Skip to content

Rise of the Big Honkin’ Gators!

April 13, 2010

USS New York (LPD 21).

Robert Farley who once said that the amphibious warships, “known as “gators” in the naval community”, was the “new dreadnought“, has an interesting article which contends the Russian Mistral purchase is a logical one given current world naval trends. Here he writes “Russia Joins the ‘Amphibs’ Club with French Mistral Deal“:

There is no question that the acquisition of the four amphibious warships will substantially enhance Russia’s power-projection capabilities. However, Russia is not the only state to have committed to the construction of large-deck amphibious warships. In fact, Moscow’s purchase of the Mistrals comes in the context of a global “amphibs” splurge. Big “amphibs” are trendy, and the Russians have simply decided to join the club…

Over the past 15 years, the number of amphibious warships in navies worldwide has expanded dramatically. Examples of new construction include the French Mistrals, the South Korean Dokdos, the Australian Canberras, the Dutch Rotterdams, the New Zealander Canterbury, the Japanese Osumis, and the Spanish Galicias. The Turkish navy has contracted for the construction of a new amphibious ship, intended for use in NATO peacekeeping efforts. Canada, India, Malaysia, and South Africa have all explored the possibility of acquiring “amphibs.” The British navy and the United States Navy have also expanded their amphibious fleets through construction of HMS Ocean and the Bay class by the former and San Antonio class by the latter.

I think he is mostly right, especially in this new environment which involve the need of large helicopter carrying warships, also the ability to perform beach landings in the absence of adequate port facilities. It is just an amazing capability too important to ignore. I do question whether any Navy can afford or even require very many such specialized ships, which price in excess of many billions, referring at least to USN vessels. The Marines insist they need 38, but can only afford 33 currently, and will probably have to make do with less in the near future.

The giant America class LHA-6 is a case in point. Solomon at the Snafu blog makes the case against the Navy’s newest helicopter/VSTOL gator ship:

Is the USS America really an LHD?  Its gross tonnage puts it firmly into aircraft carrier class, its capacity (aircraft) is equal to many carriers and its capability is also equal to most of the worlds full deck carriers.

The America Class LHA is no longer an amphibious assault ship and should be reclassed as an assault carrier or attack carrier…This ship is too large and perhaps specialized for modern day amphibious operations and too small to be a pure replacement for the big deck carriers.

The LHA-6, without a well deck is unsuitable for the enabler role of a mothership. A better choice would be in line with the French Mistral, that costs well below the billion-dollar pricetag. Really, almost any of the good European types or even some Asian vessels would be more suitable, but at the very least a continuance of the Makin Island LHD would be preferable, that may price closer to the America’s, but at far greater capability.


Farley describes the large amphibs as “The ultimate littoral command ship,”. If he is correct, then we shouldn’t look on these as independent platforms, but a core of capabilities that would enhance the power and presence of smaller vessels. Used in conjugation with smaller, less capable but potentially more numerous sealift vessels like the JHSV, the larger ships with their landing craft enable the smaller ships in the amphib role.

In this manner, the USN would not need very many of the very impressive, but shrinking-in-number Gators. 10 ships seem adequate, or perhaps no more than 12. For the loss of each Gator you could afford 10-JHSV. This would mean adequate funding to expand the amphibious fleet to record proportions, not seen since the 1950s, a truly adequate global fleet, not stretched thin or a target for every submarine, speedboat, or antiship ballistic missile. European navies get by with 1 or 2 large amphibs. Russia is currently planning to purchase 4 from France. Why does the USN need 30-40 highly capable but $2 billion+ command ships?

From plenty of capability, but concentrated, inflexible, and vulnerable, you would revert to still plenty of capability, but dispersed to where it is required, used more efficiently, available when it is needed. Looking at matters this way, the shrinking fleet becomes a choice rather than inevitable.


25 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 15, 2010 9:20 am

    Solomon, concerning numbers of ships, I basically use a rule which is the Navy’s own. From monitoring their own complaints of lack of assets, ships over-deployed, crews over-worked, I naturally conclude the obvious answer which is a bigger navy. When the USN deployed against a single peer foe as in the Cold War, it felt the need for a fleet of over 600 warships. Today, it is being worked harder than ever with less than half this number, as the recent CNA report pointed out:

    Since WW 2 the size of the Navy has ranged from fewer than 300 ships to more than 1,000 ships, but the forward presence and combat credibility parts of the Navy’s strategy for global preeminence have never changed.

