Home » Budget Industry » Navy, Marine Corps Considering Adding Vertical Launch System to San Antonio Amphibs


Navy, Marine Corps Considering Adding Vertical Launch System to San Antonio Amphibs

2003 Artist's concept of the San Antonio Class amphibious transport dock ships firing a missile from a vertical launch system in the ship's bow. US Navy Image

2003 Artist’s concept of the San Antonio Class amphibious transport dock ships firing a missile from a vertical launch system in the ship’s bow. US Navy Image

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The Navy and the Marine Corps are studying installing a vertical launch system in its San Antonio class of amphibious warships that would allow the ships to field larger offensive missiles, service officials told USNI News this week.

The director of expeditionary warfare in the chief of naval operation’s office (OPNAV N95) told USNI News on Thursday both services were studying installing the VLS systems but that at the moment there was no program of record to back fit the capability into the hulls.

“It’s certainly an asset we’d like to have,” Marine Maj. Gen. Chris Owens told USNI News during the NDIA Expeditionary Warfare Conference in Portsmouth.
“We are exploring that to see how much it would cost and see what the tradeoffs might be but certainly it would be in line with the concept of distributed lethality and advanced expeditionary operations in a sea control environment.”

The original concept for the San Antonio class included two 8-cell Mk 41 VLS in the bow of the ship. The VLS system was cut during development of first-in-class USS San Antonio (LPD-17) but USNI News understands within the last six months there’s been renewed interest in bringing the capability back to the class in both services. Currently, the only missiles aboard the LPDs are part of the ship’s defensive SeaRam close-in weapon system.

“This is all in the Navy’s lane but we’re trying to have that discussion with them.
We’ve always had the discussion of getting longer-range surface fire support,” Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC), told USNI News on Tuesday at the conference.

USS New Orleans (LPD-18) on May 5, 2016. US Navy Photo

USS New Orleans (LPD-18) on May 5, 2016. US Navy Photo

The move could provide Marines ashore more options for fire support from the sea, a capability the Marine Corps has long wanted from the Navy since the final retirement of the four Iowa-class battleships in the 1990s. The Zumwalt-class of guided missile destroyers (DDG-1000) was intended to fill in the naval surface fire support gap with its 155 mm Advanced Gun System firing the Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) but the class was cut to three ships. Other efforts to field long-range guided rounds to be fired from the services 5-inch guns on its destroyers and cruisers capable of providing surface fire support either stalled or were canceled.

There is promise in using the hyper velocity projectiles (HVP) developed for the service’s electromagnetic railgun from 5-inch guns as a long range guided round suitable for several roles – including naval surface fire support – but testing to integrate the rounds aboard warships could take more than a decade, USNI News understands.

At a minimum, 16 cells on an LPD could give a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group space to add Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles that could support Marines ashore with little modification to the amphib’s combat system.

Additional types of missiles that could fit in the Mk 41s – like the anti-air Standard Missiles and the Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM) – would likely require more work and may need more sensors and more money to work on the LPDs.

However, according to Walsh, both services are examining a host of possibilities.

“It may be a Tomahawk capability — whatever capability you could put into those tubes we’re looking at,” he said.

  • Uncle Mike

    TLAM as NGFS makes as much sense as F-35 for CAS.

    • John Locke

      …..but, but the modeling and sim lab says it looks great!!

      • draeger24

        yep….the engineers need a reality check….

    • draeger24

      EXACTLY……a 4million dollar missile to take out a couple of trucks or machine gun nest….

      • muzzleloader

        No, but it would give an added asset in theatre without deploying a DDG or CG or SSGN.

        • draeger24

          yes, but what is their mission….not a TLAM carrier…they support the Marines.

          • muzzleloader

            Read the reply of Marjus Plaku below. He says it all brilliantly.

