Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Sense of Congress on Amphibious Ships

Proposed MLP and AFSB option for LSD(X)
Normally when a defense budget is passed, I can't wait to dig through it and highlight all the important details. This time, with no associated appropriations bill (or plan) coming anytime soon, it would be a waste of time to suggest anything in the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Act is worth discussing, because it is worthless until the elected folks in Washington, DC get their budget priorities sorted out.

There is one section in the bill that I do want to highlight though. This reads like something inserted by a lobbyist, and it doesn't belong in my opinion.
SEC. 131. SENSE OF CONGRESS ON MARINE CORPS AMPHIBIOUS LIFT AND PRESENCE REQUIREMENTS.

a) FINDINGS.—Congress finds the following:
  1. The Marine Corps is a combat force that leverages maneuver from the sea as a force multiplier allowing for a variety of operational tasks ranging from major combat operations to humanitarian assistance.
  2. The Marine Corps is unique in that, while embarked upon naval vessels, they bring all the logistic support necessary for the full range of military operations and, operating ‘‘from the sea’’, they require no third-party host nation permission to conduct military operations.
  3. The Navy has a requirement for 38 amphibious assault ships to meet this full range of military operations.
  4. Due only to fiscal constraints, that requirement of 38 vessels was reduced to 33 vessels, which adds military risk to future operations.
  5. The Navy has been unable to meet even the minimal requirement of 30 operationally available vessels and has submitted a shipbuilding and ship retirement plan to Congress that will reduce the force to 28 vessels.
  6. Experience has shown that early engineering and design of naval vessels has significantly reduced the acquisition costs and life-cycle costs of those vessels.
(b) SENSE OF CONGRESS.—It is the sense of Congress that—
  1. the Department of Defense should carefully evaluate the maritime force structure necessary to execute demand for forces by the commanders of the combatant commands;
  2. the Navy should carefully evaluate amphibious lift capabilities to meet current and projected requirements;
  3. the Navy should consider prioritization of investment in and procurement of the next generation of amphibious assault ships as a component of the balanced battle force;
  4. the next generation amphibious assault ships should maintain survivability protection;
  5. operation and maintenance requirements analysis, as well as the potential to leverage a common hull form design, should be considered to reduce total ownership cost and acquisition cost; and
  6. maintaining a robust amphibious ship building industrial base is vital for the future of the national security of the United States.

To me this looks a lot like some Marine Corps General and his industry buddies throwing their weight around via Congress to try an influence the Analysis of Alternatives taking place regarding the LSD(X). Congress should not be trying to influence the decision unless they are ready to pony up the big bucks for what they are basically calling for - which to me sounds like more LPD-17s.


From what I understand, LSD(X) will be a design to cost ship. The recurring cost (ship 3 and beyond) is pegged to be about $1.2 billion in the shipbuilding budget. That makes the LPD-17 hull a nonstarter without a significant increase in cash from Congress.

The Marines face several challenges in dealing with amphibious requirements, but two stand out as important challenges that must be addressed. The first challenge is that the lift footprint of the amphibious MEB is growing, and the second challenge is that the MPS squadron only carries about 70% of the MEB's equipment. With limited funding and only one platform in the shipbuilding plan able to address these issues - the LSD(X) - folks are either going to have to get creative to solve these challenges, or accept that the challenges will not be solved.

The LSD(X) is a choice between 4 alternatives.

The first choice is a new build, best possible lift vessel for $1.2 billion recurring. I have no idea what design that would be, but if we are being honest it almost certainly wouldn't be anything similar to a current LSD if it is going to meet the stated requirements.

The second choice is for a LPD-17 mod, best possible for $1.2 billion recurring. I do not believe that is possible, but I'm sure there is a shipbuilding guru who other Marines call "General" willing and ready to convince a gullible politician it is possible. Experts I have spoken to in NAVSEA say it's not possible, and I'll trust their expertise and opinion over any Marine General when it comes to shipbuilding.

The third choice is to use a foreign design brought up to NVR standard at a cost of no more than $1.2 billion recurring with the third ship. The design that is specifically highlighted with this option is the French Mistral class. The ships would be built at a US shipyard. There is not a consensus whether these ships can be built in a US shipyard for $1.2 billion recurring.

The fourth option is to build two ships - a MLP and an AFSB - and use the combination of both ships to replace the single LSD. The idea is for the AFSB vessel to cover both the lift for amphibious groups and carry residual lift for the MPS MEB while MLP serves as a well deck surrogate. What is important to understand here is that the AFSB design would actually be a non-mil spec LPH with a limited hanger capacity, but it gives the option for that vessel to carry forward the helicopters in an ARG while the LHA/LHD operates 20 JSFs. Neither the MLP or AFSB would be a gray hull though, which is a major reason why old school Marine Generals who have been doing amphibious assaults for 30 years (cough!) hate the idea.

When I read Section 131 of the 2013 National Defense Act, what I read as "Sense of Congress" actually represents the traditionalists mindset on amphibious capability and their Gulf coast lobby buddies.

But the bottom line is this. The fourth option is the only option that will actually meet the capacity requirements for amphibious lift and the MPS, but I fully expect the United States Marine Corps to outright reject the very suggestion of any option away from the traditional 3 ship ARG. The third option for a foreign design will be rejected solely because it is a foreign design, even though the logic of that escapes me completely when the ships are being built in US shipyards. A new design is possible but unlikely, and until we see more in-house design expertise in NAVSEA I can't say that is necessarily a bad thing.

So ultimately I fully expect the final choice for the LSD(X) to be a LPD-17 mod that the Navy budget cannot afford, and in the end I suspect the Marine Corps will end up with about 8 LSD(X) because that is all they can afford.

But if it was me, I would go for the MLP + AFSB concept. I believe it carries with it the highest risk, but I also believe it would give the Marine Corps the most flexibility when it comes to operations at sea. In my opinion it is much easier for the USMC to remain a relevant national defense asset when they are operating from more ships than when they are operating from fewer ships, and the MLP + AFSB option puts Marines on well over 40 vessels that deploy frequently, vs less than 30 possible vessels that deploy less frequently when one picks the quality LPD-17 mod option.

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