the World Trade Center. The steel was melted down at Amite Foundry and Machine in Amite, Louisiana, to cast the ship’s bow section. It was poured into the molds on 9 September 2003, with 7 short tons (6.4 t) cast to form the ship’s “stem bar” — part of the ship’s bow. The shipyard workers reportedly treated it with “reverence usually accorded to religious relics”, gently touching it as they walked by. One worker delayed his retirement after 40 years’ work to be part of the project.

How cool is that? It is appropriate the ship is seen as a monument, since the design should go directly into a museum. Sadly, the entire LPD-17 family is more fitted for another era when missile threats were fewer and Third World adversaries were not swarming the high seas, many armed with First World weapons. However impressive the ship may look in port, fighting at sea is a different animal altogether, and the San Antonio class is an obsolete legacy of a fleet which hasn’t fought a shooting war in 70 years (except for sinking some Iranian and Iraqi “PT boats”), or conducted a major amphibious landing since 1950.

The Shrinking Fleet

The New York and her kin are a part of a $15.5 billion ship program when the Navy shipbuilding budget only runs about $13 billion annually. Originally intended as a class of 12, we will now get only 9, which further takes away from our already shrinking fleet in an age where the Navy is more important than ever.  Wiki also notes:

The (9) planned San Antonio’s will replace a total of 41 ships.

So while the Navy purposely shrinks itself building technological marvels that end up fighting against low tech enemies, China has expanded her Navy with many less costly but very capable additions. Previously the Office of Management and Budget warned the communists would exceed us in number of vessels by 2015. In the last decade alone she has surpassed us in the number of submarines, while the US Navy seems more concerned with impressing the media. Here is a recent article titled “The Chinese Navy is going blue water“:

To build a blue water navy, no expense has been spared. Earlier this year, Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie confirmed Beijing’s plan to build a new generation of large destroyers and aircraft carrier. From the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea, Chinese shipyards are running flat out. According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, “By 2010 China’s submarine force will be almost double the size of the U.S., and the entire Chinese naval fleet is projected to surpass the size of the U.S. fleet by 2015.”

 A Troubled Past

The entire class is also riddled with faults, each with its own reason but pointing to a larger problem that building smaller number of ever-more complicated warships has wrecked havoc on our shipbuilding capability. For instance:

  1. USS San Antonio-After suffering through Hurricane Katrina and shoddy construction measures, this lead vessel of the class took twice as long to build as planned, and cost twice as much as expected. Naval expert and author Norman Polmar said ” the San Antonio prob­a­bly goes down in Navy his­tory as having taken the longest time on record from being placed in commission to first deploy­meant.” On its maiden voyage, the $1.8 billion ship broke down in Bahrain with oil leaks.
  2. USS New Orleans-was delivered to the Navy incomplete and riddled with construction faults, its armament inoperable. A contract shipwright at the Mississippi shipyards would say of her “those ships will never do what they were designed to do.”

This is just touching the surface of the greatly troubled LPD-17 program. It appears when it comes to shipbuilding, the Navy expects too much on too few hulls. Admittedly, they seem to have gotten a handle on the situation, but with so many years lost, so many billions wasted, and too few ships getting built, here is a Navy on a death spiral. In wartime, we have no such luxuries to fix major construction woes in a class as has occurred with the San Antonio’s. CDR Salamander puts the LPD-17 class in perspective:

In the end, this will be a fine ship, but we are not doing things smarter, quicker, faster, better. We owe Congress and the taxpayers better. As a professional group; shame on us.

Finally, the USS New York is a beautiful, magnificent reminder of a proud Navy which has lost its way in a new era of warfare. Tomorrow, looking past all the glitz and glamor, we intend to show her the path back.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. leesea permalink
    November 20, 2009 12:13 am

    x – I was NOT referring to a LASH system. I have managed LASH ships which succesfully discharged as much as 26,000 tons of cargo. They did that in conditions similar to limitations of amphib wet wells. Your opinion about LASH is erroneous.

