2015-03-27 By Robbin Laird
The supply side of the amphibious fleet has gone down over the past two decades.
The amphibious ship fleet inventory has been reduced by 50% over the past twenty years and will operate in the range of 28-33 ships in the foreseeable future.
The demand side on the amphibious fleet is growing and significant.
At the same time, the number of core amphibious ships is not going to significantly increase in the foreseeable future.
And this gap is opening at a time when the role of the fleet is being recast under the influence of significant impacts of technology, training, and concepts of operations changes as well.
The coming of the Osprey has dramatically affected the concepts of operations of the fleet. The operating concept has evolved and the core ships in an amphibious task force operate further away from one another as the Osprey can connect the fleet with its range and speed of operation. The concept of amphibious assault is being refined to allow for the USN-USMC team to aggregate force and to operate at initially greater distances to project power into the objective area.
With the coming of the F-35B to the large deck amphibious ships, another evolution is on the way.
The combat capability delivered from the amphibious task force goes up along with the ability to extend the range of the C2 and ISR capabilities organic to the fleet.
Enhanced C2 is crucial for the amphibious fleet in augmenting its capabilities.
As one Marine Corps source put it:
“Independent operations demand robust C4I capability to enable Command and Control across the warfighting functions and the expanding battlespace.
Fifth generation aircraft, unmanned air system payloads, and cyber engagement are rapidly expanding in capability and will require significant network, communication and spectrum agility.”
New ship types are being added which are also providing options for thinking differently with regard to operating the amphibious task force.
The Mobile Landing Platform adds a very flexible ship to enable at-sea offload of heavy equipment from Maritime Prepositioning Ships to landing craft for maneuver ashore in support of operations.
The Maritime Prepositioning Force’s T-AKE ship is a 42,000 ton supply ship which, with its elevators and ability to offload pinpoint supplies and deliver them to objectives ashore via the Opsrey.
And that capability will provide significant enhancements to the operational flexibility of the fleet as well.
The shortfall is significant as well, notably with the distributed operations unfolding in the Pacific and the significant distances involved for operations.
As Lt. General Robling, then head of the Marines in the Pacific put it:
Distance means that I need to have assets forward deployed and operational.
This means for the USMC, an ability to train with partners and allies in what you have called the strategic quadrangle.
This means an ability to have enough capable amphibious ships forward deployed to operate with those partners and allies.
Sebasing is a key element of providing persistent presence.
And amphibious ships are real part of a whole sea-basing capability and engagement capability. The amphibious requirement in the Pacific goes well beyond our support to South Korea. It is a key element in building partnership capacity and overcoming presence gaps and needs. This is why we need more platforms and more capable platforms of the sort we are building now.
Many of our partners in the region do not want us to be the Uncle that visited and never returned home. They want us engaged and present but not permanently based in their countries.
This means that seabasing and its augmentation is a fundamental requirement. When we add strategic lift aircraft, high-speed vessels or super ferries to the ARG-MEU lift equation we extend our strategic reach and significantly enhance our ability to enhance partnership capacity.
As the Navy and Marine Corps look to modernize the amphibious fleet, the team is looking at ways to provide cost effective relevant solutions moving ahead.
This means building ships which FIT the evolving concepts of operations and anticipated aviation assets, and modernization plans.
It is also the case of trying to leverage the lessons learned from the shipbuilding side of the house as well with regard to harvesting the best shipbuilding experience and leveraging that moving forward.
This is clearly the case with USMC-USN thinking with regard to the plans for replacing the 12 aging Whidbey Island/Harpers Ferry (LSD-41/49) class amphibious ships, the first of which will reach age 40 in 2025.
The plan to replace these ships would be with a new class of 11 amphibious ships – the LX(R) – with the first bought in 2020.
The Navy wants to procure the first four LX(R)s in FY2020, FY2022, FY2024, and FY2026, and the remaining seven ships at a rate of one per year during the period FY2028-FY2034.
And you have already seen the basic ship – namely the LPD-17.
The approach is to build the same hull and baseline configuration of the LX(R) based on the successful hull design of the LPD-17 class.
