In the Future, U.S. Navy Assault Ships Will Face More Threats in More Places
Pint-sized motherships will operate independently
The USS Portland, or LPD 27, recently completed a series of at-sea tests including full power runs, self-defense detect-to-engage exercises, evaluations of combat and communications systems, rapid ballast/de-ballast operations, steering checks and anchor handling demonstrations.
Portland is part of a broader Navy and Marine Corps strategy to prepare amphibious transport ships for the future. The Navy is also building a new, multi-mission amphibious assault ship designed to function in a modern threat environment, conduct a wider range of missions than the ship it is replacing, and help the service increase the lagging number of amphibs in the force, senior officials said.
While LPD 27 is the eleventh San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock to join the fleet, the service is engineering a new ship called the LX(R) — loosely based on an LPD 17 hull — with expanded technologies.
The Navy plans to build at least 11 new LX(R) ships, with the first one slated to deliver by 2026, service developers said. In September of last year, Huntington Ingalls Industries secured a $19.1 million contract modification to accelerate design work on the U.S. Navy’s LX(R) amphibious ship replacement program.
The Navy hopes to add much greater numbers of amphibious assault ships to the fleet while simultaneously adjusting to modern threats. This will require individual Amphibious Ready Groups — or ARGs — to perform a wider range of missions. Modern near-peer adversaries increasingly posses long-range sensors and precision-guided munitions, a phenomenon which will require more operational diversity from ARGs.
The Navy’s new LXR
The Navy plans new LX(R) amphibs to replace its current fleet of dock landing ships, or LSD 41s, which have functioned for years as ARG support vessels. This move to replace the dock landing ships with LPD 17-like hulls seems to speak to a Navy effort to help compensate for an amphibious assault ship deficit.
The Navy used to be able to deploy up to five ARGs at one time, however the fleet is smaller than it was in the 1980s. And today, the Navy responds to wider range of contingencies including counter-terrorism operations, counter-piracy, humanitarian missions, disaster response and, of course, full-scale amphibious combat operations.
This requires that the three ships in each ARG have the ability to disperse when necessary and operate independently, known in military parlance as split or “dis-aggregated” operations.
An amphibious assault ship, a dock landing ship — or LSD — and the San Antonio-class LPD 17 amphibious transport dock are all integral to an ARG, tasked with transporting at least 2,200 Marines and their equipment as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The 684-foot long LPD 17s can hit speeds of 22 knots and carry four CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters or two MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. The LSD also travels around 20 knots, however it is only 609 feet long and not equipped to house aircraft.
Both the LPD 17 and the LSDs have well-decks for amphibious operations along with the ability to launch hovercraft, or LCACs. However, the LPD 17 weighs close to 25,000 tons and the LSD is only 16,000 tons.
The 1980s-era LSDs consist of eight Whidbey Island-class ships. The 15,000-ton ships, configured largely to house and transport four LCACs, are nearing the end of their service life.
While the mission of the existing LSD is primarily, among other things, to launch LCACs for amphibious operations, the new LX(R) ship will a much wider mission set — including greater aviation and command-and-control technologies. This will allow the vessel to reach back to the joint force headquarters, while staying in contact with nearby ships and controlling the landing force, Navy and Marine Corps developers added.
The Pentagon sees having more amphibs specifically constructed for independent operations as a strategic advantage in light of the Pacific rebalance and the geographical expanse of the region. The widely dispersed territories in the region may require a greater degree of independent operations where single amphibs operate separately from a larger ARG.
Corps officials explain that the greater use of amphibious assault ships is likely as the Marine Corps continues to shift toward more sea-based operations from its land-based focus during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, Navy and Marine Corps leaders are quick to acknowledge that there is a massive shortfall of amphibious assault ships across the two services. In recent years, senior service leaders have said that if each requirement or request for amphibs from U.S. military combatant commanders worldwide were met, the Navy would need 50 amphibs.
The Navy currently operates only roughly 30 amphibs and plans to reach 38 by the late 2020s.
This article originally appeared at Scout Warrior.