    In #4, I was thinking of carrying lighterage and landing craft on a clear deck Flo/Flo ship. I managed the MV American Cormorant which had 22 pieces of Army watercraft some larger than a 1600 class LCU on deck.

    The Navy refuses to think outside the box or in this instance outside the confining dimensions of a wet well dock. They have blinders on! Think how big a hovercraft the Marines could use IF they did not have to spit out the end of an wet well?

    See also Russian hovercraft for amphib assault.

  2. B.Smitty permalink
    November 10, 2009 2:42 pm

    x said, “Yes but alternatives have their shortcomings too. LASH never seems to work. And you can’t crane “stuff” very quickly; to be honest which ship’s captain would want loads much heavier than a couple of pallets swinging about near his ship’s sides. This is an operation for even calmer sea states than those required for a successful amphib’ assault. DPS doesn’t really help; it keeps the vessel in one place in 2D but as we all know the sea is a bit lumpy (technical term that.)

    One way to increase it is to have more, smaller LPDs – each with their own well deck.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 10, 2009 7:21 am

    Hudson-“the Navy has done what the power brokers in New York and New Jersey have failed to do to date at Ground Zero: build a memorial to the victims and survivors of the attack on Sept. 11, 2001”

    No argument there! As someone said, these ships will never do what they were meant to do, but at least we finally got a memorial!

  4. November 10, 2009 5:21 am

    “4-The wet well dock system represents a significant restriction in cargo discharge rates. It is a funnel through which cargo moves. Its longitudinal design and dimensions do not allow for a significant increase in cargo discharge.”

    Yes but alternatives have their shortcomings too. LASH never seems to work. And you can’t crane “stuff” very quickly; to be honest which ship’s captain would want loads much heavier than a couple of pallets swinging about near his ship’s sides. This is an operation for even calmer sea states than those required for a successful amphib’ assault. DPS doesn’t really help; it keeps the vessel in one place in 2D but as we all know the sea is a bit lumpy (technical term that.)

    Helicopters are a help but not the answer. A Brit Merlin can move 4.5 tonnes which in logistical terms is nowt. Plus there is the cost of flying time.

  5. leesea permalink
    November 9, 2009 11:48 pm

    One cannot deny that many nice features built into the LPD17 design, BUT one cannot deny their design failures as well, to wit:
    1- the LPD17 class as NO alternate system of cargo discharge. When their wet well dock system fails to operate for whatever reason (something which has already happened), there is NO OTHER means to get the cargo stowed internally off the ship. Soo I guess the Marines will just have to wait? NOT
    2-the ships are very much under armed for their size. Nothing larger than a medium caliber gun system and minimal missile systems.
    3- That these ships WILL move inshore is a fact of life. Their self-defense is inadequate for those dangerous waters.
    4-The wet well dock system represents a significant restriction in cargo discharge rates. It is a funnel through which cargo moves. Its longitudinal design and dimensions do not allow for a significant increase in cargo discharge.

    When all of the above are coupled with the ship programmatic costs, they are simply not worth the money! Exquisite warships are not needed for MIO, MSO or naval raids. Several less expensive designs already exist.

    This whole concept that by reducing the number of baseline ship designs the Navy can save ship acquistion money is bogus. Its the mulitple expensive systems, components and sub-systems installed in each class which drive up life cycle costs.

    STOP comparing naval auxiliaries to warships, its apples and oranges guys! Just as comparing cargo deadweight tonnage of freighter is to displacement tonnage of warships. While their are auxiliaries built to non-military construction rules, the USN as yet has none.

  6. Hudson permalink
    November 9, 2009 10:49 pm

    A final thought on LPD-21.

