Is the LPD-17 Flight II Amphib Worth It? Depends Who You Ask
Navy officials say the amphibious ship is too expensive, while the top Marine calls it “affordable.”
Navy and Marine Corps officials do not agree on whether the San Antonio-class Flight II amphibious ship is getting too pricey, putting the makeup of the gator fleet’s future into question.
The office of the secretary of defense decided a year ago to pause LPD buys and study “whether or not we would continue with the current hull or, whether or not we would shift to some variant of the current hull. The driving issue there that drove that decision had to do with cost,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said Wednesday at the McAleese and Associates Defense Programs conference in Washington, D.C.
“So the cost of [the LPD 17 Flight II] has gone from $1.47 billion, to the second ship at $1.5 [billion]. The third one that we’re contracting for right now is probably going to be between $1.9 and $2 billion. So that increase will be somewhere between 21 and 25 percent. The FY  ship, unless we did a bundle buy, would likely be at $2 billion or above, at least a 25 percent increase. We’re moving in the wrong direction,” Gilday said.
The Navy’s 2024 budget proposal zeroed out LPD funding through 2028. The ships are supposed to replace the aging Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships, or LSDs. The budget also calls for divesting three LSDs due to their “poor material condition,” which would reduce the amphib fleet to below the required 31-ship minimum in 2024.
Gilday said there is still time to study the class because the Navy hasn’t put the third Flight II amphib on contract yet, the procurement cycle for the ship, and the LPD line “is already running behind.”
The Navy is trying to determine why the cost increased and “hopefully by either June or September we'll have the final answer to, are there ways that we could perhaps bring that cost down a bit,” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said at the conference.
But Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger disagreed with Del Toro and Gilday that the Flight II ships had increased in price.
“They are affordable,” Berger said at the conference. “The LPD 17, $2 billion ship, that's what it costs. The first two Flight IIs, [LPDs] 28 and 29 were $1.66 [billion]. The last one we built, Huntington Ingalls built, $1.62 [billion]. So I use base dollars, that's the most apples to apples comparison. So I look at $2 [billion] to $1.6 [billion], I don't see a price increase there. You could say things are—it’s more expensive today. Well, yes, so is a gallon of milk, right, then last year. I got that. But in base dollars, I think industry is driving that price down because you all know, you manufacture anything new, there's a learning curve, right, a cost curve. They are right on the curve where they're driving down costs now.”
The Flight II is slightly cheaper to buy than the original LPD 17 and it is also “in some ways less capable—a reflection of how the Flight II design was developed to meet Navy and Marine Corps operational requirements while staying within a unit procurement cost target that had been established for the program. In many other respects, however, the LPD-17 Flight II design is similar in appearance and capabilities to the LPD-17 Flight I design,” according to a December 2022 Congressional Research Service report about the ship class.
Pausing the production of the LPDs would mean a loss of workers and another price increase when building starts up again, Berger told reporters.
Despite that disagreement, Del Toro, Gilday, and Berger agree they should consider LPD block buys to keep costs down. The Navy has previously purchased the ships one at a time.
“If in fact it is that the LPD is the right class to continue building well into the future, then what we should do is actually invest in multi-year procurements in greater numbers that meet our requirements to get us where we want to be, in order to bring down those costs,” Del Toro said. “And so I hope that that's the desired outcome that we eventually get to over the course of the next year, by hopefully the next presidential budget that gets submitted.”
Berger said buying five LPDs at a time would mean a “11.8 percent discount,” based on what the office of the secretary of defense told Congress in 2019. The Marine Corps wants to buy LPDs every two years.
“Why would we not do that if we know we're going to need them,” he told reporters.
As far as Berger is concerned, the LPD Flight II design has been studied enough, including a 2014 study that he participated in. He said he doesn’t know the reason for the pause.
“From my perspective that thoroughness that I saw, and all of the staff meetings and all that took us to the final Navy decision to go with the Flight II, all that made perfect sense. And there was a lot of headbutting on every little detail. So, I don't know doing that again with the same ship, I don't know what you’d find out that we don't already know,” Berger told reporters.
The three amphibs the Navy wants to get rid of early in 2024 have structural problems, Vice Adm. William Galinis, the commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, told reporters at the conference.
The cost of fixing the three LSDs so that they can stay in the fleet is “substantial,” Gilday said.
The 37-year-old USS Germantown—one of the three on the chopping block—has a crane that has not worked for six years, and the wooden deck is “starting to break through,” Del Toro said.
“She’s the last LSD with a wood deck in the Navy. Do you know how much it costs to replace that wood deck? I don't know either, but I know it's a lot of money,” Del Toro said. “And what I will tell you is, what am I going to get out of that? Am I getting one more year of operation at the cost of $250, 300, 400, 500 million? Is it wise to put that money into this old ship when I'd much rather put it into the budget so I can buy a new LPD? … I think it’s the right choice.”
Berger said he would be OK with divesting three LSDs if he knew the Navy was also buying and delivering LPD Flight IIs to replace them.
“What I can't do is get rid of those three, stop buying, and then the risk goes super high because we don't have enough ships anymore,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misattributed the quote in the third-to-last paragraph.