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Is The U.S. Military About To Lose Its Ability To Conduct Amphibious Operations? 

Amphibious Operations
A 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Maritime Raid Force Marine engages simulated hostile targets during an amphibious insertion for sustainment training in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility, Aug. 5, 2013. The 26th MEU is a Marine Air-Ground Task Force forward deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility aboard the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group serving as a sea-based, expeditionary crisis response force capable of conducting amphibious operations across the full range of military operations.

Amphibious Operations, RIP? It appears that Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger may have told the story of how his Service needed to transform itself too well. As part of his vision for a new Marine Corps, the Commandant called for reducing the size of the Navy’s fleet of large amphibious warships and acquiring a new class of smaller, lighter vessels. 

Unfortunately, many observers, defense experts, and even some senior Pentagon officials concluded that General Berger’s modernization program required an either-or decision: either the Marines would be a force designed to operate in a high-end conflict, one reliant on light amphibious warships, or the Corps would maintain its role as a multifunctional force, the proverbial Swiss Army Knife, relying on large amphibs but in smaller numbers. 

This either-or approach is already being reflected in the Navy’s FY2023 budget submission, which proposes truncating the planned procurements of the San Antonio-class LPD 17 Flight II amphibious warship, and retiring older ships, virtually guaranteeing that the residual amphib fleet will be too small and old to adequately support operations across the entire continuum of conflict. The proposed Navy budget also could seriously damage the nation’s shipbuilding industrial base. 

In a series of memos, papers and speeches, General Berger made the case that the Marine Corps and the Navy’s fleet of amphibious warfare vessels had to be restructured and modernized in order to better support the Navy in a high-end fight with a near-peer adversary, particularly China. The Commandant argued that in an era of advanced ISR and long-range precision weapons, it was no longer possible to conduct amphibious maneuvers by massing large amphibious warships close to shore and within range of an adversary’s weapons. Hence, it made no sense to size the amphibious warfare fleet based on its ability to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs). While he did argue that there was an ongoing need for large amphibious warships, the fleet could be reduced in size from 38 ships to just 31.

In addition, General Berger made a detailed case for the acquisition of a new class of small amphibious ships, dubbed the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW). Designed specifically to support smaller, lighter Marine Corps units operating as a stand-in force (SIF), the LAW will be relatively small, light, and cheap. In order to transport the required number of small units and resupply them, the Marine Corps proposed acquiring some 35 LAWs.

While the proposed future amphibious warfare force would be markedly different from the one that exists today, with half its number consisting of small, light vessels, the Marine Corps continued to argue that it required a robust modern fleet of large amphibs. The leadership of the Marine Corps has consistently made the case for at least 31 large amphibious warships in order to meet the requirement to deploy several Amphibious Ready Groups and Marine Expeditionary Units (ARG/MEUs) simultaneously, support flexible deterrent options and, in wartime, conduct operations up to a MEB-sized landing to seize critical terrain. 

General Berger may have made the case for rethinking the role of large amphibious warships and for investing in the LAW too well. As many defense analysts argued, if large amphibious warships were particularly vulnerable and there was little chance of future conflicts requiring major amphibious operations, the number of large amphibs could be reduced further, below the target of 31. Any loss in capability could be made up by the introduction of the LAW. 

Moreover, the Marine Corps critique of large amphibious warships could not have come at a worse time. The Navy’s shipbuilding program is increasingly stressed by other demands, particularly for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). It is not entirely surprising, therefore, that the Navy’s FY2023 budget proposes it would buy one more LPD 17 for a total of just three and then shut down the line. This would also come at a time when the aging Whidbey Island class LSDs, which the LPD 17s were intended to replace, hit the end of their service lives, and are decommissioned. The Navy also wants to delay the start for the next large-deck landing helicopter assault (LHA) vessel, threatening the shipbuilding industrial base. 

At the same time, there are signs that the LAW program may be in trouble. The program had already been delayed by more than a year. Concerns regarding the survivability of a small, light vessel have been raised. Efforts to make the LAW more survivable are likely to result in skyrocketing cost increases. This could make the program unaffordable.

This is why, as stated, many in the defense establishment, which seemingly includes some in the Navy, have adopted an either-or position on amphibs. The Marine Corps can have either small amphibs or large but not both. However, the absolutist notion that large ships are vulnerable while small ships are not is fundamentally flawed. It depends on the scenario, the capabilities of the adversary, defensive operations, and tactics.

In recent months, General Berger has sought to clarify his position, arguing that the LAW would not be a substitute for large amphibs. Rather, they were complementary capabilities. He asserted that “they are not a substitute for each other because a traditional amphibious ship has all the attributes that we know and love so much over the years that a Marine Expeditionary Unit and Amphibious Ready Group have been using.”

If the decision to truncate the LPD 17 Flight II program stands, this will do serious, possibly irreparable harm to both the amphibious warfare fleet and its supporting industrial base. It will seriously impact the shipbuilding supply chain, raising costs for all the other surface warfare programs. Moreover, reconstituting the fleet and restarting production of LPD 17s, should that be necessary, will be extremely time consuming and costly.

