This post has been updated to add that the LAW ships would come out of the Navy shipbuilding budget.
The Navy and Marine Corps’ new Light Amphibious Warship program is already in industry studies, with the service pushing ahead as quickly as possible in an acknowledgement that they’re already behind in their transformation of the force.
Maj. Gen. Tracy King, the director of expeditionary warfare on the chief of naval operations’ staff (OPNAV N95), said today that LAW was perhaps the most important investment the Marine Corps was making to optimize itself for expeditionary advance base operations (EABO).
“Having these LAWs out there as an extension of the fleet, under the watchful eye of our Navy, engaging with our partners and allies, building partner capacity, is what I think we need to be doing right now. I think we’re late to need with building the Light Amphibious Warship, which is why we’re trying to go so quickly,” he said, saying that N95 was copying the surface warfare directorate’s playbook from the frigate program, which moved quickly from requirements-development to design to getting under contract thanks to the use of mature technology and designs from industry.
USNI News previously reported the Navy and Marine Corps would buy 28 to 30 of the ships between Fiscal Years 2023 to 2026, with a per-ship price tag potentially below $100 million, the Congressional Research Service has written. The ships would come out of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, USNI News understands, and though both services collaborated on the requirements, the LAW program would overhaul how the Marine Corps can do its business in the littoral water areas of the world.
LAW “is not meant to replace L-class ships, it is meant to enhance the ability of the fleet to conduct distributed operations,” King said while speaking at the Surface Navy Association’s Virtual Waterfront conference today.
In line with what Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Combat Development and Integration Lt. Gen. Eric Smith told USNI News earlier this summer, King noted that a key tenet of the LAW program was that the vessels would be cheap and therefore could be fielded in large numbers.
“We need to build an affordable ship that can get after the ability to do maritime campaigning in the littorals,” King said.
“So not forcible entry, not the ability to replace the L-class ships. It’s going to be additive. But it is going to be affordable. So what that means is, she really needs to know what’s going on, and she needs to have a sheepdog watching out for her; that might be an LPD-17, it might be a DDG Flight III, it might be an LCS, depending on what the fleet commander sees is the situation. But I see the efficacy of this LAW, how it’s going to help us out, is really going to be in the phase, the stage we’re in right now,” he said, which some military officials call the competition phase but which he considers a pre-conflict phase, where the potential adversary is not playing by the rules and therefore the Marine Corps needs to find new and creative ways to meet its missions.
More broadly, King said EABO will call for the Marine Corps to take on all kinds of new missions to support the Navy from the littorals. The Marine Corps is investing in long-range fires and the ability to see and communicate across broader operating areas, which he said are important – though he said LAW underpins the whole plan, since the Marines will need to be able to move from point to point quickly, without being detected, and without putting larger capital ships in the enemy’s crosshairs.
“We’re going to have Marines out there sinking ships. I’ve even talked to our undersea guys about Marines out there sinking submarines, so some of our inside forces can stay hidden. Let our adversary worry about me and my hundred guys running around crazy on some island instead of these capital assets that are really the heart and soul of the joint force,” he said.
King said he’s been asked many times why the Marines can’t just use connectors for this mission – especially since the Navy is buying replacements for both the landing craft utilities and the landing craft air cushions.
The major general said LAW would go beyond what connectors can do: they won’t just move Marines around, but they’ll also have living spaces, fuel stores for the Marines’ trucks, the ability to make water, and more. These Marines will be outside the amphibious ready group and Marine expeditionary unit (ARG/MEU) construct, USNI News has reported previously, but King said these Marines will be a vital part of the LAW crew and will fall under an expeditionary strike group construct.
Outside of LAW, King said EABO would call for Marines to get out on other kinds of ships and vessels to support the Navy. For example, he said, Marines with their AH-1Z Viper, replacing the AH-1W Cobra, could help go after fast attack craft and fast inshore attack craft (FAC/FIAC), the kinds of craft that Iran frequently uses to harass Navy ships.
“If you get a Cobra on you, you’re not getting away. So putting a Cobra on a Littoral Combat Ship or on a [Expeditionary Fast Transport] or any other platform with a landing deck, you’ve just created something for FAC/FIAC. That’s just one example,” he said.
Looking farther out, King said communications are always tough – with bandwidth limited today, and likely to be even more strained in the future as unmanned vehicles in all domains pass around information they pick up. In a contested environment, King said, the Navy and Marines need not just enough bandwidth, but secure and reliable connections, and ones that limit how long the Marines are actually broadcasting over the network. The longer the Marines radiate out, the easier it will be for the adversary to find them in the littorals, he said, suggesting that the services look to acquire digital communication system that can send out information in short bursts to limit transmit times.
“When the balloon goes up, it’s going to be the Marines, Navy Special Warfare and undersea that are holding on for dear life until the calvary arrives. And being able to talk securely in a contested environment is something that I think we’re investing in the right places, I’m pretty comfortable with what we have,” he said.
In the near term, the Marines will be relying on their AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar (G/ATOR), which King said is undergoing testing in U.S. 7th Fleet now with III Marine Expeditionary Force, ”taking Link-16 tracks, getting it from a ship, going through an AWACS down to a Marine shooter. That’s revolutionary.”