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.