    Despite delays, the Navy has done what the power brokers in New York and New Jersey have failed to do to date at Ground Zero: build a memorial to the victims and survivors of the attack on Sept. 11, 2001–a living, fighting memorial.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 8:56 pm

    What I just said about the current amphibious fleet carrying fewer Marines reminds me of something i often point out about the large aircraft carrier. With the Navy now deploying less capable planes from their decks, and apparently suffering from a “naval fighter gap”, it proves that the vessels themselves are now more important than their primary mission as “carriers”. So with the LPD-17, you have a ship which is more symbolism than substance, increasing less able to perform its most basic function, but we just got to have them.

    This is just so frustrating.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 8:21 pm

    B. Walthrop said “As someone wiser than I told me, “Steel and empty space” is the cheapest thing that the USN can deliver.”

    Oh sure, and I often question the Navy’s decision to cancel the arsenal ship, basically a missile barge without every little accesory that the Navy thinks are essential to warship design, which instead drives up cost and reduces numbers. We could spread capabilities among many mutually-supporting vessels, instead of making every warship as self-sustaining as possible, as of they were a force unto themselves. Is this what they mean by a Navy of one?

    Concerning the LPD-17 class, here is a ship, basically meant as a troop transport, but carries a heavy missile battery and armor. All this distracts from its primary role as a transport, and raises cost. If we were to replace it with something like T-AKE, with the savings we could buy more warships to adequately defend it, and also be available for other missions. But to the Navy every warship must be a battleship.

    And Solomon, if the new amphibs are built with the Marines in mind, why do we now have sealift for less than 2 brigades at one time, when during Desert Storm we had 3 available, with 2 floating off the coast of Kuwait on ships? It seems we are paying more now for less capability. This is not about supporting the Marines but refusing to change dated theories of warfare.

  9. November 9, 2009 7:50 pm

    Hudson,
    Sorry man, I was in a hurry and copied the wrong section. I understood the manner in which you made the statement. Mea culpa.

    Why is the Navy so stuck on the number of ships?? This 313 (yes I know we’ve been down this road before) is beyond annoying. Why is it so important?

    Every other service has shrunk in size. Not because of a lack of budget but because of advancements in technology. With satellites, aircraft, submarines , the presence deficit is a mirage.

    Additionally we have to talk about proportionality. Everyone talks about the smaller size of other ships. But they fail to take into account that the LPD-17 is sized to the needs of the Marine Corps. The other navy’s have much smaller organizations and many are formed to a different standard (less armor and artillery…no individual air arm).

    Good discussion though.

  10. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 9, 2009 5:48 pm

    Sounds like he is saying there is no chance we will reach 313 ships, that the fleet will get smaller.

  11. Scott B. permalink
    November 9, 2009 5:33 pm

    Walthrop said : “The question then begged is, “If not size, what is the cost driving metric that we should be discussing in order to get to a more affordable fleet?””

    Here is something everyone should read now :

    Interview with Vice Adm. Barry McCullough, U.S. Navy’s Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Integration Of Capabilities and Resources.

  12. Scott B. permalink
    November 9, 2009 5:29 pm

    Walthrop said : “Size of the ship is not the metric that you should be watching as the primary cost driver. I don’t think anyone could credibly argue that the T-AKE is a small ship at 689 ft long, 104 feet wide, and a full load displacement of 40.5K long tons. These are big ships, and yet the acquisition cost is ~$290M. They also have a pretty affordable LCC.

    As someone wiser than I told me, “Steel and empty space” is the cheapest thing that the USN can deliver.””

    Amen to that !!!

    As I have been trying to expain Mike B. for some time now : THINK BIG, not small

  13. November 9, 2009 4:55 pm

    Yes Emma Maersk only cost $220million.

  14. B. Walthrop permalink
    November 9, 2009 4:34 pm

    Mike,

    Size of the ship is not the metric that you should be watching as the primary cost driver. I don’t think anyone could credibly argue that the T-AKE is a small ship at 689 ft long, 104 feet wide, and a full load displacement of 40.5K long tons. These are big ships, and yet the acquisition cost is ~$290M. They also have a pretty affordable LCC.