          • draeger24

            not really….if the ARG has to standoff that far, then they have to get something with decent range, and we are back to the 4million bucks for a TLAM to take out a truck park. You have to understand that the ARG may or may not have supporting arms i.e. CRU-DES asset (they should, but historically have not). Marjus is saying that you will have 92-192 missiles…well, that means they are GRIFFINS or HELLFIRES, the latter being 100k a piece. They don’t have area suppression capability, only surgical strike. They can’t do illum or smoke missions. The 5in 54 can do all those things at a fraction of the cost and have more rounds. I will agree that the 30mm is unsuited – should be a 54mm. Marjus is also hoping for assets that may be many hours away and may not be available. Decisions need to be made on reality in lessons-learned. For instance, in Somalia (after the TF RANGER disaster), there were no CRU-DES assets that went with both our MARG and West Coast ARG-B – just us. It wasn’t until the AMERICA came in to relieve us that CRU-DES and the airwing were available. They wouldn’t let the AC-130 fly that was sitting in Kenya! It was politics that played a part in that, to be sure. My point is that VLS sounds cool, but it isn’t flexible, it is far too expensive, and it doesn’t support the Marines in the way that they need to be supported.

    • DaSaint

      Maybe, but install the 16 VLS first, figure it out later. At minimum, 64 ESSM improves the AAW capability of the ship, complementing SeaRAM. The flexibility is there for any number of possibilities, just install the capability first.

      • Uncle Mike

        No, the platforms and systems follow the mission and concept of operations, not the other way around. This is how we get requirements creep, cost overruns, and ship classes with 3 hulls. If TLAM is the right weapon to support this mission, then fine. But don’t slap anything on anything and hope to figure it out later. You’ll wind up with not enough of what you actually do need. We do not live in a world of infinite resources, so choices must be made.

        • kpb80

          You are right that TLAM does not make sense for NGFS. However, the San Antonios are frequently deployed in areas where extra TLAMs against inland targets could be useful. Of course, San Antonios are usually accompanied by 1+ DDG/CG escort for AAW support, so the extra tubes may be unnecessary.

          I think the ESSM would be a good fit for San Antonio. It’s a shame that adding it would require “more modifications” than just TLAM. If it’s a control issue, I wonder if a San Antonio could fire using data-link targeting from a “sensor” platform like an AEGIS combatant or even an E-2 Hawkeye to control the ESSM.

  • Adding VLS to the San Antonio class LPD would turn the class of ships into a version of the Absalon-class support ship that the Royal Danish Navy has. It would make sense if we follow the Royal Danish Navy and use the Absalon class Support ship as a basis to as weapons on the San Antonio class LPD.

    • Koverpd

      Ultimately it’s Stanflex USN should be looking for.

      • Secundius

        I agree, the “Stanflex” Modular Containers is the way to go. Smaller and Lighter, and “Easier” to Maneuver Aboard Ship. A Full-Ladened “TEU” (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) can weigh as much as ~67,200-pounds. Thirty-three tons is a “Wee-Bit” Heavy in Sea State of 5 or Greater. And Most Modular Weapon Systems use the Stanflex Containers (Plug-N-Play)…

        • James Milliken

          The 20′ support containers on LCS are limited to 7000kg

          • Secundius

            LCS’s were designed to use High-Cubed TEU’s have a Dry weight ~3,060kg and a Wet Weight ~41,729.35kg. Maximum Cargo Capacity is ~38,669.32kg…

          • James Milliken

            The 20 foot cubes in the LCS interface control document are not high cubes and are to weigh inside the weight I defined, support type 1 modules. Yes, an intermodal container could weigh much more, but not for LCS. The entire design is only to carry 105 metric tons cargo. The weight limit on the Moticon on the Independence variant is 12750kg 28109lb.

          • Secundius

            Deck height of Cargo Deck is ~14.7-feet, High Cube ar only 9.5-feet in height…

          • James Milliken

            The clearance for the aviation modules is about 15.4 feet and the sea type modules is 15.75. In the Freedom design they stack the regular height cubes 2 high in the hangar so they at least have 17 foot clearance.

          • Secundius

            “Independence” is the Only “LCS” with an Inter Deck Cargo Elevator. So why are you Loading the Vessel by way of the Hanger Deck…

          • James Milliken

            Go look up hangar pictures from the ship.

      • They should have talked to the Royal Danish Navy on that the STANFLEX system

        • Secundius

          @ Nicky.

          You “Might” be interested to know that the LCS-4, USS Coronado, has mounted Two Twin Mk.141 Lightweight “Harpoon” Missile Launchers. Just behind the 57mm Bofors Gun Mount and the Superstructure on the Forward Deck. Whether this is a “Coronado” Exclusive is unknown…

  • Keith Jones

    Gives each ship the equivalent of a single salvo from an Iowa class Battleship. The accuracy of the Tomahawk actually makes it equivalent to several salvos. Who would turn down that kind of dedicated fire support ?

