Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Amphibious Ship Plan Evolves Towards FY 2010

Zachary M. Peterson had an article in InsideDefense (subscription only) over the weekend discussing some of the ongoing discussions on Navy-Marine capabilities for the new shipbuilding plan expected to be released with the FY 2010 budget. The first section of the article covers the tentative agreements regarding amphibious ships.

The draft Naval Operation Concept reveals the need for a 38-vessel amphibious ship fleet consisting of 11 amphibious assault ships (LHA/D), 11 transport dock ships (LPD), 12 dock landing ships (LSD) and four additional LPD and LSD vessels. Only 33 amphibious ships are currently resourced in publicly available service budget plans.

The two services agree that the San Antonio-class LPD-17 hull should be used for the LSD ship replacement instead of pursuing a new design.
There is a lot here. First, it looks like the agreement is for 11 ESGs, with the forward deployed ESG getting 2 LSDs as per normal operations. That LSD also acts in the role of a Global Fleet Station platform with CARAT and several other annual exercises, so there is nothing abnormal about the 11/11/12 combination. What is new is the agreed upon arrangement for 4 additional LPD/LSD type vessels, which look to me to be 4 large ships for the other 4 desired Global Fleet Stations the Navy wishes to incorporate into a joint services operation in Latin/South America, East Africa, West Africa, and the Persian Gulf/Mediterranean Sea regions.

As we have noted many times on the blog, the amphibious ship is the hardest working type of ship in the US Navy in the 21st century. The data says all that needs to be said regarding the requirement.

They are flexible platforms that bring together a wide variety of capabilities that can effectively perform the range of mission profiles from soft power to forward afloat staging bases to even assault roles when necessary. They are the rapid responders when crisis breaks out on land, and best fit the most often called upon requirements of the US Navy when problems occur, whether it is Hezbollah/Israel or a natural disaster, the amphibious ship, not the aircraft carrier, is the type of platform sent into to help out people.

I am also very pleased the Navy will capitalize on the LPD-17 hull for the LSDs. The LPD-17 hull can be reconfigured to support the new LCAC(X) which is expected to be bigger, and due to size and with built in hanger facilities the LSD will become a much more capable ship by reusing the LPD-17 hull. It will be interesting to see when in the new shipbuilding plan the Navy replaces current LSDs, because the current LSDs have some life in them. It will also be interesting to see if the Navy arms up the LSD(X) based on the LPD-17 hull with VLS, which would not be a bad way of adding a bit of forward firepower with both ESSM and Tomahawks.

This plan changes the Sea Basing concept (thankfully), but many questions remain.
MPF(F) is conceived to be composed of 14 ships, including two LHA(R); one amphibious assault ship (LHD); five cargo ships (T-AKEs and T-AKs); three Large, Medium-Speed, Roll-on/Roll-off (LMSR) ships; and three Mobile Landing Platforms (MLPs). Initial operational capability is planned for around the FY-16 to FY-17 time frame.

In a Feb. 18 presentation at the annual meeting of the National Defense Industrial Association’s expeditionary warfare division, Rear Adm. Robert Wray, the deputy commander of Military Sealift Command, noted that several courses of action (COAs) are still under discussion to meet the aviation capability for MPF(F).
The article goes on to highlight four courses of action under consideration:
  • The program of record without big decks with three modified LMSR platforms;
  • The program of record without big decks with four modified LMSRs;
  • The program of record with two converted Tarawa-class LHAs by 2021 with the potential for a third conversion in the 2030s and interim plan to rotate an active big deck as the third MPF(F) big-deck ship;
  • A commercial ship conversion to an aviation-capable platform.
In the article, this is also included for context.
The Navy’s position, according to a Feb. 25 briefing slide, is that MPF(F) big-deck capabilities are “dependent on affordability,” while the Marine Corps’ position is to pursue the best COA to fulfill the requirement.
In other words, the Navy is committed in a bean counter kind of way, while the Marines appear committed.

In my opinion, the success of the MPF(F) depends almost entirely on the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) and the Test Article Vehicle Transfer System (TAVTS) .
MLP will provide the vehicle transfer system that permits transferring personnel and equipment from a between the Large, Medium-Speed, Roll-on/Roll-off Ships (LMSR) to the MLP and smaller craft to facilitate delivery of combat ready forces from the sea base in support of reinforcement missions. An MLP will have two surface interface points for loading, launching and recovering two Landing Craft-Air Cushioned (LCACs) vehicles near-simultaneously. It will carry up to six LCACs. Each MLP will have berthing to accommodate brigade forces during the employment and reconstitution phases of the operation.

The MLP will be able to travel at the rate of approximately 20 knots and have a range of approximately 9,000 nautical miles. The Navy intends to procure and build a total of three MLPs. The first MLP is expected to be delivered in 2015.
TAVTS is described as:
The Test Article Vehicle Transfer System (TAVTS) will demonstrate the transfer of vehicles between a surrogate Maritime Pre-positioning Force (Future) (MPF(F)) Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) ship and a side port platform on a large medium-speed roll-on/roll-off (LMSR) ship.

The two primary components of TAVTS are a self-deploying ramp system that will be mounted to a surrogate MLP and a self-deploying sideport platform system that will be mounted to an existing LMSR ship. The TAVTS system is intended to operate through sea-state 3 conditions.
In other words, the Navy is looking to build bridges between ships for vehicles to drive on up to sea state 3 instead of using cranes. This will be interesting. I for one prefer cranes, because with cranes the Navy can maximize the use of existing sea lift much better than relying on specifically configured ships with side hatches. I guess I'm a big skeptic that the idea is to build a capability at sea that would essentially replace the need for a port on shore, but we are doing it without cranes? Maybe a big crane ship instead of the 4th LMSR?

Either way, the plan calls for a bunch of sealift ships that form a system of systems approach, and whenever we are talking about system of systems approaches that use highly specialized types of ships, redundancy appears to be an after thought. No other program quite tells the story of fighting the last war like the Sea Basing program, because it literally is being justified due to how Turkey denied access for the Iraq war.

A few thoughts:

1) The Navy appears sold on the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) concept. How much compatibility exists between the existing sea lift of the US and foreign nations and the MLP will decide if this is an effective platform. If it can't support US, allied, and most importantly, chartered sealift ships, the MLP is a waste of money, period.

2) Any aviation strategy for Sea Basing that can't support the 2nd BCT, 101st Airborne Division is a Marine Corps centric sea base concept that fails to meet the requirements for a joint capability. Congress should reject funding for any Sea Basing aviation concept that can't meet this requirement.

3) Where are the oilers? The biggest problem with the sea basing concept isn't the idea regarding how to get troops to land, but how to sustain troops from sea once we get them on land. The single largest factor that limits support is fuel. The sea basing capability is expected to be a major asset in major disasters. Well, if Katrina is the lesson, the necessity for fuel is a major aspect of dealing with the problem. Not every country is going to have fuel stations everywhere like we did in Mississippi and Louisiana.

I like the idea of 38 amphibious ships, that seems to match up very well with the emerging challenges likely to be faced, mostly from places without well developed ports around South America, Africa, and southeast Asia. As for the Sea Basing idea, I'm still waiting to see how this idea is either Joint or backwards compatible with everything the MSC/TRANSCOM already uses today.

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