By LCDR Ryan Hilger, USN
The president recently reiterated his call, echoed by many in the Department of Defense, for a larger Navy to meet the world’s threats. That call, however, is meeting the harsh reality of spiraling ship costs over the last 20 years. Indeed, over a decade ago then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Vern Clark told Congress, “[w]hen adjusted for inflation, for example, the real cost increase in every class of ship and aircraft that we have bought since I was an Ensign…has been truly incredible.”1
While much of the news surrounding ships and their growing price tags focuses on aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines, there is another class of ship that likewise threatens to break the Navy’s bank – amphibious ships. Despite a historical track record of damage-free employment and a reputation for straightforward “truck-like” delivery of Marines and their gear, the Navy continues to saddle these ships with greater defensive requirements and a level of sophistication out of touch with the mission they are meant to support. Using history and a clear assessment of expeditionary warfare as guides, the Navy needs to reexamine just how much it wants to put into these platforms and consider a return to a more stripped-down, cost-effective platform that can be built in greater numbers for the same price.
The Demand for Amphibs
Marines provide combatant commanders with a variety of options to fulfill the president’s National Security Strategy around the world, ranging from theater security cooperation to forcible entry. The Navy is obligated by public law to embark Marines for “service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”2 The current requirement for amphibious ships stands at 38, enough to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades for an amphibious assault. The Navy has not met this requirement since 2003.3 The current fleet inventory of 33 ships implicitly accepts the risk that the Marine Corps may not be able to simultaneously meet its presence and force generation requirements.4 The projected cost of the LX(R) replacement, set at $1.643 billion per ship, means that the Navy will likely continue accepting this risk, despite the CNO stating that the industrial base could produce at least five more ships in the next six years.5
Ground Component Commanders (GCCs) continue to signal a demand for amphibious forces, reaching high enough to justify 40 amphibious ships required to meet requested presence requirements.6 The CNO, Admiral John Richardson, articulated in The Future Navy that the Navy knows it needs the “inherent flexibility of a larger amphibious fleet.”7 Throughout Expeditionary Force 21, the Marine Corps acknowledges that the operational environment has changed significantly since the last amphibious ships were built. Amphibious landings, once conducted within sight of the beach, have been pushed further out because of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). The Marine Corps now sets the benchmark distance at 65 nautical miles from shore. Survivability seems to be the primary concern, but is the fundamental assumption that an amphibious ship must be built to naval vessel construction standards actually valid?
Battle Damage and Amphibious Operations
In 1921, Marine Lieutenant Colonel “Pete” Ellis published Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, the Marine Corps’ contribution to War Plan Orange and the foundation of modern amphibious doctrine.8 The United States conducted dozens of amphibious assaults in World War II and several more during Korea and Vietnam. The vast majority of the amphibious ships were passenger ships retrofitted as troop transports, not organic warships. At no time did amphibious assault forces conduct a landing unescorted. Indeed, a survey of the available battle damage records for World War II and the Korean War indicates that large amphibious ships did not receive battle damage and none were lost. The escorts and landing craft bore the brunt of the enemy attempts to repulse the attack, despite the larger ships offloading within sight of the beach. In 1982, the British conducted the last major amphibious assault to recapture the Falkland Islands. Despite an acute ASCM threat from Argentinian air power, no amphibious ships were lost. The British lost the Atlantic Conveyor, a relatively small merchant ship taken up from trade, and a handful of escorts. History shows the United States will almost always provide an extensive escort to conduct forcible entry operations.
The threat of ASCMs to ships in the littoral regions has grown significantly in the last half century. The proliferation of highly capable missiles, such as the Exocet and the C-802, places U.S. Navy deployed forces at risk daily. USS Mason (DDG-87) was forced to defend itself in October 2016 when Houthi rebels in Yemen launched two missiles at the destroyer, who was escorting USS Ponce (LPD-15) at the time. This attack came soon after the successful attack on the United Arab Emirates-operated HSV Swift by Houthi rebels with a C-802 the week prior.9 ASCMs have proven successful at causing significant damage or sinking warships in the past, as the attacks on HMS Sheffield (D80) in 1982 and USS Stark (FFG-31) in 1987 so aptly demonstrate. But these were small combatants, each around 4,500 tons, and Atlantic Conveyor was not much bigger at 14,900 tons.
