The Navy is wrestling with considerations about what the future of naval and expeditionary conflict will look like as it designs a new amphib to replace its aging fleet of 12 dock landing ships.
Called the LX(R), the new amphib ship could be a new design or configuration of several existing ships such as a version of the existing LSD 41/49 or a modified version of the Navy’s LPD 17 San Antonio Class amphibious transport dock, service officials said.
Before deciding upon a final design and configuration for the ship, the Navy is currently conducting a study of requirements called an analysis of alternatives, or AoA, Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, recently told lawmakers on the House Armed Services, or HASC, Committee.
“We examine the art of the possible — things that might be out there – some may be commercial off the shelf and some may be developmental. There are seven or eight variables out there that are potential solution sets to the LSD. That’s what we’re looking at that right now,” Amos told the Committee.
The requirements for the LX(R) are grounded in estimations of a future conflict environment as part of the 2024 Marine Corps Marine Expeditionary Unit and Marine Expeditionary Brigade requirements, said Lt. Rob Myers, Navy spokesman.
“The AoA includes both a full LPD 17 repeated design as well as a reduced capability LPD 17. We are continuing to closely examine costs but it is too early to determine a budget cost since we are still working through and understanding the desired capabilities,” Myers said.
The AoA is expected to be complete in the Spring of 2014, he added. Construction plans for the ship are still being determined but are initially slated for around 2020, Myers added.
“The AoA is researching alternatives in three categories: traditional Navy standards, tailored specifications and commercial standards,” service officials said.
While speaking of the importance of amphibious missions and expeditionary platforms such as amphibious ships, Chief of Naval Operations told the HASC that he wants the LX(R) to be affordable in today’s budget environment. He explained that the right kinds of investments can result in substantial production and manufacturing savings.
“We want that thing to be affordable. If there is a feasibility of taking seed money and looking at what can we do to help industry and designers – we’ve done this with the Virginia-class. This saved us $200 million per copy with the Virginia class,” Greenert said.
Both the LSD and the LPD transport docks are integral to what’s called an Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG. The ARG is tasked with transporting up to 2,200 Marines and their equipment, including what’s called a Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU.
The current configuration of the LPD transport dock is slightly different than the LSD dock landing ship in that it has more aviation capability, more command and control equipment, a crane for use on small boats and a different well deck configuration, Navy officials said.
The 1980’s era LSD dock landing ships consist of eight Whidbey Island-class 609-foot long ships. The 15,000-ton ships, configured largely to house and transport four Landing Craft Air Cushions, or LCACs, are nearing the end of their service life.
There are four Harpers Ferry–class dock landing ships first deployed in 1995; these 16,000-ton ships are also 609 feet-long but only carry two LCACs. The Harpers Ferry-class carriers fewer LCACs but increase the cargo-carrying space on board the ship.
The LSD, which is key to bringing a lot of equipment from ship to shore in LCACs, does not have the same ability to operate independently of an Amphibious Ready Group compared to the LPD 17.
“The LPD will have more robust aviation capability. It still has a well-deck but it is not able to carry as much equipment as an LSD ship. LPD has the command and control and aviation capability to operate independently. The LSD is a cargo ship designed to support the big-deck amphibious assault ship in the ready group,” a Navy official told Military.com.
The LPD is able to transport up to four CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters or two MV-22 Ospreys.
The AoA, therefore, is examining the need for well-deck support, command and control, aviation capability and the extent to which the ship will need to be engineered to operate on its own away from the ARG.
“Requirements change and the world changes and the Marine Corps finds itself doing more disaggregated ops. We are trying to figure out how the LSD will need to function in a future environment,” the service official said.
Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., and industry advocacy groups are hoping the Navy will sustain the amphibious warship industrial base by purchasing a 12th LPD ship, something the Navy and Marine Corps have said is not possible due to budget constraints.
However, Amos did say a 12th ship would help bridge the way forward to LX(R) production, if even in theory.
“We would love to have the 12th ship – there’s little to no money in the budget to do this. The 12th ship would buy us some decision space as we look toward what is going to replace those 12 LSD 41/49 class ships which are nearing the end of their service life,” Amos told the Committee.
Chairman of the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition, Brian Schires, said he hopes that the LX(R) is based upon the LPD 17 design.
“You need to have stability and predictability when you are in a building cycle. It makes good sense to take an LPD 17 hull and you can make that ship into what you need it to be with an LX(R). We need to continue to build what we are building today to keep costs down and deliver products on time,” said Schires, who is also with Rolls-Royce North America.
The argument is to build up an existing LPD 17 production line and avoid the challenges, pitfalls and budget problems typically associated with a new-start ship, he added.