Unbreaking Amphibious Ship Readiness

This is the first of a three article mini-series focusing on Amphibious Ship readiness by Alpha sub Oscar…

Spend any time researching Marine Corps leadership concerns regarding naval readiness and you will see a familiar refrain of lamentations: Not enough ships (down to 31 this year with a USN-USMC agreed requirement of 38); Insufficient C2 / C5I capability and capacity; Threat pushing amphibious standoff ranges further and further out.  The problem set is compounded by an unprecedented fiscal crisis affecting everything from new ship procurement to maintenance / modernization and no relief in Geographic Combatant Commander (GCC) demands for naval amphibious forces.  Decades of lower amphibious prioritization have helped to create this readiness predicament; solving the conundrum will require significant investment and coordinated decisions across the Navy / Marine Corps to restore readiness while meeting the most critical of GCC requirements.

To improve materiel readiness of the in-service amphibious fleet and balance the books, US Naval leadership offered a straw-man course of action (COA) to Congress: place three amphibious landing docks (LSD) into “phased modernization:”

“Similar to the CG ‘phased modernization’ plan, the LSD plan avoids approximately $128 million across the FYDP in operating and maintenance and an end strength increase of approximately 300 people (approximately $110 million over the FYDP) for the one LSD that will be in this category during the PB-15 FYDP. This plan adds 35 operational “ship years” and sustains the presence of the Whidbey Island class in the Battle Force through 2038.[1]

At first blush, the COA is a throw-away.  As stated by III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lieutenant General John Wissler, the GCC requirement for amphibious ships is actually 50,[2] not 38. How could Congress justify laying up a ship—decommissioning it in all but name only—for an extended period of time when a gap of 12 amphibious ships already exists? Major General Robert Walsh, director of the Chief of Naval Operations Expeditionary Warfare Division stated in a National Defense interview that the inventory shortage is not the only issue at hand.

“A low inventory is only part of the problem.  Amphibious ships stay forward-deployed longer because of high demand, leading to missed or shortened maintenance period where only a portion of scheduled work is completed.  The ships have been run hard, and as you run them hard, you see the availability, the readiness rates start to go down…it’s a vicious cycle.”[3]

Breaking the cycle requires relaxing the near term amphibious ship requirement enough to restore the materiel readiness of the ships. Even with the maintenance / training / deployment predictability that we hope to achieve in the optimization of the Fleet Response Plan, can we realistically expect different operational availability / capability?  We have 31 amphibious ships to meet the requirements of five GCCs.  These ships are trapped in the aforementioned vicious cycle and need major maintenance and modernization that can only be accomplished by taking them off-line for protracted periods of time. But doing just that is out of the question with today’s GCC requirements. Changing them is something that the GCC’s cannot do on their own, as they flow down from the missions assigned by the National Command Authority (NCA) and the National Security / National Military Strategies.  The largest requirement on amphibious forces is “presence”—a ubiquitous term which captures everything from Theater Security Cooperation (TSC), Maritime Security Operations (MSO) to deterrence of aggressors and potential aggressors.  Captain Jerry Hendrix articulated the decision making calculus of scheduling platforms to presence requirements in his seminal article At What Cost a Carrier:

“When considering the demands by presidents, allies and combatant commanders for forward-deployed naval presence, wise spenders must question the cost and method of meeting these demands[4].”

Not every mission requiring sea-based Marines requires an Amphibious Ready Group, or even a single disaggregated[5] amphibious ship.  Civilian crewed ships such as Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV), Mobile Landing Platforms (MLP) / Mobile Landing Platform Afloat Staging Bases (MLP-AFSB) and Dry Combat Cargo ships (T-AKE) have the capacity and capability to embark company sized elements and facilitate operations such as permissive non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO), TSC, limited MSO and special operations.  What a civilian crewed ship cannot do is defend itself against a credible threat such as an anti-surface cruise missile or aircraft, or project power in a combined-arms battalion sized amphibious assault.  A civilian crewed ship is not a replacement for an amphibious ship; it is a gap-filler for specific mission sets which have been traditionally assigned to amphibious ships.

Accomplishing the required maintenance and modernization to restore physical readiness and required capability to the Amphibious Fleet may require placing the ships into much maligned ‘phased modernizations’.  The conversely heralded ‘mid-life maintenance availabilities’—such as those being completed for the Whidbey Island class amphibious landing docks—have been truncated and de-scoped throughout the years in order to meet budget and combatant commander requirements.  As the Wasp class amphibious assault ships prepare for their mid-life availabilities and an unprecedented plethora of required hull / mechanical / electrical (HM&E), Joint Strike Fighter and C2 / C5I upgrades, it is inevitable given the fiscal environment that items on the laundry list to improve operational availability and capability will not make the cut.  Pentagon leaders will have to choose between Joint Strike Fighter interoperability, self-defense capability, command and control capability / capacity, and the ship’s hull / mechanical / electrical reliability.  Operational availability vs capability—either way you can’t make up for decades of lower prioritization in 10 month maintenance availabilities. Readiness will ultimately suffer.

In the current fiscal environment, we cannot simply add ships and Sailors to fix the problem.  The operational deficit of amphibious ships is 12—if we are to honor today’s GCC requirements with those added ships, it would require more than 15 amphibious ships before we would start seeing an increase in operational availability / readiness[6].  SSBN(X), SSC and DDG-51 Flt III would all potentially be threatened to pay that bill.  Leadership at the OSD level needs to evaluate the situation and determine where we can afford to take risk—the continued vicious cycle attacking the materiel readiness of our amphibious ships (operational availability, C2/C5I capability and capacity, self-defense capability), or our amphibious shipping presence.

Alpha sub Oscar (AO) is a former US Navy Surface Warfare Officer and current student of the US Naval War College hailing from the great fighting city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[1] Greenert, Admiral Jonathan. “Statement of Admiral Jonathan Greenert USN Chief of Naval Operations Before the House Armed Services Committee on FY 2015 Department of the Navy Posture.”

[2] Insinna, Valerie.  “Marine Forces Japan Commander Raises Concerns on Amphibious Ship Numbers, Readiness.”  National Defense, April 11, 2014 www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/lists/posts/post.aspx?ID=1477

[3] Insinna, Valerie.  “Low Inventory, Low Readiness Plague Amphibious Ship Fleet.”  National Defense, August 2014 http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2014/August/Pages/LowInventoryLowReadinessPlagueAmphibiousShipFleet.aspx

[4] Hendrix, Captain Henry J (Ph.D).  “At What Cost a Carrier?”  Center for a New American Security, Disruptive Defense Papers, March 2013.

[5] Disaggregated operations are defined in EF-21 “…requiring elements of the ARg/MEU to function separately and independently, regardless of time and distance…”

[6] Assuming an amphibious shipping buy across each major class of ships: 1 additional each of LHA/D, LPD, LSD

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