    As someone wiser than I told me, “Steel and empty space” is the cheapest thing that the USN can deliver.” The question then begged is, “If not size, what is the cost driving metric that we should be discussing in order to get to a more affordable fleet?” Again, I look forward to your thesis.

    V/R,

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 3:00 pm

    Still believe there is much quality in numbers, especially of you are a global navy, or with just a large coastline to patrol. We are using the wrong metrics to specify the ships we are building. At some point you have to balance capability with affordability. We have passed that mark long ago.

    Solomon, I just don’t think the problems with LPD-17 is a fluke. This has been ongoing with all ships, due, as I said to decreasing numbers, which limits expertise. The larger the ship, the fewer the numbers. follow the numbers and it will clarify all.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 2:56 pm

    Solomon said “With a volunteer Navy I don’t think you want it getting out that the ships they’re on are designed to be shot out from underneath them”

    As I clearly wrote in last week’s LCS column:
    “Unlike the apparent central theme of the WSJ article, I don’t see the more affordable, more relevant for low tech warfare Streetfighter as “a ship meant to die”. Of course, all warships are vulnerable to an extent, but how can we expect Congress and the public to buy something considered a “forlorn hope”? In fact, it was a vessel for ensuring others would live, the large carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious ships which we put to great risk operating close to shore in the Missile Age. and it could only perform this mission by surviving itself as much as reasonably possible.”

  17. Hudson permalink
    November 9, 2009 1:23 pm

    Solomon, I was writing in jest about missiles bouncing off the ship. I think most people recognized that. Future ships in class include USS Arlington (for the attack on the Pentagon), and USS Somerset (for Somerset County, PA, where Flight 93 went down on 9/ll. I’ve copied some additional ship class info below.

    “The heart of the ship’s defensive capability is a quick reaction Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS) that correlates sensor information, provides threat identification and evaluation, assesses own-ship defense readiness, and recommends optimal tactical defense responses against anti-ship missile and aircraft attacks in a cluttered conflict environment. Information flow will be equally state-of-the-art, as the LPD 17 is the first U.S. Navy ship to be equipped with a fiber-optic Shipboard Wide Area Network (SWAN). The SWAN connects all ship systems, combat systems, sensors, and command and control nodes with the ship’s warfighting consoles to provide the essential real-time decision-making information required for fighting the ship effectively.”

  18. November 9, 2009 12:21 pm

    During one of the actions on South Georgia in the Falklands War Royal Marines gave one Argie corvette/frigate a real kicking with hand held weapons.

    New wars are about boots on the ground. You need ships to get them there. You need ships to provide bases as well as something to assault from.

    The SA have their technical faults (some to design, some to building) but the basic design idea of a fast, spacious, large ship is sound.

  19. November 9, 2009 12:05 pm

    I knew there was a part of your theory on warships that rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t figure it out…until now…you said…

    Then you would still have a major combat unit out of action, a significant portion of your combat fleet, one not built for attrition but seemingly with the erroneous assumption that the “missiles will bounce off it” (sorry Hudson, but c’mon!).

    You’re talking about building warships for attrition? I can see the material part of that argument but the manning part is disturbing. With a volunteer Navy I don’t think you want it getting out that the ships they’re on are designed to be shot out from underneath them! Small ship are notoriously vulnerable to battle damage and that’s one of the factors that have pushed the size of ships upward. The idea that a large number of inexpensive naval ships is attractive reminds me of the arguments used by airpower theorist that were pushing the F-20 instead of the F-15. They argued that the cheaper F-20 could be mass produced while the more expensive F-15 could hardly be risked due to its costs (the same discussion is occurring in relation to the F-35)…history proved that advanced electronics, robust design and talented crews count more than sheer numbers. The same will prove true on the sea.