Even as the Sea Services move forward with the LAW, they must continue to build large amphibs. The LPD 17 Flight II procurement needs to proceed as originally planned. The next LHA must be acquired in time to prevent a break in production. Interpreting Commandant Berger’s arguments narrowly and rigidly may result in the Marine Corps being saddled with an aging and obsolescing fleet of large amphibs and a LAW that is too expensive to procure in quantity. As a consequence, the U.S. military could lose a unique and vital capability to conduct operations from the sea across the spectrum of conflict. 

Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, 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. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

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.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Jimmy John Doe

    April 24, 2022 at 9:01 am

    Navy scrambling to build big ticket hi-end ships like ford carriers and nuclear subs plus naval jets while Army’s hurrying to acquire hypersonic fires amd new cannons and long-range ammo for its artillery.

    USMC have to step back and wait at the rear of the queue.

  2. Jim

    April 24, 2022 at 11:36 am

    People don’t realize that the U.S. fought the Chinese once before in this little place called North Korea back in the ’50’s. And even right now the Chinese military outnumbers our military by at least 2 to 1. And if push comes to shove, China will not play by the rules.

  3. Corey Douglas Silence

    April 24, 2022 at 3:27 pm

    It’s concerning that the Navy and the Marines have to choose either or. I think it would be better if we had a bigger military that would employ many of the young and unemployed. Though it’s debatable and many could argue this point but with a bigger military the option to train soldiers and sailors of many traits, the benefits might outweigh the risk especially these jobs that could develop into careers in the civilian world as well. It’s worth the chance with the intention of making society better, more productive, and capable of taking on the challenges of the civilian world.

    • ColdSteel1983

      April 25, 2022 at 11:20 am

      The services can’t meet their current recruiting goals due to the condition (or lack thereof) in today’s youth. Expanding the military would require further dilution of already questionable quality.

  4. Mike

    April 24, 2022 at 7:37 pm

    Sorry pal. You lost your credibility when you misspelled the Commandant’s name in the first sentence

  5. Kevin Campbell

    April 24, 2022 at 8:29 pm

    To Corey Silence. I highly doubt those unemployed would want the discipline needed for any military function. I was unable to join right after 9/11 because I had a state flag tattoo that had part of the Confederate flag on it. I was young and ready, but decided to work on power lines to serve society instead since the branches refused me for the tattoo. This was during 9/11 when I turned 18 4 days prior. Those older will not want to be manipulated and already have a set of values. Many of whom are unemployed will not be willing to put their life on the line like I do everyday. I surely wouldn’t want to be a part of Bidens schemes realizing it would be impossible to feel patriotic when people are kneeling for what you stand for.

  6. Commentar

    April 24, 2022 at 11:09 pm

    US military currently going through ‘woke’ period so marines gonna be bridesmaid to Army.

    Joke aside, LAW will be much similar to LCS. Vulnerable to galvanic corrosion, thus defense contractors must use rocket-grade composites instead of various alloys that don’t last long in seawater.

    Ships must be well compartmentalised so that initial battle damage or fire won’t sink entire vessel. The USS Bonhomme richard became scrap due to failure in this regard.

  7. Allen Brown

    April 25, 2022 at 7:19 am

    sound like the CG wants to be a Army General and do away with the Marines he go rid of their tanks and other thing, If you send them in in smaller units against a well armed and in entrenched enemy they could be cut to pieces. Whats next get rid of Marine air ?

  8. Jacksonian Libertarian

    April 25, 2022 at 3:09 pm

    I agree with the Marine Commandant.

    Amphibious operations have grown suicidal.

    Assaulting a missile defended beach means getting sunk before you ever touch land. That means you want to be the ones with missiles defending the beach. Sneaking marine missilemen into positions which the enemy must attack or avoid is the best way for marines to fight now.

    The evolution of weapons has superseded Navy surface ships, and the Admirals/Navies that refuse to adapt will not survive.

    The missions of Navy surface ships can be performed better and more cheaply by thousands of UAVs, and small cheap non-nuclear subs. What is needed is lots of small dispersed missile platforms.

    “Captains should study tactics, but Generals must study Logistics”

    The nations which can produce the most UAVs, drones, and Missiles, and train the most operators, will win wars.

  9. John Pitchlynn

    April 26, 2022 at 1:59 am

    It is time that General Berger retires. His muddled thinking is killing the Marine Corps. Shedding capability, executing change without proper staffing, test, development all based on some simulation exercises that prove absolutely nothing. The Marines are our 911 force in Readiness and they had time tested capabilities now gone because of wrong headed thinking and a General seemly more interested in making a name for himself rather than keeping the Corps ready to fight in every climb and place. The Nation is poorly served when its premier military assault force is hamstrung by this insane grasping for a doctrine in search of a mission that isn’t going to happen. We are not going to attack islands in the South China Sea and if we were we already have a time tested organization for that…the MEU and while I like the idea of smaller amphibious assault ship we sure as hell don’t need one that has a top speed of 20 to 22kts we need something a lot faster like 38 to 45 kts. And a modified LCS or a modified Austral fast attack ferry could answer the mail. So it is time for a new commandant. This one isn’t cutting it.

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