WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps is asking lawmakers to compel the Navy to keep building amphibious warships, as the sea service wants to truncate San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock production and take a “strategic pause” to reconsider future amphib ships.
The Marine Corps’ fiscal 2024 unfunded priorities list, a copy of which was obtained by Defense News, asks for $1.71 billion to finish buying LPD-33, the next San Antonio ship in the class.
In last year’s FY23 budget request, the Navy asked for $1.67 billion to buy LPD-32 but also announced its plans to end the ship class there.
The Marines pushed back by including in their FY23 unfunded priorities list $250 million in advance procurement funding for LPD-33 — essentially a down payment on the next ship in the production line — which Congress gave them. This was an unusual move because ships must be funded through the Navy’s shipbuilding account, something the Marines wouldn’t formally opine on. They have now done that two years in a row, as Marine Corps leaders grow more urgent in their pleas for the Navy to refrain from decommissioning older amphibious ships without investing in their replacements.
This funding for LPD-33 is actually earlier than needed: To keep HII Ingalls Shipbuilding’s production line on track, LPD-33 should be purchased in FY25, since the ships are bought on two-year intervals. Its inclusion in the unfunded priorities list this year appears to be more about messaging than the actual need for this money right now, amid a fight over the narrative surrounding the amphibious ship production line and requirement.
Last week Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the production line is running behind schedule and that he expects the cost of LPD-32, which is still being negotiated between the Navy and HII, to increase as much as 25% compared to a few ships ago.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger explained it differently, saying the hot production line is at peak efficiency and that the yard itself is on a good cost curve in constant-year dollars, not accounting for inflation. He added that buying the LPDs in a multiyear procurement contract, like the Navy does for all its other major ship programs, would alleviate some of the inflationary pressure.
The services and combatant commands send unfunded priorities lists to Congress to outline items they wanted to include in their budget request that didn’t make it through the revision process with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
While lawmakers don’t have to consider the lists, they’ve often been supportive of Marine Corps and Navy priorities here, especially when it comes to shipbuilding. This year, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker (R) and House Armed Services Committee seapower and projection forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Trent Kelly (R) both hail from Mississippi, where Ingalls Shipbuilding is located.
The Marines also asked for $1.09 billion in Force Design 2030 funding, something Berger previewed to Defense News last week. These items are meant to accelerate the fielding of tools and platforms important to the future distributed fight, Berger explained.
The FY24 unfunded priorities list also includes $253 million for two additional KC-130J cargo and refueling aircraft and spares, on top of the two included in the president’s budget request unveiled earlier this month.
It also includes $93 million for CH-53K heavy lift helicopter spare parts, $122 million for four F-35B engines and other spare parts, and $36 million for a KC-130J weapons system trainer and spares.
To move Marines around, the list includes $206.3 million for Joint Light Tactical Vehicles and trailers, $6 million to buy Ultra-Light Tactical Vehicle-High Power vehicles and $21 million to buy the Ultra-Light-Weight Camouflage Netting System.
The list includes a number of sensing and data-sharing items, including $160 million for four additional AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar systems, $78.5 million in research and development funds for a Marine Agile Network Gateway Link (MANGL) digital interoperability effort, $5.1 million for Distributed Common Ground/Surface System-Marine Corps (DCGS-MC) intelligence workstations, $5.1 million for Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) test and evaluation work, and more.
Outside of Force Design 2030 priorities, the list also includes $31.2 million to give the H-1 helicopters Link-16 and Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) connectivity.
Finally, the list includes $757.6 million in military construction projects, including $227 million for a Water Reclamation Facility compliance upgrade at Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii; $91 million for a 10th Marines maintenance and operations complex at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina; and $145 million for 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion maintenance and operations facilities at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.