    I disagree that capability can duplicate presence and availability. I think this is Navy spin in order to continue building the fleet they want, instead of the one we need. I think 600 is probably the bare minimum we need for a global fleet geared for sea control, and I think we can do it in the current and projected budget environment, without losing capability, in fact enhancing it!

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 15, 2010 9:00 am

    Scott wrote “The US LHAs/LHDs are about 4-5 times more expensive than the French Mistral”

    Aye Karamba! I low-balled it!

  3. Scott B. permalink
    April 15, 2010 7:03 am

    Solomon said : “What is the metric that you use when determining how many subs are needed?”

    From the March 2010 article in Navy Times posted yesterday on New Wars :

    “In the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Navy argued that a 48-attack-sub minimum is a moderate-risk force necessary to provide the roughly 10 subs that combatant commanders need on any given day.”

  4. Scott B. permalink
    April 15, 2010 6:58 am

    Mike Burleson said : “So, very usually the size and cost are closely connected.”

    That simply isn’t true, and, in fact, that’s one of the most fundamental error you’re making in your advocacy for a more affordable fleet.

    Again, if you don’t make the right observations (e.g. when said observations are dictated by the *small is beautiful* ideological mantra and disconnected from the reality), then you can’t ask the right questions.

    If you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t be able to come up with the right answers. If you don’t come up with the right answers, you cannot make the right recommendations. If you don’t make the right recommendations, you won’t solve the problems.

  5. CBD permalink
    April 15, 2010 6:37 am

    Spin to keep the LPD-17s going? Link

  6. Scott B. permalink
    April 15, 2010 6:35 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Scott, what you didn’t point out is the European LPD’s and LPH’s which are one-half to one-third cheaper than US ships are also one-half to one-third smaller in size.”

    Full Load Displacement :
    * Mistral LHD (L9013) : 21,300 tons
    * USS Makin Island (LHD-8) : 41,772 tons
    * USS America (LHA-6) : 44,854 tons

    Procurement Cost :
    * Mistral LHD (L9013) : $570 million per unit
    * USS Makin Island (LHD-8) : $2,200 million per unit
    * USS America (LHA-6) : $3,050 million per unit

    Therefore :
    a) The US LHAs/LHDs are about 2 times bigger than the French Mistral
    b) The US LHAs/LHDs are about 4-5 times more expensive than the French Mistral

  7. Scott B. permalink
    April 15, 2010 6:20 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Scott, what you didn’t point out is the European LPD’s and LPH’s which are one-half to one-third cheaper than US ships are also one-half to one-third smaller in size.”

    Full Load Displacement :
    * Johan de Witt LPD (L801) : 16,680 tons
    * USS San Antonio (LPD-17) : 24,900 tons

    Procurement Cost :
    * Johan de Witt (L801) : $370 million per unit
    * LPD-17 class : $1,857 million per unit

    Therefore :
    a) USS San Antonio is about 1.5 times bigger than Johan de Witt
    b) USS San Antonio is about 5 times more expensive than Johan de Witt

  8. B.Smitty permalink
    April 14, 2010 11:22 pm

    Mike said, “Scott, what you didn’t point out is the European LPD’s and LPH’s which are one-half to one-third cheaper than US ships are also one-half to one-third smaller in size. So, very usually the size and cost are closely connected.


    According to your warship costs page, you could buy 4.75 Johan de Witt LPDs for the price of one LPD-17. The LPD-17 isn’t twice the size of Johan de Witt, let alone almost 5 times the size.

  9. April 14, 2010 11:01 pm


    What is the metric that you use when determining how many subs are needed? At least with Amphibs there is a measuring stick.

    Can you name the metric to determine how many carriers, subs, destroyers etc are needed by the US?

    NO. You can’t. And that is the crime of this whole exercise. Numbers of 600 ship Navy, 300 ship Navy etc are tossed but except for a few platforms, no one can explain why X amount of ships are needed.

  10. CBD permalink
    April 14, 2010 3:47 pm

    Or to clarify, the BaLT/CoLT, Force Reconnaissance, MSPF, and perhaps MARSOC teams should learn to play nice with the NECC, beyond training, and be prepared to deploy in the MIO/VBSS role. The USCG is happy to volunteer their people as LEDETs and get some rare publicity for their forces, but they only have so many people.

    It’s the original purpose of the Marines to serve as the Naval Infantry/Raider force. They can task a few hundred out of several hundred thousand personnel to resume this role.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 14, 2010 3:34 pm

    Scott, what you didn’t point out is the European LPD’s and LPH’s which are one-half to one-third cheaper than US ships are also one-half to one-third smaller in size. So, very usually the size and cost are closely connected.

