Navy On Path To Violate 31-Amphibious-Ship Requirement in 2024
Budget proposal asks Congress to allow ship retirements that lawmakers explicitly nixed last year.
The Navy is proposing to drop its amphibious fleet below 31 ships, despite an agreement with the Marine Corps and a potential violation of last year’s defense policy law.
Sent to Congress on Monday, the Navy’s proposed $255.8 billion 2024 budget aims to retire eight warships before the end of their intended service life, including three Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships, or LSDs, that it proposed to scrap last year but which were saved by the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act
The Navy’s $32.8 billion shipbuilding request buys nine battle force ships but no amphibs, including the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships, or LPDs, that are meant to replace the LSDs.
The LSDs chosen for early retirement were found to be in “poor material condition,” according to Defense Department budget slides.
“We've gone through, not only on LSDs but the other divestments proposed in this budget, did a ship-by-ship review, to understand the material state of each of the ships. What we found on the LSDs is that they are challenged in terms of readiness. We want to make sure that the capabilities that we field are the right capabilities, and are able to perform the mission to the standards that we expect,” Navy Undersecretary Erik Raven told reporters ahead of the proposed budget’s release.
“And so we're proposing those divestments because we think the return on investment, on further investments on those particular ships, as judged hull by hull, that return on investment is not there,” Raven said. “Additionally, say that we have sailors and Marines who are serving on these ships, we think that getting them matched up to the right platforms is the way to go.”
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger last week rejected any plans that would cut these aging LSDs before their replacements were delivered.
Despite the delivery of one LPD in 2024, the early retirement of the three LSDs would mean the total number of amphibs that year would drop below the legally required 31 ships minimum laid out in the 2023 NDAA, according to the budget documents. Raven told reporters that the Navy is not seeking a waiver at this time.
It was a surprise that the Navy “has thumbed its nose that defiantly to the Congress” after lawmakers supported the ship minimum last year, said a congressional staffer who spoke to Defense One on condition of anonymity. “So what the Navy has done with this budget is they took all of those signals and all those indications and warnings, if you will, from the Congress and…said you know, ‘Thanks, but no thanks, we're going to do what we think what we ought to be doing, and we don't really care what the Congress has to say on this subject.’”
Berger on Monday reiterated the reasoning behind the 31-ship requirement for amphibs.
“Anything less incurs risk to national defense by limiting the options for our combatant commanders,” he said in a statement to Defense One. “Per strategic guidance, the Marine Corps must be able to provide the nation with crisis response capabilities and build partnerships with allies and partners in support of integrated deterrence—difficult to achieve without the requisite number of amphibious warships.”
The requirement is linked to the nation’s defense, said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at the March 9 Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition event on Capitol Hill.
“We cannot defend this nation, we cannot do what we need to do to prevent war, to prevent war, without the 31 ships,” Wicker said. “And so the National Defense Authorization Act…makes it clear that the Commandant of the Marine Corps is the one we're finally going to listen to in terms of our ship requirement.”
This year’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, and what it may say about the long-term future of these ships, will be released “very soon,” Raven told reporters ahead of the budget roll out.
The Navy budget documents also chart out the ship procurements from 2024 to 2028, and there are a lot of zeros in the amphibious fleet’s future. The Navy plans to buy its next America-class amphibious assault ship or LHA in 2027 and does not plan to buy any San Antonio-class LPD 17 Flight IIs in any of the years listed.
The shipbuilding topline includes new ship construction as well as funds for other vessels like the Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC) Service Life Extension Program and the Landing Craft Utility LCU 1700 class.
The future Landing Ship Medium or LSM, is still planned for 2025. However, that is already two years past the original plan to buy the first ship in 2023. The Marine Corps just started to experiment with a commercially leased ship to inform the LSM’s future capabilities.
Last month, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said the service is taking a “strategic pause” on buying more LPDs until additional studies are completed, Defense News reported. Afterward, the Navy would “probably” start buying them again, according to the report.
On Monday, Raven told reporters at the Pentagon that the office of the Secretary of Defense had directed the pause and a capabilities-based assessment, and that there is an “integrated team” to assess the ships.
“What we are making sure that we are doing as we move forward with our budget plans, is making sure that we have the right capabilities at the right price aligned to not only meeting military requirements, but working with industry,” Raven said. “And for LPD, we're taking a look at the acquisition strategy moving forward, again, to make sure that we would have the right capabilities at the right price and working with industry partners to put together that plan moving forward.”
The Navy has “time to get this right” with the LPD, and that the Navy and Marine Corps are “fundamentally aligned” on the 31-ship requirement, Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, said Monday.
“Both service chiefs like 31 [ships] as a requirement. Both service chiefs like multiyear procurements. Both service chiefs want to buy in a predictable future. And so if we can do a study and actually lower the costs of this, that's all to the good of the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps,” Gumbleton said.
Buying amphibious ships tends to be the last priority for the Navy after spending shipbuilding funds on aircraft carriers, submarines, and destroyers, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Bryan Clark said March 9 during Defense One’s State of the Navy event.
“Whatever gets left over is what can go towards the amphibious ships and the support ships. And when you do all the numbers for that, you always end up with you know maybe not quite enough for the amphibious ships, because if you're building one LHA every four or five years that you can incrementally fund, that's a chunk of money that's on the scale of you know, $500 million a year. And then you've got maybe $500 million or a billion dollars leftover for one more amphibious ship, which isn't quite an LPD,” Clark said.