Rise of the Big Honkin’ Gators!
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.