Cost and Survivability: Acquiring the Gator Navy

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.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
Country Class Tonnage Crew
Size
Troop Compliment Cost (FY17) Well Deck Spots Air Spots
Australia Canberra 27,100 358 1046-1400 $1.04B 4 LCVP 9-18
France Mistral 21,300 140 450-900 $644M 2 LCAC 16-35
South Korea Dokdo 18,800 330 720 $355M 2 LCAC 10
Spain Juan Carlos 26,000 261 913 $644M 4 LCVP 25
USA America 45,693 1060 1687 $3.54B 2 LCAC 31
USA Wasp 40,500 1208 1894 $2.3B 3 LCAC 20

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)
Country Class Tonnage Crew
Size
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?

Crew Size

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

Alternative Options

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)
50,938 228 $188M Unk 1500
Roll On/Off & Container Ship
(ex: M/V Kanaloa)
44,200 0 $256M 3,500 TEU 800

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

Conclusion

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.

Endnotes

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.

6. Ibid.

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. [1] 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/

16. Ibid.

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)

7 thoughts on “Cost and Survivability: Acquiring the Gator Navy”

  1. Excellent analysis by LCdr Hilger. He put his finger precisely on the principal reason why the US Navy has relatively few but very expensive ships – not just amphibs, but all ship classes: the neverending quest to stuff more and more gear into Navy ships, as if cost were not a factor or a performance objective. Cost is just like any other performance objective – i.e, speed, range, firepower, and sensor capability.

    There is obviously a need for high end capability in at least some ships, but no nation can afford to have an entire navy consist only of high end ships, with more and bigger and better everything on board. The US Navy needs to do a better job of prioritizing performance objectives, including cost.

    That process has already begun with the design of FFGX, where cost was explicitly stated as a top level performance objective. The development of unmanned vessels similarly is largely about “getting more bang for the buck”.

    So similarly the gator navy needs to follow the same paradigm. Stop thinking about all the top line combatant warship capabilities – like VLS and ASCM launchers and top line air defense radars – that can be stuffed into an amphib ..leave those capabilities to the escorts .. and then build better resilience into the amphibs should they take any ASCM hits.

    And minimizing crew size must be a key element of cost containment. Large crews not only cost a lot of taxpayer money to recruit, train, qualify, and retain, but they also consume a great deal of hull volume and hotel/environmental support capability. Automate and simplify the ship designs. Follow the lead of not only LCS and the Zumwalts, but also the Ford CVN, which cut the Nimitz crew size by 1/3.

    Similarly our SSNs have been bloated over the last three decades while gaining in capability only marginally .. they need to be slimmed down and made cheaper too, or we’ll never achieve the 66 SSN fleet the Navy says it needs.

  2. The LCDR misses the point about crew size by ignoring: TAD requirements, Damage Control, extra watches for straight transits,

    that while 75-100 may be on watch at any ONE time – the day is 24 HOURS and fatige sets in quickly while on watch and you need enough Sailors to stand watch 24/7 while underway.

    Leaning the crews is NOT working on LCS, DDG1000 or anywhere else.

    If crew sizes are going to be decreased then watch requirements must ALSO be decreased across the board.

    1. You are absolutely wrong. Leaning the crews absolutely IS working out great on the newest ships .. so well that Admiral Boxall, Surface Warfare Director stated that the decision has already been made to go with leaner crews, with much greater automation, on both FFGX and all the next gen combatants, combining that with Blue Gold crewing creates much better trained crews, much fresher, and better prepared to sail their ships on very long deployments. The same is happening on the Ford CVNs as well as the Zumwalts.

      You can’t simply cut the crew size with the same equipment .. the ships have to be designed from keel to antenna mast to be more automated, with highly engineered streamlined process designs that simply require fewer warm bodies.

      This is actually nothing new .. back in the Napoleonic wars era, a typical third rate ship of the line carried upwards of 700 officers and crew on a ship that displaced but 500-600 tons. Steam power and electricity did a great deal to automate ships

      Today we have already proved we can send an unmanned ship out on the seas for a 7,000 mile round trip and do it safely. The notion that we somehow need hundreds of warm bodies to operate ships that merchantmen can operate with crews of 2 dozen ought to seem ridiculous enough already.

      1. I agree with both of you. It’s possible to leverage technology to reduce manning and get the same operational impact. But, the requirements – whether for numbers of people on watch, numbers of people manning a detail, administrative requirements, training requirements, collateral duties, etc. – need to be adjusted accordingly.

        There are three big differences behind the manning of active-duty ships and merchant ships. First: active-duty ships have far more missions. Commercial ships generally only transit and deliver products. Active-duty ships are designed for multiple simultaneous offensive and defensive missions, all while still transiting (navigation/engineering requirements).

        Second: active-duty ships are designed to take damage and keep operating/fighting. As such, they have to have a lot of extra bodies on board, so a certain percentage can be lost as casualties with minimal impact to the ship’s fighting capabilities.

        Third: On active-duty ships, the ship is a training environment. Sailors largely arrive untrained, inexperienced, and unqualified, and spend much of a 2-4 year tour conducting OJT. By the time they know their job, it’s nearly time to rotate elsewhere. In contrast, on commercial ships, mariners complete nearly all training and qualification in the schoolhouse and arrive ready to assume their duties, unaided, within 24 hours of reporting aboard.

        Many times, I’ve seen assumptions about minimal manning fall apart when they weren’t properly developed throughout the larger organization. For example, removing personnel from ships with the assumption all maintenance/repair is conducted by contractors or shoreside personnel only works if those pierside people actually exist, and are allocated all the extra time/money to take on the ship maintenance. In another case, it was forgotten that ships still needed to be cleaned and to have stores loaded – tasks typically performed by unskilled junior personnel. When those personnel were eliminated, highly skilled personnel were unable to perform their assigned duties because they were called away to load stores and keep the ship sanitary.

        I’ve served on “traditionally” manned military ships, newer “optimally” manned ones, “up-manned” ones in combat zones, and on civilian ships, and I’ve cross-decked to a number of coalition naval ships. It’s entirely possible to rework the manning structure of military ships to take advantage of technology, but the entire larger picture needs to be redesigned at the same time, or the experiment risks falling apart on the backs of overworked sailors.

    1. Nope, not true.

      Crews are the largest component of any manned ship’s operating cost.

      Budget docs are poor sources of info as they combine all kinds of accounts that are not particular to a given hull.

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