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Light Amphibious Warship: A Mistake for the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy?

Light Amphibious Warship

The Marine Corps and Navy are moving aggressively to redefine how they will conduct amphibious operations and reshape their fleets of amphibious warships. Perhaps they are moving too fast. The Sea Services are conducting wargames, exercises, and experiments to validate a radically new approach to amphibious operations. However, the Navy has already awarded concept design studies for a new Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and plans to procure the first of this new class in FY2023.

This could be a costly mistake. The LAW concept may be seriously flawed both technically and operationally. The Navy has gotten itself into serious trouble whenever it moved too fast to procure new classes of warships without establishing a solid foundation for what they could look like and how they would be employed.

The desire for a new class of smaller, cheaper, and more flexible amphibious warships is a function of the Sea Services’ new vision of how to deploy and employ forces for a high-end conflict, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. Central to this new vision is the idea of distributing forces more broadly across the theater and relying more heavily on smaller formations comprised of ships connected through a battle network.

What does this mean for the Marine Corps? According to General David Berger, the Marine Corps Commandant, the new Marine Corps would be “a light, self-reliant, highly mobile naval expeditionary force postured forward in littoral areas within the adversary’s weapons engagement zone.”

Light and nimble Marine Corps ground units, difficult to track and target by nature, need to be transported by equally agile Navy vessels which also are hard to find and attack. As a result, the Sea Services decided to reduce the number of relatively large, multi-mission amphibious warfare ships and to invest in a new class of LAWs that can land small numbers of Marines, plus their equipment and supplies, across a beach.

The Sea Services have defined specific characteristics of the LAW. It needs to be between 200 and 400 feet; have a displacement of approximately 4,000 tons; accommodate some 75 Marines and a crew of no more than 40; provide 8,000 square feet of deck space for equipment; be able to carry up to 90,000 gallons of fuel; and have an unrefueled range of 3,500 NM at a transit speed of 14 knots. Another key performance requirement is the ability to move personnel and equipment ashore across a beach using a stern or bow ramp, which also dictates a maximum draft of 12 feet. The LAW would have a limited self-defense capability and Tier 2-plus survivability, meaning it could survive a hit long enough to evacuate personnel. The Navy wants all this for a price between $100 and $130 million.

Although the Marine Corps and Navy are still conducting wargames, experiments, and exercises to validate this new approach to amphibious operations, they are moving aggressively in acquiring a fleet of LAWs. The Navy recently awarded five companies concept studies contracts to flesh out the notional design.  It wants to begin procuring the LAW in FY2023 and build a fleet of up to 30 ships by FY2026.

The trouble with this acquisition strategy is that the Sea Services look like they are going all in for LAW, even though it appears to be flawed both technically and operationally. At 14 knots, LAW will be a slow ship. It would take one to two weeks to make the trip from Hawaii to the first island chain, even if it had the range. Being slow also means that if detected, it would have little chance of evading attack or, lacking adequate armaments, of defending itself. With respect to self-defense, LAW would be vulnerable to mine warfare when approaching the shore.

Supporters argue that because it is relatively small and slow, and able to use its shallow draft to land on unguarded beaches, LAW will be able to avoid detection by hiding among the great number of small cargo and fishing vessels that operate in the littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific theater. This assumes that most of these vessels will not run for cover when war breaks out.

The LAW operating concept also fails to appreciate how rapidly surveillance technologies of all kinds are proliferating in the region. Over the next decade, China may be capable of creating a robust network of surveillance assets and supporting analytics to find, fix and target ships as small as LAW. There is no worse combination of attributes when it comes to the survivability of warships than slow and visible.

It is not clear that the Navy and Marine Corps fully explored their options when they settled on LAW. One other alternative design that should have been given greater scrutiny is that for a surface effects ship (SES). An SES based on a catamaran hull would have flexible bow and stern seals to contain an air cushion between the ridge side hulls. The air cushion displaces the water between the hulls, thus increasing hull clearance and reducing draft and wetted areas. Consequently, the SES possesses high speed, very good seakeeping in waves, and remarkable mobility. Its extremely shallow draft reduces vulnerability to sea mines.

Many SESs are in commercial service worldwide. The Office of Naval Research ran a demonstration program in the early 2000 named Sea Coaster to explore the utility of a high-speed surface effects catamaran as a logistics connector.