    The idea of the amphibious command ship is a correct one, as we see with the UK Navy, with about 100 ships, only has 3 specialized large gator vessels. The US Navy which is 3 times as large as the Royal Navy, has 10 times as many amphibious assets. But interestingly the Royal Navy which has participated in more contested beach landings since WW 2 than the US, gets by with a smaller fleet! Then she has those RFA vessels on a reserve type status, which are also good multipurpose motherships.

    I think the Europeans and Asians get it right concerning amphib warfare, in that it is a rare though still possible occurrence, and when it does happen, a few specialized ships are quite adequate for the problem. Without busting your defense budget.

  12. Scott B. permalink
    April 14, 2010 3:21 pm

    Solomon said : “We’re still pumping out submarines at a ridiculous rate and except for all out warfare (and intel/covert missions) it would seem that we’ve hit the sweet spot on numbers long ago.”

    Reducing the submarine fleet, which is what the new administration is planning to do is SUICIDAL.

  13. CBD permalink
    April 14, 2010 3:08 pm

    I like that we’re trying to figure out what sort of maritime raiding infantry force we can pull out of the NECC…while ignoring the preeminent, existing maritime raiding infantry force entirely: The Marines.

    The raison d’être of the Marine Corps is just this type of raid capability under the USN. That the issue of small boats, EOD and raiding forces under the USN is a representation of how much the USMC has come to support the operations of the US Army rather than the US Navy.

    That, together with the issue of the increasing size & mass of the Marine Corps’ equipment and the move away from light, expeditionary systems to equipment that better resembles that of the Army shows the confusion over the role of the Marines–to justify their continued existence they’ve been farmed out to fill in for the lack of available Soldiers, but in doing so they’ve begun to lose the expeditionary flavor that makes their very existence useful.

    While I favor the idea of the “Department of the Navy and Marine Corps,” they need to work together on making the NECC, Gator Navy and USMC a unified operational force. Ideally, that would mean that NECC and the USMC have common operational procedures, equipment and training. Otherwise we’ll just see NECC form into a small force that fills the role of the Marines, leaving them borrowing missions from both the Army and the Navy and lacking in unique capabilities.

  14. leesea permalink
    April 14, 2010 2:48 pm

    Solomon, having met with the new riverines and heard how they were trained and operated in Iraq, I would like you to know that “I could maybe see that if you operated on the Marine Corps model and took Infantrymen and taught them those skills but you’re not talking about that.” which is EXACTLY how the first threee RivRons were trained! By Marines at Lejuene School of Infantry and as units.

    Those NECC units have already been deployed in “force adaptive packages” combined.

    So what is so hard to understand that NECC boat units could be used for small naval raids?

    The Marines are hammers, highly skilled and fully capable of large unit assaults, let them do that. The Marines say they haven’t enough warships so let those assets focus on major operations.

    I think you would agree there are other platforms which can be used for lesser missions than forcible entry assaults? Using other platforms to perform other smaller scale missions means the more, dispersed ops that can be done using economy of force units and from cost effective platforms.

    I know the brass is pitching this “amphibs are flexible” mantra now, but I am not buying that or more accurately my tax dollars ARE buying exquisite warships for forcible entry operations unique to ONE service.

  15. April 14, 2010 2:44 pm

    Is the problem with the ship or the cost?

    If its the cost then I understand. If its with the ship then not so much. We’re still pumping out submarines at a ridiculous rate and except for all out warfare (and intel/covert missions) it would seem that we’ve hit the sweet spot on numbers long ago.

    Yet we continue to purchase them anyway. Maybe they have a better lobby than everyone else.

    Surface Navy has to get its act together. It is atrophying right before our very eyes and at this point I’d accept some tugboats with guns on them if it would mean more hulls in the water.

  16. Scott B. permalink
    April 14, 2010 2:35 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Why does the USN need 30-40 highly capable but $2 billion+ command ships?”

    You’re not asking the right questions, which is one of the reasons why you don’t come up with the right answers.

    Some of the right questions to ask are :

    1) Why does the LPD-17 cost in excess of $1.8 billion, whereas the Europeans (UK, France, Netherlands, Spain) seem to be able to produce amphibious ships for something like $400-600 million a copy ?

    2) Why has the LPD-17 program experienced a cost growth of +84% vs the initial budget and is still plagued with numerous flaws ?

    3) What does the $1 billion premium per ship paid on the LPDs by the American taxpayer bring on the table ? Is it really worth it for the American warfighter ?