These data points seem conclusive, but the 1980s provided an exceptional data set of ASCM attacks on much larger ships. During the Iran-Iraq War, the attacks from both sides expanded to merchant shipping and, eventually, U.S. forces began escorting them as part of Operation EARNEST WILL. The Iraqis began attacking shipping in 1984 and Iran responded in kind in 1986, resulting in the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers under U.S. flag and direct U.S. escort and convoy operations.10 Iran and Iraq cumulatively launched 487 attacks against merchant shipping, mostly with Exocets (62.5 percent). Only a handful missed, resulting in 19 sunk. Of these 19, seven were under 1200 deadweight tons (dwt), seven were between 1,200-30,000 dwt, three were between 60,000-90,000 dwt, one unknown, and one tipped the scales at 224,850 dwt.11 Overall, the percentage of merchant ships sunk in all air attacks, not just ASCM attacks, peaked at 10.34 percent in 1984, remained below 4 percent until 1987, and fell to 1 percent in 1988.12 Navias and Hooten report that only 115 of the ships attacked, or 27.9 percent, were considered constructive total losses, half of which were tankers. They conclude:
“The Tanker War certainly demonstrated that the robust construction of merchantman made them far less vulnerable to modern weapons systems than might have been expected. The most vulnerable vessels were the bulk carriers, with their vast holds, and the traditional freighter whose high freeboard and central superstructure attracted missile seekers like a moth to flame.”13
Retired Captain Wayne Hughes, a professor emeritus at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of the landmark work Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, looked at all ASCM attacks and concluded that it took more than one ASCM hit to place a ship out of action, and nearly two hits to sink it. The vast majority of the attacks were against smaller ships. Escort ships reduced the probability of hit by more than 60 percent.14 Thus, larger ships are far more survivable due to sheer size, especially when escorted. This all begs the question: why are we paying for warship standards and systems when the ships, especially larger ones, are likely to survive alone and would be escorted in higher-threat environments? Do other navies do the same?
Foreign Amphibious Ships
Spanish shipbuilder Navantia shocked the modern Navy when it announced that it was teaming up with Bath Iron Works to design the U.S. Navy’s next generation frigate.15 Many commentators balked at the hint of outsourcing an American warship design to a foreign company. However, as Navantia was quick to point out, the Navy has a history of doing that—Bath Iron Works and Navantia cooperated in designing the Oliver Hazard Perry (U.S.) and Santa Maria (SP) class of frigates in the 1980s.16 Other nations likely design their warships to similar standards as the U.S. Navy does, meaning the comparisons should be valid.
The comparison considers the amphibious assault ships (LHA/LHD classes), amphibious transport docks (LPDs), and dock landing ships (LSDs), which are all common across several of the world’s navies. The chart below provides relevant statistics about these ships for analysis.
|Amphibious Assault Ships (LHA/LHD)17|
|Troop Compliment||Cost (FY17)||Well Deck Spots||Air Spots|
|South Korea||Dokdo||18,800||330||720||$355M||2 LCAC||10|
|Spain||Juan Carlos||26,000||261||913||$644M||4 LCVP||25|
At first glance, the comparison seems invalid since the U.S. ships are nearly twice the size of the next foreign ship, the Canberra class. However, the Canberra is a scant 100 feet shorter than the U.S. ships, meaning the density of the equipment onboard the US LHA/LHDs is far greater than the Australian class. RAND identified the root cause of this disparity as the U.S. propensity for more technologically complex ships. These ships will perform the exact same missions, but the Canberra-class is a third the cost. The Spanish Juan Carlos class has the same specifications as the Australian Canberra-class, but with fewer crew and embarked troops. The Mistral and Dokdo, a full 200 feet shorter than the equivalent U.S. classes, are still about half the tonnage of the U.S. ships. RAND identified light ship weight (LSW)18 and power density as most closely correlated with ship cost. In this case, LSW and power density for the U.S. ships is significantly higher in our analysis, and the RAND researchers calculate this at an 80-90 percent increase across the ship classes they evaluated.19 The U.S. ships simply have more stuff than their foreign counterparts. We continue the analysis with LPDs and LSDs.
