The Navy Put Its Next Amphib on Hold. Good.
The proposal to build a slow and combat-shy Light Amphibious Warship raises questions about a key Marine Corps operating concept.
A updated report on the Light Amphibious Warship program illuminates the Navy’s decision to delay the acquisition of the first LAW from 2023 to 2025—and underlines growing questions about the operational requirements for the nascent ship and its place within Navy and Marine Corps operating concepts. The Department of the Navy should use this time to validate the assumptions that underpin the existing program and, potentially, re-evaluate the acquisition.
What is the Light Amphibious Warship?
The Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advance Base Operations concept, or EABO, calls for new kinds of force packages for land-based sea-control activities such as anti-ship missile batteries (primarily for choke-point control) and integrated air- and missile-defense batteries (among other things, they would “funnel” adversary aircraft along flight routes amenable to the U.S. Joint Force posture). These are new missions for the Marine Corps and are force drivers for Commandant Gen. David Berger’s “Force Design 2030.”
These new forces are to be borne to their deployed locations aboard the LAW. Unlike existing amphibious connectors that handle traditional Marine ship-to-shore movements, such as the currently fielded Landing Craft Air Cushion and the just-beginning-to-join-the-fleet Ship-To-Shore Connector, the LAW would transport Marines from shore to shore. It would also be larger, with projected displacement of up to 4,000 tons. (For comparison, the Freedom-class LCS displaces about 3,400 tons.) Other characteristics include a length of 200 to 400 feet, a maximum draft of 12 feet, a crew of not more than 40 sailors and up to 75 Marines, and 4,000 to 8,000 square feet of cargo area. The Navy desires the ship to have a top speed of at least 14 knots, and an unrefueled transit range of 3,500 miles. To control costs, the ship will have a modest command and control suite and few organic weapons (a 25mm or 30mm gun system and .50-caliber machine guns).
The Marine Corps wants 35 LAWs; the Navy is currently budgeting for 18. This difference is reportedly driven by differing approaches to survivability, with the Navy seeking more expensive (and survivable) platforms than the Marines.
A Critique of LAW
This critique has three elements: the operational use case is questionable, the limitations of the planned ship are considerable, and the required cannibalization of traditional amphibious force structure is unwise.
A questionable use case. It is unclear whether the activities pursued by advance bases under the Marine Corps EABO concept—in particular, anti-ship missile defense and integrated air and missile defense—are peacetime deterrence operations, transition-to-war activities, contested/combat zone missions, or all the above. The distinctions are important, as the criticality of the missile missions increase as conflict increases.
It is difficult to argue against the theoretical value of distributed fires making use of archipelagic features in a war in the Indo-Pacific. The value of anti-ship missile defenses and integrated air and missile defenses aboard EABOs would become incredibly important to the Joint Force. But it is just as difficult to imagine how the far-flung forces executing those missions could be protected and sustained under enemy fire, when the need for food, water, fuel, parts, and ammunition increases. Providing these logistics with a modestly sized, lightly armed connector is sensible only if EABOs are not considered wartime postures.
Indeed, it does not appear that the Marines intend to use LAW once combat begins. “If there are indications a conflict may break out, the combatant commander would order the light amphibious warships, or LAW, to quickly relocate Marines or resupply units,” Defense News reported in October, quoting Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant for combat development and integration. As war nears, Heckl said, the new amphibious ship “goes into hiding, it goes into bed-down somewhere. Nowhere do we envision the LAW out transiting the sea lanes in the middle of a kinetic fight.”
Heckl’s words add to the confusion not only about the role of LAW but also of the utility of EABOs. Which Marines would be “relocated” from the bases? All of them? Everyone except the missile operators, and if so, what about sustainability?
Either way, the two years inserted into the LAW acquisition plan provide additional time to think through the use case and further analyze the assumptions behind EABO.
Ship limitations. At 75 Marines per LAW, the 30 planned ships would carry a total of about 2,250 troops—fewer than those carried by one America-class LHA plus one LPD-17 Flight I. Moreover, the older ships can carry a lot of aircraft and some ship-to-shore connectors; the proposed one would carry none. And at 20 knots, the LHA and LPD are much faster than the 14- to 16-knot LAW.
Those who rationalize the LAW’s low top speed suggest it would increase range—yet as retired Marine colonel Mark Cancian noted in 2020, the ship’s size could make it unsuited to “extended deployments.” They also suggest that a low top speed would help it blend in with Western Pacific shipping—though it is unlikely that many commercial ships would stick around during a conflict.
If LAW is meant to support EABOs as peacetime deterrents, its slow speed and modest capability may be acceptable. But if the Marine Corps is serious about providing anti-ship and air-defense missiles for wartime sea control, LAW will need more speed and armament.
Excessive costs. The 2016 Navy Force Structure Assessment described the “Navy the Nation Needs” as containing 38 large amphibious ships, a number that was dwarfed by the commonly-held notion that combatant commanders need 50. The USMC began to publicly de-emphasize the number 38 in the summer of 2019 (without proposing a new number) while projecting a willingness to question previous notions of required amphibious lift and “legacy platforms.” Within the past two years, the Marines have updated their stated large amphibious ship requirement to 31 ships and their LAW requirement to 35 ships (although, again, the Navy only supports 18). It is difficult not to conclude that the Marine Corps decided to harvest seven large amphibious ships to buy LAW, ships that are among their most useful and requested. It is unclear which elements of forcible entry the Marines would eliminate or reduce with the reduction in ships capable of this mission.
Critics talk of the vulnerability of large amphibious ships, but it is unclear how the purchase of a ship that will not take part in conflict improves things. Additionally, the prudent move would not be to build and maintain fewer large amphibious ships. Rather, the Navy should make better use of them, specifically in arming the LPD class with offensive anti-ship and land attack missiles to improve the conventional deterrent it can continually field in the Western Pacific.
Get it right
The decision in the 2023 budget to delay the fielding of LAW by two years was a good one, and the Department of the Navy should use the time to rethink how a shore-to-shore connector would be used and therefore what it should look like.
If, as Lt. Gen. Heckl indicated, LAW will exfiltrate personnel and then “bed down” when the shooting starts, its purpose as an enabler of land-based sea control is in doubt. If he was misquoted, or if he misspoke, and what he meant to say was something like “LAW will use its low signature and terrain features to mask its activities during conflict,” its insufficient speed and armament should be reviewed.
How important is range? If 80 percent of LAWs’ anticipated movements were of distances less than 1,000 nm, could speed (and survivability) be increased? What ranges (and at what cost) could an equal lift capacity be moved at 25, 30, or even 40-plus knots, speeds that would be more valuable to wartime employment?
These operational enhancements will drive the unit cost up quickly. A fast connector useful in wartime is not going to be cheap, and the Navy and Marine Corps need to make peace with this fact.
Finally, the services should build a small number of research and development vessels to enable experimentation while they work out questions of utility.
The prospect of a shore-to-shore connector to enable USMC maneuverability and lethality in the Western Pacific is worth considering, but not at the cost of the traditional amphibious fleet. The analysis that went into the 2016 38-ship requirement was sound, and the threat against which the Navy posited it has not diminished. If LAW proves worthwhile, its acquisition should be in addition to rather than in lieu of larger amphibious ships.
Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a national security consultancy. His public views are entirely his own and do not represent either public or private positions of his clients.