    It’s only when you ask the right questions that you’ll only be able to find the root causes of the prohibitive cost overruns experienced with most recent procurement programs like LCS (+194% for LCS-1, +147% for LCS-2) or LPD-17 (+84%).

    Instead of trying to identify the root causes for these expensive failures and take the appropriate corrective actions, the reformers too often choose to ignore the problem and suggest that downsizing warships is the way to go.

    Guess what ? That’s NOT the way to go because :

    1) Downsizing will produce grossly inappropriate (war)ships that lack critical attributes for a Navy with global commitments, e.g. range, seakeeping qualities, …

    2) Downsizing won’t do anything to solve the root causes that create prohibitive cost overruns. In fact, it will only make it worse, because, on the demand side for instance, forces will try to counter the effects of downsizing with increased sophistication, which will push the costs back up.

    In fact, what the reformers don’t realize is that what they are proposing is to simply to run the excessive same software that lead to the recent shipbuilding disasters. They believe that making (war)ships smaller is automatically going to contain costs, much like re-booting the system would remove all the bugs from the software.

    In fact, what reformers don’t realize is that what they are proposing is nothing more than business as usual.

    Except that change in scale will produce even less bang for the bucks at the aggregate level (though numbers might look better on the surface) and downsized (war)ships will have so little capabilities individually that they may well fail to get the job done, or produce avoidable casualties for the American warfighters or their allies.

  17. Scott B. permalink
    April 14, 2010 1:37 pm

    leesea said : “NO MORE LPD17s nor LSDs built on that design either.”

    Well said !!!

  18. April 14, 2010 1:21 am

    Security Forces? For Raids? I could maybe see that if you operated on the Marine Corps model and took Infantrymen and taught them those skills but you’re not talking about that.

    You’re talking about a harbor or port security force and trying to transform them into a raiding party? I don’t think so.

    Riverines? Maybe. I don’t know enough about them to be able to make a judgment. What I do know is that Infantry skills are specific, specialized and would probably require a table of organization not present in the Riverine force.

    If you’re talking about peppering a target from the water…again maybe but I just don’t see how they have the manning to conduct raids against targets like pirate bases.

    That heads us back to Marines on LPD’s and LSD’s and LHD’s to get the mission done. And since we’re fighting for budget, both the Navy Amphibs and the Marines, then I suggest we get relevant for the years coming up.

    That brings us back full circle to motherships and a greater use/flexibility for the Gator Navy.

  19. leesea permalink
    April 14, 2010 12:32 am

    Solomon, there are two NECC units to draw from for naval raiding parties, the RivGroup and the MES force. I heard several NECC leaders discuss the overlap between those and the first COM NECC spoke of merging them. The former has the combat ashore experience and training similar to USMC infantry. The later has coastal boats and offshore operational exerience. The former operates boats which could be used for naval raids. BTW I am speaking of naval raids as a specific military action not just a group of units. You know ship to shore operations of limited duration and specific targets.

    We have been kicking around the major problem with NECC boat units (both here and on forum). Whenever they go somewhere the NECC units have to hitch a ride on someone else’s platform. Be it AMC airlift, or Marine amphib, or MSC NFAF or MPS ships, they are always hitching a ride. Hell an NECC training unit was even hitching a ride on the Swift In the near term the obvious answer is put them on an LSD (until the Marines want it some place else!

    So we come to a different type of ship for modern USN types to think about, the mothership. Cdr Hendrix picked a T-AKE as a mothership for his Influence Squadrons and more specifically its boat units. I don’t think that its the best platform for many physical reasons, but it is one which the USN knows. Neither the LCS or JHSV can be boat unit motherships in the fullest sense. The simply do not have the logistics support capability. Can they lift a few boats and sailors at a time sure, but not for a long deployment and surely not as a station ship/prescence operation. There are some other existing designs which might work out, but that is for the mothership thread. Motherships should NOT be an amphib type but rather a platform for logistic and operational support in a forward area. An old LSD might be converted to one, but the Marines have to give it up.

    Also NECC is a type commander. All the Navy’s ground pounder type expeditionay warfare aka suede boot sailors are assingned to it. Sturcutrally and as importantly from a funding standpoint, a single type commander brings a lot to bear on the “greater navy”. One of the most important accomplishments recently is that NECC now its own separate budget line, and its Commander can advocate for all the personnel and material it needs.

  20. April 13, 2010 10:27 pm

    Let me add a thing about the NECC.