|Amphibious Transport Dock and Dock Landing Ships (LPD and LSD)|
|Troop Compliment||Cost (FY17)||Well Deck Spots|
|China||Yuzhao LPD||25,000||120||500-800||$630M (est)||4 LCAC|
|Singapore||Endurance LSD||8,500||65||350-500||Unk.||2 LCVP|
|Britain||Bay LSD||16,160||228||355-700||$205M||2 LCVP|
|Indonesia||Makassar LSD||8,400||126||218-518||$58M||2 LCVP|
|Italy||San Giorgio LSD||8,000||180||350||$303M||3 LCVP|
|USA||San Antonio LPD||25,300||360||700||$1.72B||2 LCAC|
|USA||Whidbey Island LSD||16,100||330||504||$653M||6 LCAC|
|USA||Harpers Ferry LSD||15,939||410||500||$524M||2 LCAC|
The conclusions are similar. The Chinese Yuzhao-class, a newer class of amphibious ship that looks similar to the San Antonio-class, is more than 60 percent cheaper and likely has comparable capabilities. Interestingly, several navies have built much smaller amphibious ships of nearly half the tonnage of their American counterparts, yet carry nearly the same number of troops. Those ships are about two-thirds the length and 10-20 feet narrower, meaning the LSW ratio is lower on those ships than the U.S. LSDs. Yet the U.S. Navy consistently pays significantly more for its amphibious ships than foreign navies. RAND found that labor rates and other economic factors did not significantly drive ship costs, meaning their conclusion of LSW, power density, and requirements is likely true. What to do?
The analysis thus far yields several interesting areas that the Navy can exploit for future cost savings without a major loss of capabilities. Crew size, arguably, would have the most outsized impact not only on sticker price but, more importantly, total ownership cost for new classes of ships. The charts above show that U.S. ships routinely have 2-3 times the number of sailors onboard. Indeed, of the 1000-plus sailors onboard a U.S. LHD, a scant 75-100 of them are on watch at any given time. Leaning the crews, already in the test phase with both the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and the Zumwalt-class DDGs, provides substantial savings across the life of the ship, especially when taking advantage of automation and other features prevalent in the modern shipbuilding industry for damage control, cargo handling, and other tasks. Retired Captain George Galdorisi proved this point recently, citing the Government Accountability Office, which noted, “The cost of a ship’s crew is the single largest cost incurred over the ship’s lifecycle.” The report, he continues, “suggested the Navy has not moved out quickly enough to reduce manpower on all types of ships.”20
Beyond looking to foreign navies for inspiration for more affordable ships, the Navy can also look internally to re-purpose some platforms already in the inventory and a civilian equivalent, which now fit within the Marine Corps’ Operating Concept of offloading the ground element further out to sea. The chart below provides the relevant information.
|Other Viable Ships|
|Ship Type||Tonnage||Berths||Cost (FY17)||Cargo Capacity||Vehicle Capacity|
|Large, Medium-Speed, Roll On/Off (LMSR)||62,069||0||$452M||380,000 sq ft||1000|
|Roll On/Off & Passenger Ship
(ex: M/V Ulysses)
|Roll On/Off & Container Ship
(ex: M/V Kanaloa)
Expeditionary Transfer Docks provide the necessary deck space to offload an LMSR at sea, meaning that any other large cargo or passenger ship, such as the two merchant ships listed, would also, if designed to support, be able to offload Marines and their equipment, or the unmanned systems of the first wave, to connectors like LCACs. Their sheer size makes them significantly more survivable against ASCM threats than their smaller LPD and LSD cousins, especially when escorted. The costs would increase slightly as the necessary basic military requirements get added on, such as limited defensive capabilities, communications equipment, and redundant damage control systems, but the LSW ratio proves that the cost would remain significantly lower than the price points of our current amphibious ships.