High speed and maneuverability can both contribute significantly to survivability. An SES of approximately the same size and weight as the proposed LAW could carry the same amount of cargo over the same distance. But it would be able to do so much faster: more than 20 knots of transit speed and up to 45 knots when driving towards a landing zone. This is an additional force multiplier, whether the vessel would be landing marines, resupplying them, or rapidly exfiltrating a unit. Moreover, having an extremely shallow draft means the SES could land at many more types of beaches than the current LAW design would allow. It would not have the challenges of backing up to the shore and grounding itself in the sand.

It is fine for the Sea Services to acquire a few LAWs based on the existing requirements with which to experiment. But before undertaking a full acquisition program for a ship that appears to have significant drawbacks, they should take the time to consider other options. And they should not back out of their commitment to our tried and true big deck amphibious warships.

Dr. Daniel Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.

Written By

Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Slack

    July 23, 2021 at 9:00 pm

    These ships (LAWs) could turn out to be potentially floating death traps as they could be easily spotted by fishermen on the high seas and then quickly marked for targeting.

    Also, these ships can be easily sunk by rogue waves, waves tall as buildings created when a body of warm water rams into another body of cold water. These waves can flip a LAW measuring only a coupla hundred feet long onto its side in minutes or even seconds without anyone getting the wiser.

    To make the LAW lightweight and keep costs down (maximise profits), contractors will be tempted to use aluminum and other lightweight metals. This will be like constructing a 200-feet sized capacitor which wheen put into seawater will cause electrons in the metal to start moving eventually causing structural disintegration.

    Thus the LAW will be a floatting death trap.

  2. James Spangler

    July 23, 2021 at 9:03 pm

    “This assumes that most of these vessels will not run for cover when war breaks out.”

    At 14 knots WHERE ARE THEY GOING TO RUN TO???

    I swear man this is beginning to prove that that ONE CHINAMAN who bundled all that cash for Bill, “I feel your pain” Clinton was a Chinese COMMIE PlANT to buy US politicians who would then back and help promote career bureaucratics/military personnel who would then support and advocate for programs that would lower US defensive strength (gee, let’s replace the F-16, F-15 and A-10 Warthogs with UNPROVEN, overpriced and crappy F-35’s) and make it easier for a low tech adversary with massive amounts of manpower to defeat the US military long enough to achieve a POLITICAL solution allows said (Communist Chinese) government to become a World class superpower.

  3. FRAZIER STALL

    July 23, 2021 at 10:15 pm

    These ‘Light Amphibious Warships’ sail no faster than a fisherman’s sampan. Such vessels are only suitable for the Persian Gulf, maybe the Mediterranean, Aegean and caribbean waters. In the seas off china’s coasts, using these ships would be like wanting to commit suicide.

    A better option would be copters with propellers at the rear which can travel over 300 mph and fitted with inflatable floatation collars for landing near coasts but these would be only for SEAL Team 6 and their il’ke or type.

  4. Carlton Meyer

    July 23, 2021 at 11:53 pm

    The LAW is far better than a massive deep draft $2 billion LPDs the Navy is now buying. Losing an LAW is a tenth the loss of one LPD.

    http://www.g2mil.com/Devo-Amphibs.htm

    An LAW is a far smaller target and far less attractive for $3 million anti-ship missiles that are limited in numbers. Moreover, they are difficult to sink if not full of explosive aviation fuel and don’t need $100 million connectors like the LCACs or V-22s or CH-53s to move stuff ashore.

  5. Jeff Steinbock

    July 24, 2021 at 11:31 am

    These LAWs are a paradigm shift. They don’t need to be fast or very survivable… They are essentially convenient and flexible mobile FOBs for the Marines. You park one if these on a small island where the Marines set up a self defense network against ships and aircraft and drones and create your own standoff threat. All while having your own landing pad, galley, berthing, fuel, armory and maintenance shop and supplies a few steps away. Pick up and move to another island if you want…These LAWs are 1/200th the cost of an LPD and about the cost of an F-35, but instead of 1 pilot,you have 75 Navy/Marines.