    I don’t exactly know how to classify it. It has EOD that also assists and deploys with Special Ops, Sea Bees that operates ashore quite effectively from combat to civil operations, Intel, divers, logistics, combat camera, security forces, riverine and readiness (I read that as Headquarters Command).

    Where exactly are you going to get your raiding force in that formation? Riverine? Not exactly formed and organized to operate far from shore. EOD? They’re good with guns but do you really want your specialist to turn into grunts? Security forces? Wrong mindset and it would take them away from there reason for being.

    So again. Who are your raiders in NECC?

  21. April 13, 2010 10:17 pm

    I disagree. The NECC is a good concept but I don’t know how often I’ve seen them deployed on major warships. And on what platform would you deploy them?

    Amphibs? You’re reducing the Marines on board that can perform the same mission and more.

    Destroyers? Nope, not enough room again.

    LCS? Yeah that works but it will be a few years before we have enough in service…and their is that range thing.

    So how do you take care of issues today? Like I said the USS Ashland has demonstrated the future to perfection.

    LPD’s are capable of launching ships from of the size that we’re talking about quite easily. LPD’s are also often left to just hang around an area until needed by the Marines. Why limit them?

    The mothership role is important not only because of the stores it carries but because of its other attributes.

    With containerization, the JHSV can possess those same attributes.

    The essential thing here though is that the Amphibs and mothership concept is a must if the Navy is going to remain relevant in the post Iraq/Afghanistan world. Concentrating on the wars we’re fighting is important…so is looking into the near term future.

  22. leesea permalink
    April 13, 2010 9:35 pm

    I would add that the Mistral class of BPC is not warships per se and not singularly an amphib support ship as are some of the other ships mentioned.

    While the LSD are the most used type of the current USN amphig warship, I don’t think one is needed for smaller naval raids which could be conducted by NECC units vice Marines?

    Again I advocate for a spectrum of ship types and sizes and NO MORE LPD17s nor LSDs built on that design either.

  23. leesea permalink
    April 13, 2010 9:30 pm

    Why is it assumed that amphibious warfare ships with their wet wells are THE mothership or enabler? Why assume any highly specialized warship is the correct baseline design for *support* roles? Why assume a wet well dock system (expensive and space consuming that it is) is needed to support boat ops? Only the USN needs thos exquisite ships to lift its obsolescent LCACs IMHO.

    Mike please look at the ship types you proposed and tell me how they are to be “used in conjunction? The big decks have NO means of transferring troops or cargo to the JHSV. The JHSVs have no bow ramp to marry to a wet well stern ramp. The JHSV ramp does not mate to any part of an amphib. I guess one could put a long gangway over the side for troop debark? Otherwise its going to take many, many helo lifts and only whatever tactical equipment and cargo which are already on the JHSV.

    On the otherhand, the problem does not exist with MPS and some sealift ships.

    AND as yet there is no identified role for the JHSVs in amphibious assault, tactical sealift YES, forcible entry NO.

    Get the picture?~

  24. April 13, 2010 9:12 pm

    Hey thanks for the plug.

    As much as I would like to see Amphibs pigeon hole themselves strictly into the Assault Mission, I think you’ve hit on something big here.

    The USS Ashland is showing us the way here.

    They land Marines in North Africa, sail back out and engage pirates, sail back in to pick up the Marines and then on their way to the next port of call/landing site, they can re-engage pirates if necessary.

    Its time to turn not only the Marines on board ship into a multi-purpose force but the ships also.

    The carrying of CB-90’s is entirely plausible. There is no reason for those or other boats to be deployed from this class or the larger San Antonio class.

    Since the USS America is turning into a pure carrier why not use the deck space on the LPD’s for small boats?

    The mother ship concept is valid, the amphibs are on hand now and if they’re to be protected then this mission is a must!

  25. Jed permalink
    April 13, 2010 2:20 pm

    So what you need to make the most of this honkin big littoral warfare ships is a hovercraft that is smaller and cheaper to run the LCAC (alongside the helo’s and FireScout UAV’s of course).

    Something like diesel powered craft produced by Griffon-Hoverwork in the UK. See:

    The 8100TD is used by the Swedes, has ballistic and NBC protection and can carry a 12 tonne payload:

    The full well deck versions of the BHT150/160/180 family
    ( can carry a payload of 22.5 tonnes. Split that between extra fuel to extend the current endurance of 8 hours and a ‘modular’ arrangement for the well deck that might see a troop cabin, an AMOS120mm mortar turret, or unmanned MCM submersibles or RHIBS for boarding parties etc. Extremely flexible craft based onboard another extremely flexible ship. Just a thought…. :-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: