Throughout military history, some new weapons platforms have been seen as controversial. Even as the merits of the tank could be seen by some forward thinkers during the First World War, there were those military planners who didn’t believe the metal behemoths would have a future on the battlefield. Following the same war, there were many who believed the era of the battleship would be eclipsed by military aircraft – a point that led to great rivalry between the United States Army, which was the pioneer of heavy bombers, and the United States Navy.
Even within the latter service, there were differing opinions on whether money should be invested in battleships or aircraft carriers. In the end, the flattops proved to be the future – and today, the U.S. Navy operates 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers while its battleships were retired for good some three decades ago.
The Newest Debate Won’t Be Easily Settled
A new debate continues over the role of the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) program.
The Navy has sought to acquire 18 to 35 of the vessels to support the United States Marine Corps, particularly in implementing a new Marine Corps operational concept called Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). The concept was developed to address a growing threat from China in the Western Pacific.
These call for a new class of ships that would be smaller in size – and thus less expensive to procure and operate than the current Amphibious Assault Ships (LHD), which grew out of the Cold War-era landing helicopter assault vessels and that are now larger in size than some foreign aircraft carriers.
Differing Views on the Light Amphibious Warship
Even in agreement on the potential need for the platform, the Marine Corps called for a light warship that could cost around $100 million to $130 million; while the Navy – whose sailors would maintain and operate the ships – along with the Office of the Secretary of Defense had wanted a larger vessel that could offer greater protection to the personnel onboard.
That would triple the cost, and in turn, would reduce the number from the Marine Corps objective of 35 to just 18.
Just last week, Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, defended the program – even as the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2024 (FY24) budget isn’t likely to include much support for the program, DefenseNews.com reported.
During his keynoted speech at the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition annual Congressional Forum, Berger counters claims by critics that the ships aren’t needed under the National Defense Strategy, and they aren’t survivable in high-end conflict. The top Marine further maintained that the U.S. Navy’s fleet remains a critical component to deterring China, and warned that the Department of Defense (DoD) isn’t providing the Navy and the Marine Corps with the resources to support amphibious deterrence.
“Amphibious ships are a unique capability in that they provide numerous options for a combatant commander during peacetime campaigning and in conflict,” said Berger. “Nothing affects a would-be adversary’s decision space more than a warship filled with infantry Marines, backed by their own organic aircraft and logistics, and a complement of state-of-the-art technology – all hidden inside a well-deck or within the skin of the ship. Amphibious warships are critical to deterrence.”
However, critics of the program have also questioned the role that the EABOs could play given the advancement of anti-ship missiles, but also in how far-flung forces could successfully execute their missions given the need to be supplied with food, water, fuel, parts, and ammunition.
Rebuilding the Fleet To Address Future Threats
Just as the aircraft carrier proved vital to defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II, supporters of the LAW program suggest it would be vital should the United States find itself at war with the People’s Republic of China.
Beijing has been building up its fleet – and while mostly smaller vessels – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now larger in overall size than the U.S. Navy, which is looking to cut additional vessels before it takes on the task of increasing the number of ships in the fleet. The fiscal year 2023 (FY23) budget had called for decommissioning four Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships and truncating production of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks meant as replacements.
To address these issues, Berger has called for the DoD to fund a 31-ship amphibious fleet, which would include buying additional San Antonio-class vessels, keeping the Whidbey Island LSDs in service until their replacements are constructed, and procuring additional American-class LHAs.
The Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition (AWIBC), a coalition of 614 companies in 38 states and 226 Congressional districts nationwide that provide parts worth over $1.78 billion to build and maintain amphibious warships for the United States Navy, has continued to advocate for Congress to provide funding for the sustained and stable construction of amphibious warships that it calls vital to the mission of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.
It hosted last week’s event, which included members of Congress and staff.
The AWIBC also sought to raise awareness of the challenges facing the industrial base when it comes to inconsistent defense contracts, the impact of the supply chain, and the importance of maintaining a steady production line for job security.
“Stability in shipbuilding facilitates efficiencies, which translates to cost savings. When the budgets are stable, investment decisions in new more efficient equipment are easy to justify,” said AWIBC Chairman, Dave Forster. “Aggressive material procurement strategies or hedge strategies can be brokered in confidence knowing the budgets will be approved. Instability precludes aggressive investment with risk.”
The latter point is probably something everyone can at least agree upon.