WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps is moving as fast as it can to field a new class of light amphibious warship, but it remains unclear what it will do, where it will be based or what capabilities it will bring to the fight.
The idea behind the ship is to take a commercial design or adapt a historic design to make a vessel capable of accommodating up to 40 sailors and at least 75 Marines to transport Marine kit over a range of about 3,500 nautical miles, according to a recent industry day presentation.
While the presentation noted that the ship should have few tailored Navy requirements, that also creates a problem: If the Navy is going to pay tens of millions to develop, build, crew and operate them, should it not provide some additional value to the fleet?
Analysts, experts and sources with knowledge of internal discussions who spoke to Defense News say the answer to that question is a source of friction inside the Pentagon.
The idea of the warship arrived on the scene in 2019 with the ascension of Gen. David Berger as commandant of the Marine Corps. His planning guidance called for a smaller, more agile amphibious force that could operate inside the Chinese anti-access, area denial window in the South China Sea.
In a recent virtual meeting of the Surface Navy Association, the chief of naval operations' director of expeditionary warfare, Maj. Gen. Tracy King, emphasized that above all, the platform must be cheap and come online quickly.
“I see the efficacy of this [light amphibious warship] is really to help us in the phases and stages we’re in right now,” King said Aug. 27. “We need to start doing things differently, as an extension of the fleet, under the watchful eye of our Navy, engaging with our partners and allies and building partner capacity: We ought to be doing that right now. I think we’re late to need with building the light amphibious warship, which is why we’re trying to go so quickly.”
When asked whether the ship should contribute to a more distributed sensor architecture to align with the Navy’s desire to be more spread out over a large area during a fight, King answered in the affirmative.
"[But] I really see it benefiting from [that architecture] more,” he said. “We need to build an affordable ship that can get after the ability to do maritime campaigning in the littorals.”
The unstated implication appeared to be that if the ship is loaded up with sensors and requirements, it will slow down the process and increase the cost. Analysts who spoke to Defense News agreed with that, saying the Navy is likely trying to put more systems on the platform that will make it more complex and more expensive.
The Navy has said it wants to keep the price under $100 million per platform and begin purchasing them as early as the latter half of 2022.
“The hardest part is going to be appetite suppression, especially on the part of the Navy,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and analyst with The Heritage Foundation. "This is what we saw in the littoral combat ship: It started out as a very light, near-shore, small and inexpensive street fighter. And then people started adding on requirements. You had ballooning costs, increasing complexity of the platform, and you get into all kinds of problems.
“The Marine Corps wants this quickly. It needs it to be inexpensive so you can have 28-30 of them over a three- to four-year period.”
There is the additional challenge of where the ships will be based, since they will probably not be built to the kinds of standards of normal Navy vessels built to last for 30-40 years in service. The minimum service life for the light amphibious warship will be about 10 years, according to the industry day presentation.
Wood said that would be a challenge for the Marines and the State Department to work out in parallel with the effort to get the hulls quickly built.
Jerry Hendrix, a retied Navy captain and analyst with the Telemus Group, agreed with that assessment, saying the Marines are eager to move forward to get something fielded, in part to make sure this transition to a lighter, more distributed force being pushed by Berger actually happens.
"The commandant can’t divest of some of the legacy platforms he’s building — these big, expensive and vulnerable platforms — until he has something that replaces it in the water. And so he’s anxious to get going with something else so he then has a reason to move away from what he has.
“The commandant is well aware he has a four-year clock and its ticking. So if he’s going to make changes, he’s got to get moving to get those changes in place and commit the Marine Corps to them to make sure it’s going to last. And right now I’m not sure there’s a lot of high confidence that they are going to last.”
Hendrix acknowledged that the Navy has good reason to want the light amphibious warship to have more capability, but added that the Corps is more interested in something simple than something costly and elaborate.
“What that does,” Hendrix said, “is drive up unit cost and drive down the numbers that can be purchased.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.