  • Bailey Zhang

    Great, hope not ESSM but ESSM block2

  • B.J. Blazkowicz

    The Navy just realized they don’t have money for new Destroyers and Cruisers. So they may as well give the San Antonio their VLS systems that were never installed.

    • DaSaint

      Agreed. The cost to install 16 VLS, capable of a mix of SM2s, Tomahawks, and ESSMs makes perfect sense to me. Distributed lethality. Everything is connected via network, so install the damn cells, and figure out what to put in them later.

  • BMCDawgg

    Next up, Navy/Marines looking into putting Well Deck in USS America…Oh, the decision makers really make me laugh!! SMH.

  • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

    No harm getting some Mk48 vls on these large vessels.
    The Danes did this to considerable success.

    • draeger24

      no harm? We don’t have the money….The national debt is 19.5 TRILLION….

      • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

        Aah…. I see…
        best not spend any money anywhere then!
        Sorted.

        • draeger24

          no….but we have to be a bit more judicious with what is the real mission, and an amphib with expensive missiles are good for what a destroyer does, but not what the Marines need.

          • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

            Don’t wuss out Sandy!
            19trn in the hock!
            Not spending some millions on enhancing a $1.6bn troop ferry won’t cut the mustard.
            Think of the debt!
            No more spending!

    • John Locke

      What country did Denmark recently invade to test this capability?

      • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

        Does a test of a defensive weapon require the offensive invasion of another nation?

        Bizarre logic there Johnny.

        • draeger24

          one of the primary missions of the ARG is a forced entry for a NEO, and VLS vice a 5in .54 with rocket-assist would fit the bill. Missile can not do illum, marking, nor area suppression. Why would we spend 4 million bucks to do a coordinated pre-strike on a road junction, for example. It is too expensive, and there is no flexibility in mission need.

  • draeger24

    Okay….time for a sanity check here…we are going to put VLS with what type of very expensive missiles to do what?? What is the mission for those missiles?? Supporting Marines? Yep….would we not be better served with a 5 in. 54 so as to support them with more rounds, and the new GPS-guided rounds, and, the ability for AREA suppression, illumination, marking, etc – much less expensive, more rounds, more flexibility. TLAMS for NGFS…ridiculous. GRIIFFINS and HELLFIRE won’t reach out far enough – HELLFIREs are 100k apiece…GPS guided 5in 54 rounds, and the rocket-assisted rounds, are the correct answer to support Marines.

    • KenofSoCal

      How about a navalized/extended range GMLRS?

      • draeger24

        if one could “navalize” them, that might be a cheaper answer….I am not sure of their cost – but, it would have Army commonality which would bring down the cost a bit.

    • DaSaint

      You don’t want your amphibs less than 20nm from shore…not these days.

      • draeger24

        then you will need to change the doctrine….the PCS, or “Point Control Ship” will have to be a destroyer (with AEGIS, actually a good idea), not the usual LPD…I have always wondered why we have neglected to have a destroyer with any ARG….I get the whole “Dept of STATE mandate” for port visits, but I think we really need to think about the protection of the ARG. We had the STYX missile threat from shore installations and OSA PTGs 30 years ago, so the threat really has not changed. Also, there is no way an amphib, currently configured, could defeat a small boat swarm, unless you put every Marine onboard out there on deck shooting at them…LOL. We actually practiced that off Bosnia….what a hoot. Anyway, Amphibs should have more self-defense arms but be able to answer NGFS if the CRU-DES asset isn’t around.

  • Ed L

    VLS on a Gator, Tomahawks or a similar type missile with very little modification to the Ships weapons system. Wish we had them on the our old LPD’s. Back in the late 70’s a navsea design team visited some gator’s looking at possibly of back fitting the then new VLS on gator’s. But obviously It never went anywhere. Like going back to mounting torpedo tube below the waterline like they did in the post dreadnough era.

  • PolicyWonk

    Well, this certainly lives up to the notion of “if it floats it fights”. If the missiles could also be optionally dialed into the local DDG’s Aegis system, that would also add a new range of abilities to the LPD’s when it comes to the common defense of the fleet.

    I’d like to see the USN using the LPD-17/San Antonio sea frames as the basis for an arsenal ship of sorts, optimized to carry a huge load of missiles for fleet air defense and/or fire support.