  20. Jed permalink
    November 9, 2009 11:32 am

    Mike said: “the entire LPD-17 family is more fitted for another era when missile threats were fewer ” – WTF ?

    Is that not the only class of LPD (at least of its size) in the world that has a reduced RCS design ? Is there not space and weight allocated to increase defensive armament from the admittedly quite paltry 42 ready to launch RAM point defence missiles ? Does she not have “off board active decoys” that can be launched from her SBROC tubes…………………

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 11:09 am

    Solomon said “The problems you list are undeniable— but are in the past”

    When you see such faulty mechanics occurring in all classes of ships, and some of their weapons, you are led to the conclusion that this is a symptom of a larger problem, building too few ships, and those overly-large and unnecessarily complicated. Even so, what then if Hurricane Katrina was combat damage during wartime? Then you would still have a major combat unit out of action, a significant portion of your combat fleet, one not built for attrition but seemingly with the erroneous assumption that the “missiles will bounce off it” (sorry Hudson, but c’mon!).

    But can faulty wielding be blamed on a hurricane?

    Alex said “how are the latter going to be deployed in meaningful numbers with all the logistics they require – if you send them in penny packets?”

    The use of a few large heavy ships are from the lessons of peacetime sailing, applying amphibious techniques learned in the heat of battle against Third World adversaries who are just no competition. We have since grown complacent and with the rising threat that cruise missiles are getting into the hands of these same Hybrid powers, how long can we expect such ideal conditions to continue?

    They won’t and we will turn to the small warships like those we used in wartime conditions. Recall that the LSTs and LSIs of the war years were ships of 1000-3000 tons deployed in “penny packets”, as you say, mass produced and we never failed to seize a beachhead.

    In contrast the giant ships which we place so much faith in are yet to be tested in the same manner.

  22. Hudson permalink
    November 9, 2009 10:41 am

    Hey, don’t knock our ship. It has Excalibur WTC steel in it. Missiles will bounce off it. It could have better self-defense and a 127mm gun to aid in shore fire if needed–the Navy is way short in that category, although part of the amphib strategy is to leap frog over the beachhead and put Marines inshore. That’s what the helos and Ospreys are for.

    As for the Chinese–yes, their all out efforts to build a blue water fleet are worrying. But you must consider that a real war would bring down both countries. Nukes would be used. It won’t be tit for tat with the Chinese winning because they have more hulls in the water. Don’t think so.

  23. November 9, 2009 9:51 am

    Solomon – could not agree more…we need more of the Albion and Bulwark class over in the UK, not less

    LPDs are brilliant for amphibious operations, we know that Mike loves UAVs and Strykers….well how are the latter going to be deployed in meaningful numbers with all the logistics they require – if you send them in penny packets? yes you need small ships for raiding, but for an amphibious assault, and especially for sea basing you need the punch and physical capability of the larger vessels. This class can launch an assault carried landing craft, LCAC, marine assault vehicles; they can carry the MBTs, the Artillery, the Lorrys, the Strykers – everything that is needed, and if you bring along a pair along with an America class – well that is a fully supported brigade landed: and whoever you are in the world a full brigade of US Marines landed = you got trouble. This just would not be possible to mount properly in the small impractical vessels which mike is often advocating.

    now this class is big, and does therefore represent a big target; and this is where you the need the ‘big escorts’ – yes corvettes/frigates are the best for most tasks but if you put in a layered defence with these ships, some destroyers and a CAP then you have a very good, not perfect, but very good shield against enemy attacks. No task group can be a ship on its own, but every ship needs its own layered defence; because it is this combination and intertwining of layers which offers the task group such strength when facing opposing powers – to wit example…Falklands War. Where mike the opposition had the premier anti-ship missile of its day, possibly still to this day, a surfeit of aircraft, and plenty of opportunity to use them – including on both Fearless and Intrepid the British LPDs deployed to land the task force

    yours sincerely

    Alex

  24. Jerry Hendrix permalink
    November 9, 2009 9:43 am

    Mike,
    I’m looking forward to your post. Although I am a big fan of the capabilities in the areas of mothership and humanitarian assistance and disaster response that the LPD-17 brings to the Navy, I think that its price tag of $1.4B is too large for those missions and the justification that we need all the stealth and survivability for forcible entry missions just doesn’t stand up in a future dominated by anti-access/area denial technologies. I’ll be logging on early tomorrow to see your thoughts.

