THE PENTAGON – A new study directed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense led to the halt in amphibious ship procurement so the Navy can evaluate requirements and cost efficiencies, a Navy official said Monday.
“We received direction from OSD, but this will be an integrated team moving forward for that assessment,” Navy Under Secretary Erik Raven told USNI News when asked who directed the pause and reassessment.
Rear Adm. Gumbleton, the Navy deputy assistant secretary for budget, said the Department of the Navy will work with both OSD and its Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office on the evaluation.
The Navy officials’ comments come as the service released its Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal, which halted the San Antonio-class LPD-17 Flight II amphibious transport dock line. The Navy previously planned to buy the next LPD in FY 2025, but announced in last year’s budget rollout that it would end the line after buying the last ship in FY 2023. While Congress opted to continue the line in the FY 2023 spending and policy bills, the five-year budget outlook released Monday does not show the service buying any San Antonios across the Future Years Defense Program.
The proposal does show the Navy buying an America-class amphibious assault ship in FY 2027 and starting to buy the Landing Ship Medium – previously known as the Light Amphibious Warship – in FY 2025. The Navy would buy another Landing Ship Medium in FY 2026, followed by two each in FY 2027 and FY 2028, according to the current procurement scheme. The platform is meant to shuttle small units of Marines between islands and shorelines in the Pacific, where they could set up expeditionary bases and fire anti-ship missiles.
When questioned by USNI News, Gumbleton disputed the notion that the Navy chose to invest in the Landing Ship Medium over the LPD platform. He acknowledged the service would ideally buy the San Antonio-class ships on two-year centers, a procurement plan industry advocates for to keep the shipyard workforce and supply chain stable.
“The intent here is not an either-or between an LPD or a Medium Landing Ship. It’s a both,” Gumbleton said.
“I believe the services are fundamentally aligned on this requirement. Both service chiefs like 31 as the requirement. Both service chiefs like multi-year procurements. Both service chiefs want to buy in a predictable future. And so if we can do a study and actually lower the cost of this, that’s all to the good of the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps,” he added, referring to the 31-amphibious ship floor that Congress signed into law in FY 2023.
Since Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said last month that there was a “strategic pause” on buying amphibious ships, the Navy opted not to include LPD-33 in today’s budget proposal. In FY 2023 legislation, Congress appropriated and authorized $250 million in advanced procurement money for that ship, but a Navy official told USNI News the service plans to hold that contract for the duration of the pause.
The halt is so the Navy can perform a Battle Force Ship Assessment and Requirements Study, a new evaluation that will inform its amphibious ship procurement, according to Del Toro. Speaking at the Pentagon’s budget rollout, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Christopher Grady said that study will wrap in the third quarter of FY 2023.
“This budget clearly funds and supports … what we need to do for this year and for next year from where we expect the Amphibious Readiness Groups to go. And based on this study then, I think it’s prudent for us to wait for that to come forward until we can make any conclusions on what is the appropriate capability and capacity mix going forward,” the vice chairman told reporters Monday.
The current amphibious force can meet the military’s missions for the immediate future, Vice Adm. Sara Joyner, the director of Force Structure, Resources and Assessment on the Joint Staff (J8), told reporters Monday.
“As far as amphib studies, with the new [National Defense Strategy] that came out in ‘22, the thought is that what we have right now is sufficient for what we need in order for near-term requirements for amphibs,” Joyner said. “But the chance to redirect and take another look was something that was valued and that so the Department of the Navy is moving forward with that study. And it will be their study that they will bring forward is to my knowledge how that will occur.”
Since Del Toro announced the pause, the Marine Corps has voiced concern over the amphibious force structure and investment plans, particularly as the Navy seeks to retire the older Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships. The Navy’s FY 2024 proposal asks to retire three LSDs: USS Germantown (LSD-42), USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44) and USS Tortuga (LSD-46).
“We have to have the inventory not less than 31 [ships]. To me, that’s a combination of old and new. We cannot decommission a critical element without having a replacement in our hand,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said at an event last week.
“We can’t do that, or else, back to risk … we’re not going to have the tools or it’s not going to be available. So the decommissioning of the LSDs to me is directly tied to the inventory as fast as we can procure and field.”
Both Defense Department and Navy officials during the budget rollout emphasized that the ongoing evaluations are meant to assess both cost and capabilities to ensure the service is making the right investments.
“We remain committed to Landing Ship Medium, and for LPD we’re taking a look at the acquisition strategy moving forward again to make sure that we will have the right capabilities at the right price and working with industry partners to put together that plan moving forward,” Raven said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks emphasized that amphibious ships are crucial to the Indo-Pacific, the Pentagon’s priority theater.
“We believe that’s vital to the Indo-Pacific region in particular, and as we look at all the investments we’re making, for example, in the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030, of course it includes the ability to move around our Marine forces,” Hicks said.
“The question really is what is the right mix of capabilities for today and for tomorrow, and that’s where we’re taking time to look at what that right mix of capabilities looks like, including, of course … in the case you’re pointing out on the amphibious forces.”
HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding, which builds the San Antonio-class and America-class amphibs, previewed the likely tension between Navy and Congress over the budget proposal.
“The annual submission of the President’s budget request is only the first step in the annual authorization and appropriations cycle, and we will continue to work closely with the Navy and the Congress as the process moves forward,” Ingalls Shipbuilding spokeswoman Kimberly Aguillard said in a statement.
“This Navy-industry team is performing efficiently and continuing this cadence is the most effective way to deliver amphibious lift capability to the U.S. joint force and meet the Congressionally-mandated minimum 31 amphibious warship requirement. Any disruption in the production line could have a significant impact on the defense industrial base,” she added.