    • Ed L

      Arsenal ships. Fleet defense ships. Double hulled. Loaded to the gills with missles. And another version that has say four 5 inchers. 4 76mm. Cwiz searam guns plus a large VLS setup

  • Bailey Zhang

    16 is not enough, 24-32 will be good

    • Marjus Plaku

      Dual or quad packed missiles specific to the shore attack mission can be developed/fielded into the VLS tubes going forward and now you have 16×2 or 16×4 per ship!

  • RunningBear

    Go with the retrofit VLS! and include it into the developing LX(R) based on the Navy’s San Antonio (LPD-17) class amphibious ships. These would obviously linked into the “magazine” of the escort destroyer/ cruiser NIFC-CA network. That would make them linkable to the air support of the F-35B for the Marines.

  • Curtis Conway

    Every surface combatant should possess a 3D non-rotating AESA main sensor mounted as high as practical on the Mack. The ideal candidate would be the AN/SPY-6(V), with fewer Radar Module Assemblies (It’s scalable), with all the commensurate capabilities that go with a SPY-6 and its four array faces. Those capabilities will provide detection, tracking, and target fire control capabilities for tracks in the track stores. Two half modules (one module is four cells) of Mk41 VLS gives limited inventory capability, and four half-modules provides significantly more. However, ESSM, some surface-to-surface missile, and perhaps land attack (which is what the Marines are looking for) would be very possible.
    Passive side of the antenna of the SPY-6 alone will be a significant capability and provide growth opportunities for the future. This type of system would have significant future growth opertunities piggybacking upon the DDG-51 Flt III Destroyer development, and again provide all the commensurate capabilities that go with the SPY-6 radar which are significant.

    Introduction of Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) to this platform would find the active side of detection, tracking and targeting for them to be more than sufficient with a SPY-6. However, installed Passive systems would be better candidates for EMCON operations, and combat in a passive combat environment, which is probably going to a significant survival technique in the not too distant future, and will be very advantageous. The SSDS and COMBATTS-21 Combat Systems can provide the display, Command & Decision side of the equation, and probably will not be that hard to stand up as an independent test facility hosting the disparate combat system layouts and computer baselines.
    Although it is a little late, it seems a 5” gun would come in handier and be much more cost effective for future land attack missions and perhaps some air defense capabilities given what will be provided by the High Velocity Projectile development.
    Both of these solutions (VLS & gun) will make the amphibious ships look like a BMD ship with less range.
    In my humble opinion a program of record for the development and fielding of the 3D non-rotating AESA main sensor for ALL US Navy surface combatants is in order, and should have already been in effect.

  • Marjus Plaku

    YESS!!! Best idea in a while and long overdue!

    I don’t care what the final missile/weapon that ends up going in there is at this point, just add the damn VLS capability and you are set for the life of the ship! The present 30mm bolt on limited view/range/lethality POS they have now is a waste of space and weight. Put the 2×8 or better yet 2×12 in there and now you have something useful and deadly. Maybe you would even develop something akin to the ESSM but for shore/coastal attack. As in a short/medium range cruise/ballistic missile with multiple warheads that can be quad/dual packed in the VLS of the amphibs.

    Now you suddenly have anywhere from 96-192 missiles available for ground targets on shore on just the 3 main platforms of an expeditionary group. This reduces the need to burden/risk the more vital and versatile DDGs/CGs/FFGs/SSNs/SSGNs with the shore attack mission using ill suited weapons better reserved for more strategic targets, and taking these more capable platforms out of their natural role of semi independent operations proving over-watch/protection/perimeter patrol etc… against any air, surface and undersea forces/threats.

    You don’t need to fit destroyer/cruiser type sensors/CC on most of the gators because with the current battle/technical plan all of the different platforms (and services ie. USAF) should be more and more linked and integrated going forward and cuing/tracking/guidance can come from any assets in position to detect a target and plugged into the “cloud”, be it a P-8, MQ-4, surface ship, helicopter, F/A-18/F-35 (or any fighter), bomber, E-2/E-3/E-8 and any SIGINT/ELINT aircraft and hopefully one day soon a SSN.

    Man once the NAVY can add hardware into the attack boats giving them a ‘stealthy’ but “active” 2 way continuous multi mode/platform transmit/receive capability for communications and weapons track sharing, it’s game over for any enemy ship, coastal targets, and possibly even some aircraft.