The newer Expeditionary Staging Bases, designed to provide command and control capabilities, remove the need for large command suites on amphibious transports.21 Larger, cheaper amphibious transports provide the additional benefit of allowing the Marine Corps to reconsider the seaborne structure of the Marine Expeditionary Unit, which it wants to do, enabling it to leverage smaller platforms like the LCS or Joint High Speed Vessel to further disaggregate the force or employ smaller unmanned systems.22
The ships we procure today will likely see major advances in hypersonic missile technology, persistent and ubiquitous sensing, and artificial intelligence during their long service lives. The Marine Corps is already acknowledging the need to push well deck operations further off shore because of longer-range threats. The Navy to date has not recognized that the past and future employment constructs and incidents do not seem to justify the cost of the amphibious ships we are procuring. Larger, cheaper platforms provide inherent survivability through physical size and allow the Navy to procure more ships, simultaneously fulfilling the CNO’s and the Marine Corps’ desire for a larger amphibious force to help reach a 355-ship navy. It is past time for the Navy to seriously reconsider some of its most fundamental attributes and assumptions of warship acquisition. We cannot afford to continue otherwise.
Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington, DC. He writes frequently on topics across the maritime domain. His views are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense.
1. “Statement of Admiral Vernon Clark, U. S. Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, Posture Statement, 10 March 2005,” Defense Subcommittee on Defense of the House Appropriations Committee, p. 22.
2. 10 United States Code §5063, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/5063
3. “An Analysis of the Navy’s Amphibious Warfare Ships for Deploying Marines Overseas,” Congressional Budget Office, November 2011, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/11-18-AmphibiousShips.pdf.
“US Ship Force Levels: 1886-Present,” Navy History and Heritage Command, November 17, 2017, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/us-ship-force-levels.html#2000
4. “Expeditionary Force 21,” United States Marine Corps, March 2014, p. 18.
5. “Future Navy,” United States Navy, p. 7.
7. “The Future Navy,” p. 7.
Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy LX(R) Amphibious Ship Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, November 30, 2017, p. 5.
8. B. A. Friedman, “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia,” 21st Century Ellis (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 86-139.
9. Sam LaGrone, “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend from Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack,” USNI News, October 11, 2016, https://news.usni.org/2016/10/11/uss-mason-fired-3-missiles-to-defend-from-yemen-cruise-missiles-attack
10. M. Navias and E. Hooten, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping during the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York, NY: Tauris Academic Publishers, 1996.
11.  M/V Song Bong, a North Korean tanker of 224,850 dwt, was sunk while loading at Kharg.
12. M. Navias and E. Hooten, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping during the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York, NY: Tauris Academic Publishers, 1996.
13. Ibid, p. 187.
14. Wayne Hughes, “The Record of Missile Attacks on Ships” (Presentation, Naval Postgraduate School, May 1, 2007).
15. “GDBIW joins forces with Navantia for US Navy FFG(X) frigate bid,” NavalToday.com, November 23, 2017, https://navaltoday.com/2017/11/23/gdbiw-joins-forces-with-navantia-for-us-navy-ffgx-frigate-bid/
17. All information in the charts is derived from open sources.
18. The weight of the ship without fuel, stores, or personnel onboard.
19. Arena et al, p. xv
20. George Galdorisi, “The Navy Cannot Afford Large Crews,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 145, Issue 1.
21. “Expeditionary Transfer Dock/Expeditionary Mobile Base,” United States Navy Fact File, 26 January 2018, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4600&tid=675&ct=4.
22. “Expeditionary Force 21,” p. 43.
Featured Image: English: SAN DIEGO (Jan. 20, 2009) The San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Green Bay (LPD 20) moors at a pier in Long Beach Harbor. (U.S. Navy photo by Gregg Smith/Released)