  6. Jeffrey A Mielchen

    July 24, 2021 at 12:06 pm

    The military should absolutely look at all options when it comes to LAWs! Especially SECs! “Speed kills” we should want our soldiers and all equipment to reach point B, from point As fast as possible, with the highest survivability rate we could achieve! Focusing on self defense and mine defense! We just cannot afford to rely on hiding amongst fishing ships! China’s PLAN employs hundreds of these fishing ships with their own soldiers and militia blending in with ordinary fisherman, reporting back locations, directions and activities.
    The challenge of competing against near peer Adversaries will be equal or greater technologies, equipment, training etc. We have to give all our soldiers and supporting actors the best chance to be competitive and ultimately win the logistics game! We have the best men an women we can’t let equipment slow them down in any aspect.
    The pacific theater will be the most challenging, As it usually is. But can be won. If it will end up where we face a PLAN and it’s allies. And if so The LAWs will play a critical role! And I pray the men and women in charge will continue to give our warfighers the best weapons and equipment..

  7. Slack

    July 24, 2021 at 7:52 pm

    Dr Goure is right when he says having a few LAWs (to test them out) is fine but acquiring a whole bunch of them to save some pennies on the buck is simply extremely foolish and the height of folly.

    China has a fishing fleet of between 10,000 to 17,000 vessels (depending on who you want to believe) and its UAV fleet is nothing to sneeze it.

    LAWs sailing at a pedestrian pace are’nt going to arrive in one piece.

  8. Tom D

    July 24, 2021 at 8:25 pm

    As a retired Surface Warfare Officer I am not surprised the Navy has incorrectly assessed its future war fighting needs. It baffles me why the Navy continues too fail at what should be its core warfighting capability. The first near peer engagement the Navy has will be very painful.

  9. Dave Bergeron

    July 25, 2021 at 9:17 am

    Navy used to have a smaller more capable amphib that could meet their projected needs until they either sunk, scrapped or sold them off…. NEWPORT CLASS LSTs…. Even B-52s had a problem trying to find them

  10. Clifford Nelson

    July 25, 2021 at 11:08 am

    Somebody forgot to tell the Marines that 75 men is only enough for a commando raid, and a slow one at that at only 14 knots. If the Chinese have an island it will have an awful lot more than 75 men on, and they will have radar and will see the ship coming, and missiles that can take out the ship. Another amazingly stupid idea. And the marines plan to no longer even have any heavy weapons, which the Chinese troops will have in abundance, and maybe a few armored vehicles. This is too stupid…some greedy company much be planning to fleece the government again.

  11. John D

    July 25, 2021 at 4:10 pm

    I’m a former SWO and I think you are missing the point of the LAW. They aren’t supposed to travel from Hawaii to the first island chain. The reason we want 30 is to have at least 10 hopping from island to island in the 1st island chain in peace times-not just when the bubble goes up. That way they are hiding among island traffic when all the civilian ships are at sea. If tensions between the US & PRC increase and all the civilian ship head to shore so will the 10 to 15 LAWs who are already on station fully armed and trained. These LAWs will still be hiding among the traffic. That means every vessel that heads to shore is potentially carrying a USMC truck with anti-ship missiles. Consider the PRC targeting problem at that point. “Sir, 15,000 vessels traveling 14 knots just beat feet for the shore – 10 of them have anti ship missiles which they will place on land and drive around whatever island they are on. We think we have an ID on 7 of them.

  12. Lsi

    July 26, 2021 at 7:08 am

    Sounds like somebody in the Navy/Marines is already looking forward to our next Asian war. Will we never learn? We are NOT the world’s policeman. Build ships to protect the USA. Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Vietnam and Indonesia can deal with the Chinese in the Pacific.

  13. Tony Miller

    July 26, 2021 at 10:10 am

    Don’t forget, the NAVSEA mafia will design this ship to “COMMERCIAL STANDARDS” so it will save money on both ends. On the front end – Easier and cheaper to build. On the back end – The only GQ drill required to practice is ‘Abandon Ship’ drills. Someone commented on another article touting this great decision that it is “an attritable ship.” Does that mean “EXPENDABLE” ship? Jack up the SGLI and give good talking points the PAO and CACO for the parents and widows/widowers.
    Just maybe, history should be studied to see what the requirement for light and agile Marines was in 1944. The VCNO had a large number of Destroyer Escorts converted to Crosley-class High Speed Transports (APDs) back then. Maybe that could be a reasonable historically and operationally proven starting point for designing what’s needed today.