  25. B. Walthrop permalink
    November 9, 2009 9:41 am

    I am going to have to say that I fall more in line with Solomon on this issue so far. If you think these ships are not built to fight, than I believe you are working under some fundamentally flawed assumptions.

    That VADM Bird said that the purpose of the 7th fleet is not to fight, but to dissuade others from considering taking actions to destabilize the Pacific rim is hardly surprising. That statement does not insinuate in any way that the USN is not capable of taking the fight to a wide range of potential enemies. The statement merely communicates the message to those same parties that it is our preference not to fight. PACFLT has a relatively successful history of serving as our nation’s defender, and part of that defense is smart diplomacy geared toward avoiding conflict if possible.

    As I said, I look forward to the fleshing out of your opinion, but I am less sanguine that you have started your argument from a sound foundation.

    V/R,

  26. November 9, 2009 9:17 am

    No venom yet???? Ok then allow me. The problems you list are undeniable— but are in the past and can be traced to the troubles in the region with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Also in your post you’ve focused on the first two ships which were built during this period. The other two ships of the class which are in service have been relatively trouble free (to my knowledge) and they have served admirably. The LPD-17 is the right ship at the right time. If the Navy moves toward a quasi sea control ship concept with the USS America class then this ship will be doing the heavy lifting with the amphibious forces. If distributed operations from the sea along with the mini ARG concept ever catch on then again, these ships will be the center piece.

    Your argument regarding this class of ship replacing 41 others is misleading. The Navy has been eliminating and combining classes of ships since the end of WW2. The LST went the way of the dodo with the advent of the LCAC & LHA. Does that mean that we’ve lost capability with the demise of that class of ship?? No it doesn’t. Would it make sense to bring that class of ship back to boost the number of ships in the fleet. No it wouldn’t.

    Darts can be thrown at the Navy/Marine Corps for a number of sins. This ship and its mission isn’t one of them.

  27. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 8:43 am

    Mr Walthrop, specifically the title describes tomorrow’s post more accurately. I had this in draft for a while then updated it to fit the ongoing ceremonies this past week, expanding it into two posts, so the public could get the whole story, not just the line the media and the Navy were feeding them. These ships are of very faulty construction and extremely bad strategy, not built to fight, as they themselves have admitted. They will either be 1) Not used for the purpose they are built which is to seize a defended beachhead, or 2) if so they will be early causalities in the war because they Navy has too few ships to adequately carry out such an enterprise or defend ships in a shallow water warzone.

  28. B. Walthrop permalink
    November 9, 2009 8:34 am

    Although I’m not sure you’ve titled this article correctly (Amphibious Lift vs. Amphibious Assault), I am looking forward to you prescription for the future.

    V/R,

  29. Matthew S. permalink
    November 9, 2009 8:29 am

    Wow, its such a beautiful ship too. 9 ships to replace 41, how does that work? RAM launchers that malfunction, hopefully that problem has been fixed because thats all its got. Maybe we could get the South Koreans to build us ships, they seem to be able to whip out ships easily.

  30. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 8:03 am

    I know! Pray for me…

  31. November 9, 2009 8:01 am

    Uh you do know you’ve just stepped into with this subject right?

Trackbacks

  1. The Amphibious Swarm Pt 1 « New Wars
  2. Amphibious Lift, Not Assault « New Wars
  3. The Future of Amphibious Lift Pt 2 « New Wars

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