    Imagine an SSN sitting outside an enemy harbor/bastion/enclave/coast detecting a large formation of enemy ships heading out to sea and instead of giving itself away and engaging and possibly risk being overwhelmed, it just sends out the tracks to a “cloud” where now an air force bomber hundreds of miles away from the action can plug in to the weapons tracks and launch a volley of long range and autonomous anti ship missiles at the enemy force that has no idea it has already been painted and engaged.

  • The Plague

    It sure took them a long time to figure out that a ship that big would do well to accommodate at least some modestly serious firepower…

    • Secundius

      As Early as 2014 there was an Arsenal Ship class based on the San Antonio class Complete with 32MJ Railgun. And Up To 288-Cell VLS Missiles, Six in Total. Congress Cancelled the Class even before it was to be Funded…

      • The Plague

        Well it could be that it’s not the Surface Navy’s fault that none of the Arsenal Ship designs ever made it : I can see the hand of the submarine service not wanting any competition to their expensive missile-shooting subs. Just look at the efforts taken today to augment the Virginia class boats to have a capacity for 40 cruise missiles. For the same cost the Arsenal Ship could pack over 7 times the firepower plus all the EW/DE capability inherent in a surface platform.

        • Secundius

          Actually there are Plans for a Submarine Version of a Arsenal Ship. Good Looking Submarines, by the Artist Conceptions. But Honestly, The’ll Never be Built Either…

          • The Plague

            Right, the Second Coming will be right on us by the time those would get built. Which is why it bothers me so much when more easily producible surface platforms get sidelined in favor of far-out-yet-to-come subs.

          • Secundius

            There Are Also “Semi-Submersible” Designs, that are So Close to the Water Line that Visually Look Invisible…

  • Charles Haas

    Fitting the LPD-17 San Antonio class with ESSM makes sense as it provides a greatly needed defense against cruise missiles and attacking aircraft, but anything else is likely a waste of money. A dedicated class of 5-6 fire support ships makes the most sense. These would deploy with an ARG as needed when a specific amphibious operation is likely, as opposed to being deployed on a continuos basis.

    A battery of 2 x 2 155mm/52 caliber water cooled guns located in the bow and able to fire standard Army rounds, including the Excalibur extended range guided rounds, with a range of 50 km and accuracy to within 6 meters, and the less expensive precision guidance kit (PGK) will provide excellent sustained close fire support needed to defeat enemy units.

    Bombardment missiles based on the (guided) GMLRS (range of over 90 km) and modernized TACMS missiles (300 km range) would provide the best value using rockets. Eight launchers, each firing 12 rockets or two TACMS, located in two rows a four amidship would provide a high rate of fire. At least 150 to 200 rocket pods, with six GMLRS or one TACMS each, missile stored below deck, would provide a large magazine to support Marine operations.

    A flight deck allowing additional ammunition to be taken on board via helicopter is also required.

    Finally, installing a navalized TPQ-53 counter battery radar, meterological, and communications, along with a specialized fire support coordination center will ensure timely fire missions that are needed by ground units up to 250 km inland.

    A ship designed to support these systems would not be difficult to build, but would require some work, as while nothing about these systems are immature, they would require significant integration work (since the navy has not used two gun mounts for example in many years). Additonally, these ships should be well designed to prevent muntions magazines on board from destroying the ship if some munitions are set off accidently or from enemy weapons.

    • Secundius

      They could Also Reactivate the Mk.71 8-inch (203.2mm/55-caliber) Single Barrel Automatic Deck Gun that was Cancelled in 1978…

  • David

    While they are at it, also should look at adding harpoon block II or kongsberg NSM as well as a couple of sea griffin (see updates to PC), using ESSM II with the SSDS (SPS-48 and SPQ-9) for aaw (32 shots) and either TLAM/LRASM/ATACMS for land attack. This gives the ESG the ability to project power and protect itself. Should also look at MK48, harpoon, and griffin on the LSD upgrades.

  • James Milliken

    The cells provide flexibility. Need a tighter air defense ESSM, need to support ashore better be able to shoot as far as you plan on hauling the gear. So at least over the horizon, probably at least the 110nm the CH-53K is designed to haul. Best as far as we might send a V-22 (designed to fly to Tehran). We don’t think we might not evac an embassy some day and really wish we’d had time to burn the documents before we leave? Sounds like a Tomahawk might come in handy.