The ship had its difficulties at first, but those difficulties have been dealt with and the class is being built without any substantial problems.
Why not leverage the know how of building that ship with transitioning to a new build configuration of a successful ship class?
To discuss the approach to LX(R), I visited Quantico and sat down with Jim Strock, Director of Seabasing Integration, at the USMC Combat Development and Integration Command at Quantico.
Question: How did the Navy and Marine Corps end up with the current approach to building the LX(R)?
Strock: We went through the complete LXR analysis of alternatives between the summer of 2012 and the summer of 2014.
That AOA looked at replacing the LSD’s in kind with a similar sized and capable ship.
It looked at new construction designs, it looked at foreign commercial designs and it looked at the LPD 17 hull form and derivatives of that hull form.
In April of 2014, the analysis of alternatives was signed off. In October of 2014, the SECNAV, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition (ASN RD&A), the current commandant, the future commandant and the CNO signed off a decision memo agreeing to use the LPD 17 hull form to replace the dock landing ship, the LSD, and so we are now in the throes of the detailed requirements development.
Clearly, there will be some differences between the configuration of today’s LPD-17 and the LXR. And that is what the requirements development process will yield.
Question: When I visited the LPD-24 with regard to the rethink leaning forward to LXR, clearly the mast is going to change, and the team is looking to augment aviation support as well.
Could you provide some thoughts on what is envisaged?
Strock: We are looking at how to leverage the LPD 17 ship design to provide more effective operational capability. The Marine Corps position is that we will as a baseline ensure that we will not lose any of the current LPD-17 functionality and design towards enhancements. Clearly, how that functionality will be achieved is through certain changes within the ship.
Command and control is of course of increasing importance, given that the LPD-17 class often operates independently, which was not anticipated when the ship was built. Enhancements are being looked at fleet-wide as C2 is of growing salience to the deployed amphibious fleet, especially with the F-35 coming to the fleet as well.
The LPD 17 has robust medical spaces onboard so we preserved all of that. We probably will take a slight reduction in troop berthing compared to the LPD 17, but the number we settle at is far greater than what the LSD has today. The super structure, stealth mast construct will probably not be used for a variety of reasons to include that stealth mast is difficult to maintain. It will be replaced most likely by a conventional type mast.
From where we sit, today’s LSD’s are 15 to 16,000 ton ships in dead-weight tonnage. The LPD 17 is a 25,000 ton ship so your vehicle stowage capacity goes from 11 to 12,000 to 20,000 square feet. Your berthing of 408 on an LSD is going to go to 550 or greater with the LXR. Your cargo cube will be dramatically better as well.
Inside the ship, there may be changes to the propulsion and engineering plants, but that’s up to the ship designers to decide as part of a wide variety of cost reduction initiatives aimed at providing Marines a very capable ship at an affordable price.
For the Marine on the flight deck or the Marine in the well deck or the Marine in medical spaces that will be relatively transparent changes.
The basic interior configurations will be the same but they’re pretty doggone good.
You’ve been onboard and seen that the passageways are so wide and generous that two Marines carrying all their stuff can actually walk down the passageway without bumping into each other.
The most important reason that we want the LPD 17 hull form for the LSD replacement is to give us a credible ship to conduct independent operations. Today’s ARG-MEUs are operating either split or disaggregated.
What is the difference?
With regard to split, the three ships will operate within the same Area of Operation (AOR); disaggregated they will be operating in adjacent AORs.
Hence, the importance for that ship to operate independently, to have the right balance of C2, aviation, medical, vehicle square, cargo cube, vertical and surface interface capabilities to enable Marines to operate across the full range of military operations.
That’s very important.
Question: I would like to raise a final question.
When I interviewed the Captain of the USS Arlington he was adamant on the need for enhanced C2 for his ship.
Clearly, with the Osprey and F-35B combination, and the innovations in Command and Control going on at 2nd MEB, there is a clear need to provide for enhanced C2 within the amphibious fleet.
What is the thinking with regard to this requirement and challenge?
Strock: We publish annually, signed off at the 3 star level, the Afloat MAGTF C4 Required Capabilities letter, about an inch thick.