  14. Randall Harvey

    July 26, 2021 at 11:48 am

    The writer did a terrible job of referencing the “New Design” of the LAW and why the consideration. No compare and Contrast to the ESB or JHSV…Why are the Marines/Navy contemplating this vessel as they just sunk (Pun intended) hundreds of millions into the JHSV that currently can’t take it’s combat load of 600 tons at 23 knots in anything over Sea State 2. Why would the Navy consider a Older/Updated design vessel with half the speed of the current design requirement and a unstated cargo load? Regurgitating information, clearly not understood.
    Semper Fi

  15. ngatimozart

    July 27, 2021 at 5:08 am

    @Clifford Nelson It’s not about a division of marines undertaking a full on beach assault on some remote Pacific island that a deaf fulla in Beijing can hear without the benefit of modern technology. It’s about a small group of marines moving between locations utilising truck mounted anti ship missiles to achieve A2/AD forcing the PLAN to alter its plans. Small mobile units like this are difficult to locate and destroy with preplanned strikes by the PLA-RF, PLAAF, PLAN, or PLANAF.

    Once the missiles are fired they move on to the next location and either do the same or perform another mission. This is about forcing the enemy to react to you, complicating their freedom of action. It is something that the USMC is made for and now technology has given them the tools for the job.

  16. Wayne Arrington

    July 28, 2021 at 7:35 am

    Sounds about like a new iteration of the WWII LST, landing ship tank, derisively referred to by their crew as Large Slow Targets. Still, they did a fine job.

  17. Andy

    July 28, 2021 at 9:57 am

    I get having a smaller unit than LPD and even smaller than a Newport LST. That said, there are many LST types available among the allies. Justt buy one and go. Design it to carry a company with self defense. You won’t hit 20 knots under 400 feet but you could shoot for 18. Still a good enough design for a blue water navy. No need for connectors although a helo deck preferred.

  18. Brian Foley

    July 28, 2021 at 11:03 am

    If the discussion were about one or the other, than I could see reason to discuss the merits…but it isn’t about one or the other, it’s about Does the Navy pivot away from large Amphibs and collect a batch of smaller Amphibs for the work the larger ones aren’t really needed for ?
    The Navy, as long as there’s at least two Marine Divisions, is goig to want to maintain larger Amphibs…just in case someone gets really crazy and wants to do a “Iwo Jima or Inchon” style amphibious assault. The probability of that happening are so remote as to be something only a Play Station owner would contemplate…but we’ve done dumber things. So as long as the military maintains a Marine Corps there will be large Amphibious ships.

  19. Brian Baker

    July 28, 2021 at 11:53 am

    You’d think the Navy would have learned its lessons from the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS): too small, lacks range, lacks self-defense.

  20. GEORGE AVERY

    July 28, 2021 at 12:33 pm

    If they want one, Seas Systems Command should be able to produce a design quick – just dust off the prints for the Second World War’s Landing Ship – Infantry (LSI), upgrade the electronics, replace the four manual Bofors 40 with Phalanx and RIM-116 systems and Voila! You meet the specification, and with a larger troop capacity (the WW2 LSIs carried about 200 men – basically a full company of troops) than the specification. With some modern engines, you could probably get the speed up a couple knots more than the original as well.

    The problem with the specification is that it specifies too small a capacity of troops to be useful. There certainly IS a need for smaller ships in the Gator Navy, and ships that can deliver directly to the beach (the USS America didn’t even include a well-deck – it was obviously an attempt by the navy to sneak into the budget a light aircraft carrier politically disguised as an amphibious assault ship). Not every ‘phib needs to carry a full battalion or regiment, and not every ‘phib needs to be a V/STOL capable carrier. There are arguments for distributing the load across more platforms, if only to ensure that loss of any ship results in less attrition to the capability of a landing force or sealift capability. The LAW concept, with the ship carrying barely more than a platoon, however, is TOO small. In a practical sense, only a special operations boat would be useful with such a small troop capacity, and a OMFG-type special ops/SSGN submarine is probably better for most such missions (such as the WW2 Makin raid, which also delivered Marine raiders by submarine).

