The Navy and Marine Corps are looking to quickly overhaul their Cold War-era way of moving Marines around, with the services already agreeing on the basic requirements for a new Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and in the early phases of looking at a separate small amphibious ship class.
LAW would be among the biggest change to the amphibious force in decades. Marines typically deploy as a 2,200-strong Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group. These ARG/MEU teams deploy from the East Coast, West Coast or Japan and go on rotational deployments, sometimes staying together as a formation and sometimes disaggregating to cover more exercises with partner nations.
In contrast, the LAW ships would remain outside the ARG/MEU structure, an official at the Marine Corps’ Combat Development and Integration (CD&I) directorate told USNI News. They would be based in areas where shore-to-shore movement of Marines and gear could be needed – places like the South China Sea if China were to fight for the islands and sea space it claims as its own, or the Baltic Sea if Russia were to make another land grab against a neighboring country – and would support the movement of Marine Littoral Regiments moving quickly from one piece of land to the next to conduct missions under the Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) concept.
Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration and the head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told USNI News in a recent interview that LAW “is a smaller version of a traditional amphib but much more able to hide in plain sight, much more affordable, much more numerous because of its cost.”
According to a Congressional Research Service report, the services would buy 28 to 30 of these ships between Fiscal Years 2023 to 2026. The ships would be 200 to 400 feet long with a maximum draft of 12 feet, allowing them to get into coastal waters and blend in better with local commercial ships. The Navy would man them with no more than 40 sailors, they’d embark at least 75 Marines and have at least 8,000 square feet of cargo space for weapons and supplies, and they’d be able to transit at 14 knots for 3,500 nautical miles unrefueled. These ships, likely based on a commercial ship design, would have a 10-year expected service life and would be equipped with “a modest suite” of command and control and communications systems and just a 25mm or 30mm gun system and .50 caliber machine guns for self-defense.
Unlike the larger amphibious ships in the fleet today, these wouldn’t carry trucks inside and have well decks to launch and recover ship-to-shore landing craft. Instead, the LAWs themselves would beach themselves and then lower a ramp to move supplies directly onto the landing area, the CRS report adds. While the cost is unclear, the CRS report suggests the price tag per ship could potentially be under $100 million.
Smith said he and his Navy counterpart, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfighting Requirements and Capabilities Vice Adm. Jim Kilby, had already agreed on the requirements for this intra-theater lift asset and planned to start building them in about three years. This timeline is quick but important for the Marine Corps’ effort to reach its Force Design 2030 plans by the end of the decade.
The LAW requirements process was a “50/50” effort between the two services, Smith said.
“It was us saying, look, we need it to carry this many Marines and this many short tons, and we had the Navy saying, look, I can afford this sized crew if you’re talking that number of vessels,” Smith said.
“And we came to an agreement on major characteristics of the ship. So it was 50/50 right down the middle.”
According to the CD&I official, the LAW is going to be a pivotal part of how the Marines operate in certain areas of the world.
“Multiple threat-based wargames, scenarios, force structure reviews and the Commandant’s Planning Guidance have identified shore-to-shore littoral maneuver as the critical capability necessary to enable naval expeditionary forces to conduct distributed maritime operations in an archipelagic environment. The ultimate solution must be affordable, and seaworthy, a beachable platform, covering intra-theater distances, delivering a credible deterrence and combat force,” according to the official.
USNI News previously reported that the Marine Corps was eyeing Australian company Sea Transport Solutions’s stern landing vessel as a possible solution for its lift needs. The CD&I official made clear that the LAW program would be competitively awarded, but that the stern landing vessel was one example of how to meet the top requirement of having shore-to-shore accessibility through being able to land on the beach itself.
In fact, Smith told USNI News that the Marine Corps was looking to buy three stern landing vessels for experimentation, using them to work out concepts of employment and more while the LAW acquisition process played out. Smith said he planned to have these vessels in place to start experimentation within three years.
