The Navy and Marine Corps are eyeing a 200- to 400-foot Light Amphibious Warship that would carry about 75 Marines, store as much as 8,000 square feet of kit and cost not much more than $100 million apiece, a naval official.
The official, speaking on background, said about six industry teams are working with the sea services after two industry days and industry studies over the summer, and that the services feel confident they’ll find a design that can meet their speed and survivability requirements for the right price.
The LAW is not meant to replace any of the existing amphibious ships in service today or any of the connectors, but rather would serve a new role: it would allow small units of Marines to maneuver around island chains, supporting sea control from ashore and then moving to new locations to avoid being detected.
After the program kicked off in earnest about six months ago, the services already have narrowed in on several key features of the warship.
The ship will be between 200 and 400 feet long, the official told USNI News. It will have between 4,000 and 8,000 square feet of cargo space and could displace as much as 4,000 tons. In contrast, the smallest amphibious ship class today, the Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship (LSD-41/49), is 609 feet long and displaces more than 16,700 tons. LAW would not have a well deck like other amphibious ships but instead would be able to come up on the beach itself, allowing the Marines aboard to drive their trucks right off the back of the ship onto ground.
Second, the LAW would host about 75 Marines and would have accommodations for them to eat, sleep, plan missions and more onboard. Unlike a connector, it would be built for long durations on the high seas. Each ship would be commanded by an O-4 commissioned naval officer, and the ships would be organized into squadrons of about nine each.
The LAWs would be focused on maneuvering Marines around the battlespace, not engaging in blue-water combat. Still, the naval official told USNI News, the services are eyeing a 30mm Gun Weapons System as the ideal system needed as a proportional response to the most likely threat to these ships. Their primary defense would be their ability to move quickly and evade detection, but they would have the gun system to protect themselves as needed. Additionally, they would operate under the protection of a “sheepdog” – likely an amphibious transport dock (LPD) or a Littoral Combat Ship – that could maintain situational awareness of the operating area inside the adversary’s weapons engagement zone and fire upon anything threatening the LAWs.
Much still needs to be worked out regarding the employment of these ships, the naval official noted, but each squadron would support one Marine Littoral Regiment and likely would not be affiliated with amphibious ready groups that are made up of traditional amphibious warships. The officials said that as soon as next year LAW prototypes could begin participating in exercises like Balikatan and Cobra Gold so Navy and Marine Corps leaders can start answering some doctrinal questions about how the LAW will fit into plans.
And, importantly, there’s the matter of cost. The program is aiming for a cost of $100 million to $130 million apiece – in line with the Congressional Research Service’s $100-million estimate in its recent reports. The official said potential shipbuilders have given similar estimates during the recent industry talks.
The two biggest cost-drivers will be speed and survivability, the naval official said.
After about 14 knots, the cost of attaining greater speed costs significantly more, as ships tend to go from two engines to four to achieve that speed and therefore the cost per ship spikes. The official said the Navy and Marine Corps want about 15 knots while keeping price as low as possible and are working with industry to find innovative ways to achieve that.
On survivability, trying to achieve Tier 3 – where a ship can take a hit and keep fighting, like larger amphibious warships or cruisers and destroyers – will not be possible without putting the per-hull cost at half-a-billion dollars or more. Instead, the services are aiming for “Tier 2-plus,” which would allow the ship to take a hit and keep the crew safe until another LAW could be brought in to retrieve the Marines and their kit and return them to the fight.
Trying to balance 15 knots, high survivability and beachability with the right price tag will be tough, the official said, but there are already several industry designs they’re looking at that have promise. Those teams are in talks with engineers at Naval Sea Systems Command now regarding their initial design concepts, the official said. Previous discussions have centered around the Sea Transport Solutions’ stern landing vessel, but the official did not name any of the current six participants and said that the final solution could be a stern landing or a bow landing ship.
The ships would likely have a 20-year service life, the official told USNI News, which is less than a larger warship but also fits into the notion that the Marines and Navy need to field something quickly and cheaply now and be able to upgrade or replace the ships later as the nature of warfare evolves in the coming decades.
USNI News has previously reported that the Navy and Marine Corps would buy 28 to 30 of the ships between Fiscal Years 2023 to 2026.