It lays out all of the afloat MAGTF C4I requirements that we need on those ships. That letter goes up to N95, and from there we go shoulder to shoulder with N95 when dealing with Navy’s budgeteers, because the Navy has Navy Blue C4 requirements on that ship as well. We work through a collaborative process called the Enhanced Naval Afloat Baseline as we build a unified resourcing plan for shipboard amphibious command and control capabilities.
In other words, do we have a deliberate, planned way ahead to incrementally build and install and fund the necessary upgrades across the entire amphibious fleet?
We do, but it will take time. For some system installations you’d have to wait until the ship goes into a 6 to 8 month yard period to have those systems installed. Do we know what needs to go on those ships? Yes. Have we worked with the OPNAV staff to plan for funding and installing those capabilities? ? Yes.
Equally important is that we’re using the same approach for planning the operational deployment of the F-35 on board amphibious ships. N95 created a formal F35 Ship Integration Council as a forum to deliberately address F-35 requirements and impacts on the fleet.
In short, we have been stressing the need to make sure at the very least when the new ships are built they are built with necessary space and weight margins to accommodate evolving C2 systems.
Also they need to be built with the necessary backbone, fiber-optic and other C2 backbones into the ship to accommodate the innovations on the way.
What actual box sits on the communications rack 10 years from now? You probably don’t want to buy that today, but you have the space and weight and backbone reservations built into the ship. Just call it open architecture, and then the requirements documentation that we have that are working through the resource sponsors, we don’t want to get into a trap that we had with LPD 17 when the San Antonio got delivered where some of the C2 systems were already outdated.
The landing force operations center, remember, used to have the desks with the clear glass tops and you had this big cathode ray tube below the glass and you are looking in this outdated TV screen with green letters. That is what the San Antonio was equipped with.
It was about seven years flash to bang between contract award and ship delivery, and by the time the ship got delivered the landing force operation center had been overtaken by an entirely different electronic environment
For two of the baseline documents explaining the USN-USMC approach to seabasing and expeditionary warfare see the following:
For previous articles on amphibious-related issues see the following:
Earlier this year, I visited the USS Arlington to get a view on how the USN-USMC team was looking to leverage the LPD-17 hull design to shape its new LXR class of ships.
The slideshow highlights some photos from that visit.
And here were the comments of the commander of LPD-24 (Commander Baker) during the Bold Alligator 2014 Exercise:
The discussions aboard the Dutch ship, naturally turned to C2 because of its role in the exercise.
But it is clear from Odyssey Dawn and the role of the USS Kearsarge and its role in that operation, that C2 enhancements are crucial for the amphibious fleet.
With a large deck amphib, like the USS America entering the fleet, and ships like the USS Arlington operating at much greater distances from other ships in the ARG-MEU, C2 is more importance now for the Gator Navy as that force transforms into an amphibious task force.
Commodore Baker was asked about this growing demand signal for enhanced C2:
We have a much more robust C2 suite than a traditional LPDs.
What does constrain me is the actually sailors we billet on board.
We have the capability to do the LHD or LHA can do, and we are prone to deploy more independently over time as we do disaggregated ops.
Question: C2 limits for the amphibious ships is butting up against the demand to use the sea base differently in doing insertion operations
How are you addressing this?
The sky is the limit.
There are initiatives we are doing to upgrade skill sets.
We have sent to schools to get skill sets to increase our capability.
We have not tapped fully the capabilities of the ship expanding the C2 capabilities of the ship.
In short, the exercise involves working with an evolving C2 capability to manage forces operating throughout key objective areas.
The presence of the Osprey allows the US and its allies to operate against longer range objective areas as well as other objective areas reachable by rotorcraft and reinforced by landing forces.
The sea base is characterized by logistical integrity meaning the insertion forces can be supported by the sea base, and it is not necessary to build forward operating bases or to land significant supplies ashore in order to prosecute missions.
The ISIS threat reminds us that leaving equipment behind — which is required for land-centric forces — can lead to the arming of one’s next adversaries.
It is a force tailored to crisis management, as opposed to having to rely on bringing significant forces ashore along with their gear in order to mount operations.