The CD&I official added that the Marine Corps was already working with Military Sealift Command “to conduct a market survey of commercially available vessels. The vessels should be capable of delivery troops, equipment and supplies from shore to shore within an archipelagic environment. The Marine Corps intends to execute a charter through MSC to lease an adequate vessel and conduct testing designed to refine littoral maneuver tactics, techniques and procedures.”
The Light Amphibious Warship program would begin in FY 2021 with $30 million to support industry studies and concept design work, if Congress approves the Marines’ funding request.
Ultimately, the idea would be to buy a whole fleet of LAWs for the price of just one or two traditional amphibious ships. And, because of their small size, many more yards would be capable of building them. In fact, according to the CRS, nine shipyards replied to an initial request for information on LAW. The Navy would prefer to have a single shipyard build all 28 to 30 ships but is open to “having them built in multiple yards to the same design if doing so could permit the program to be implemented more quickly and/or less expensively.”
“Compared with LHA/LHD-type ships, which are 844 to 855 feet long and have a full load displacements between 40,000 and 45,000 tons, and LPD-17 class ships, which are 684 feet long and have a full load displacement of 24,900 tons, a LAW with a length of 200 to 400 feet could have a displacement of between 1,000 and 8,000 tons,” the CRS report reads.
The report notes how these small ships would fit in with larger evolutions in how the Navy and Marine Corps want to operate.
“To improve their ability to perform various missions in coming years, including a potential mission of countering Chinese forces in a possible conflict in the Western Pacific, the Navy and Marine Corps want to implement a new operational concept called Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). DMO calls for U.S. naval forces (meaning the Navy and Marine Corps) to operate at sea in a less concentrated, more distributed manner, so as to complicate an adversary’s task of detecting, identifying, tracking, and targeting U.S. naval forces, while still being able to bring lethal force to bear against adversary forces,” the report reads.
As for the EABO concept in support of DMO, “the Marine Corps states that the EABO concept includes, among other things, establishing and operating ‘multiple platoon-reinforced-size expeditionary advance base sites that can host and enable a variety of missions such as long-range anti-ship fires, forward arming and refueling of aircraft, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance of key maritime terrain, and air-defense and early warning,’ The use of Marine Corps units to contribute to U.S. sea-denial operations against an opposing navy by shooting [anti-ship cruise missiles] would represent a new mission for the Marine Corps,” the report reads.
“The LAW ships would be instrumental to these operations, with LAWs embarking, transporting, landing, and subsequently reembarking these small Marine Corps units. The survivability of the LAW ships would come from their ability to hide among islands and other sea traffic, from defensive support they would receive from other U.S. Navy forces, and from the ability of their associated Marine Corps units to fire missiles at Chinese ships and aircraft that could attack them with their own missiles (which can be viewed as an application of the notion that the best defense is a good offense).”
In addition to the efforts to procure a Light Amphibious Warship and begin experimenting with the stern landing vessel, a third leg of the Marines’ littoral operations overhaul is to reexamine what a traditional L-class amphibious ship will need to do in future warfare and determine whether those needs can be met by the amphibious warships of record: the Wasp- and America-class amphibious assault ships (LHDs and LHAs), and the Flight I and II San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks (LPDs).
“We are very early in the planning stages and will begin working this in late summer with N95,” or the Navy’s expeditionary warfare directorate, the CD&I official told USNI News.
“We are currently surveying our extremely capable L-class ships to determine what attributes do not exist in those platforms that we will need to conduct missions as described in our emerging employment concepts. We know we can improve several areas if the nation decides to pursue a small amphib acquisition program: unmanned systems (air, surface, sub-surface) launch, recovery and operating from sea; small boat launch and recovery; cyber and electronic warfare from the sea; certainly enhanced networking to sense and shoot with other surface warships. Many of those improvements can be designed into current L class ships, but at what cost?”
The official said that cost will be the primary factor in determining whether to insert those capabilities into fielded ships – or to insert them into the production line for the LPD Flight IIs being built today to replace aging Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships (LSDs) – or to pursue a new small amphib that could conduct those types of missions while sailing as part of an ARG.