    A company sized LSI makes more sense than a smaller one even given proposed changes in USMC doctrine, as a company-sized force is the smallest likely to be effective in the task of taking small islands and using ASMs from them to interdict sea lanes. Going smaller would likely require MORE sealift platforms, which means more crew, as the crew size differences between a 75 troop capacity and 200 troop capacity LSI would be negligible. The argument that the ships would be too small for self defense is probably a straw man, as it is unlikely they would ever act without an escort – and with modern Phalanx and RIM-116 systems individual ships would have a reasonable point defense capability, one as capable if not more so that a Littoral Combat Ship.

    The complaints about a 15 knot speed specification may also be a strawman, particularly when compared to other current US light amphibious ships. The US Army Transportation Command’s Runnymede-class Large Landing Craft (with a capacity of 5 M1A1 MBTs or 20 containers) only makes 12 knots, as does the larger Besson-class LSVs. The Puller-class Expeditionary Mobile Bases have a company-sized complement and a speed of around 15 knots. Similar foreign ships, such as the Indian Navy’s Shahir-class LST or the Russian Ropucha-class landing ship, also operate at speeds of 15-18 knots.

  21. Dan Mullock

    July 28, 2021 at 2:04 pm

    Andy, you summarize very well what others are saying. Mr. Goure thinks the idea is bad largely because 14 knots is too slow. So build them to do 18+. And yes, they are not designed to fight on water. They are a truck and an RV for a forward island operating location, not a battleship. The LCS was built to be the fastest warship around. How did that idea work out?

  22. Brad

    July 28, 2021 at 6:40 pm

    Capability is always a rock/paper/scissors trade off between mobility, protection, and cost.

    You want your ship to cruise at 20 kts? Okay, it’ll cost $200M a copy instead of $100M. And you’ll get half the number you need to employ them effectively.

  23. Big damage dave

    July 28, 2021 at 8:01 pm

    I cannot help but think that the only people who could think this is a bad idea are those with a financial interest in building the super expensive LPD which is the actual death trap in any modern conflict.

    If this is beyond people then I dont know what they are doing here…but allow me to explain: Modern, long range, precise, fast weapons are able to penetrate out defenses at great range. These weapons however are few and expensive.

    The only option we have is io dis aggregate our forces into smaller units and ships so they cannot all be destroyed by a single high tech weapon.

    Nothing is more important than excepting this new reality of warfare. The LPD and massive ships like it are dinosaurs of age that has passed us by. Let it go

  24. siempre

    July 29, 2021 at 12:56 am

    Distributed light forces carried into combat to engage in unsupported encounter battles.
    Is this 1966 and Vietnam?
    It is criminal of military leaders to repeat a losing concept.

  25. TMark

    July 29, 2021 at 2:54 pm

    The comments here have such extremely varied criticisms because because each is drawn from outdated perspectives of what littoral strategy requires. Some think they’re watching an Iwo Jima reenactment (beach storming) and demand a ship that fits there. Others think of a sea control ship contaminated with inconvenient Marines getting in the way of naval armaments. (Hilariously, some propose designs in which hundreds of Marines go without room for berthing, messing, even showers.) Still others think it’s a combat vessel first, logistics last. And lastly, nearly everyone thinks it’s meant for an already triggered hot war. All comments see only steel-on-steel warfare. The LAW concept is none of these and was never intended to be. The LAW is a utility vessel first, a pre-war vessel second, and an ally seeker third.

    As China expands its influence south into areas of the South China Sea and beyond, the U.S. finds itself lacking allies and basing there. Nothing deters Beijing more than having to target and fight forces of TWO nations, thus alarming the globe. Problem is, those Southeast Asian nations don’t welcome massive U.S. capital ships that dwarf their smaller flagships during port visits and exercises. But they would welcome a LAW and cross-train on it. The LAW is a door opener to new alliances and basing in SE Asia, and containing China’s excessive claims.

    Then, as tensions rise, the LAW is a PRE-war utility vessel invited by new allies to preposition Marines ashore, thus putting China in the unenviable position of either attacking TWO nations (one a nuclear superpower) or folding their ambitions and accepting deterrence. The secondary objective of debarked Marines is to expand the Navy’s missile options ashore at strategic locations. China can target a vessel with one nation’s flag, but targeting land with TWO flags flying invites global complications.

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