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Opinion: Choosing San Antonio for Next Generation Amphib is the Right Decision at the Right Time

A landing craft air cushion prepares to enter the well deck of landing transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19) on Oct. 27, 2014. US Navy Photo

A landing craft air cushion prepares to enter the well deck of landing transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19) on Oct. 27, 2014. US Navy Photo

Over the past several months the Navy’s requirement to replace the Whidbey Island/Harpers Ferry-class LSD amphibious warships has been debated. The San Antonio-class LPD-17 hull form was a favorite of many. Gen. James Amos—former Commandant of the Marine Corps—referred to the LPD-17 hull as “the most successful hull we have” at a Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus breakfast in April.

The platform repeatedly has proved the enormous capabilities that it brings to the warfighter. But given tight budgets there were questions about whether the LPD-17 was the best investment of limited resources.

The answer is yes.

Following an in-depth review and analysis, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus signed an internal memorandum stating that the next generation of amphibious warship LX(R), would be based on the San Antonio hull design.

This is not only the right assessment, but Mabus should be given the “Acquisition Professional of the Year” award for making a bold decision at a critical time for the future of the Navy’s shipbuilding account and increased prospects for amphibious warfare.

There are several reasons why that decision is so important for maritime security.

First is cost.

It is projected that the first of this LX(R) class will cost $1.6 billion with the follow-on platforms costing $1.4 billion.

That might sound like an enormous expenditure, but an entirely new hull it would have taken years to design and without a doubt a new hull would have increased the cost of the platform. One of the most expensive factors in ship construction is the expense of non-recurring engineering (NRE).

NRE is the onetime cost for the research, development and design and testing of a platform. NRE costs are always extremely high and in order for any manufacturer to see a return on their initial investment the program needs to be well funded or it will not be worth the capital investment.

A large percentage of the NRE cost for the LPD-17 hull has already been paid and the Navy will be saving money by staying with the same hull form.

Additionally, for years the Navy has been trying to reduce cost with the same “Type–Model–Series.” It is far less expensive for the Navy to continue building the same platform rather than design, manufacture and maintain a completely different ship class or class of ship.

Building the LX(R) class as versions of the current ship class will also significantly reduce life-cycle expenses by maintaining commonality in the mechanical and electrical equipment between the new class of ships and the San Antonios. Because of that commonality, sailors will be able to rotate among ships throughout their careers without time-consuming and expensive retraining.

The decision also sets up a very interesting scenario that would allow for even greater cost savings in the procurement of the LX(R) class. The secretary could ask the Congress for permission to continue to build the LPD-17 class with cost-savings changes that would turn the ship into the LX(R). Under that scenario he could ask the Congress for permission to build the ships in a contract structure termed Multi-Year Procurement (MYP). MYP contracts allow for leveraging the supply industrial base with option-based contracts. Those contracts incentivize suppliers to offer material and equipment at reduced pricing due to quantity. Past MYP contract structures for destroyers and submarines have reduced costs for a flight of ships up to 15 percent per vessel. That could mean over $100 million in savings per ship.

Another driving requirement that makes the San Antonio hull worth the investment is the significant capabilities the platform brings to the warfighter. The current Whidbey Island-class was built in the early 1980s and was designed to support many of the current warfare systems, but it was never envisioned as a platform for extended, independent operations or embarkation for a battle group staff. However, the San Antonio class vessels are survivable warships that support both independent and disaggregated operations and have proved over the past five years that they are more than capable of supporting the operational requirements of today and of the future. The magnificent warships can completely support a Geographic Combatant Commander across the entire spectrum of operations, whether it be a forcible entry in a major combat operation or disaster relief in humanitarian operations.

With concerns growing over the summer that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or ISIL) would overrun the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19) with her 550 Marines to the Persian Gulf to support a possible evacuation of American citizens.

With her capability to handle the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and on-board medical support facilities, she was an ideal platform for the crisis. With her unique command and control features and ability to embark a detachment of helicopters, the Commander, Fifth Fleet, selected the USS San Antonio (LPD-17) to serve as the first command ship for the counter-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden—Task Force 151.

The demand for our amphibious forces will only increase in the years to come as our defense strategy shifts to the Asia-Pacific region. Adm. Sam Locklear, commander U.S. Pacific Command, testified before Congress this year the United States doesn’t have enough amphibious warships to carry out a contested amphibious operation in the Asia Pacific region.

“I’m not the only combatant commander that desires amphibious shipping or the Marines that are on them. So there is a global competition among us as the world situation kind of moves around and the global demand signal today is greater than what we can resource,” Locklear said.

To support his testimony, the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group and 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit will return to the United States after a nine-month deployment to the 5th and 6th Fleet area of responsibility.

The deployment followed a historic ten-and-half-month deployment in 2012. Because of the shortage of the amphibious platforms, the Marine Corps has established two Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (SP-MAGTF) to support crisis operations in the Middle East and Africa.

Those forces come with a remarkable capability, but limited in scope because they must be transported by air. The task force’s major limitation is host-country support and clearance to launch the mission. As we have seen in the past, our allied partners at times can be hesitating to grant permission for certain missions. For the current Ebola crisis in West Africa, an amphibious task force could provide all the required response capabilities to support the forces ashore and provide a haven for our troops away from the infected areas, but at the current time there is no task force available to support the mission.

With the secretary of the Navy’s latest decision, the future looks brighter for meeting the requirements of our combatant commanders and warfighters for the increased demand of amphibious warships. This is only the first round in a 12-round heavyweight championship fight, but it is extremely critical for our maritime security operations worldwide and the industrial base to keep this program fully funded and on budget.

  • old guy

    Another welfare program for a ship with NO mission. Are we going in to invade Israel, Lebanon, Iran. Let’s get an LCAC carrier, which can give us some real flexibility. We need a MAJOR rethink of the Navy and Coast Guard missions.

    • Rob C.

      What else do you want them to do? Not sail ships anymore? With new Congress perhaps they can get some additional units produced. Its cheaper keep making similar hull form LPD-17s than invent a new design that will go sky high in costs.

      • old guy

        Sorry, but I must correct you on a key point. EVERY SINGLE follow-on ship of a class has cost MORE than its predecessor. It is called the Navy’s “forgetting” curve, unlike the commercial “learning curve”. This is due to the non-competitive lock the yards have on Navy business. Can you imagine if there was no competition in the auto business? Most of us would still be driving Model Ts and the sportier guys would zoom around in Stutz Bearcats.