Study of amphibious ship requirements could be bad news for Marines and industry

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ARLINGTON, Va. — A study of amphibious warfare vessel requirements that will help inform future budgets appears less likely to yield the results the United States Marine Corps wants.

The amphibious portfolio is central to naval integration between the Marine Corps and Navy. The Corps relies on these ships to transport Marine expeditionary units around the world, and the service plans its force structure in part based on the number of ready amphibious groups ready to support these units. But it is Navy sailors who man the ships of the Amphibious Ready Groups, and the service is responsible for purchasing and maintaining them.

The Navy already faces a massive bill from the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, coupled with other high-priority acquisition and readiness needs. In fiscal year 2021, lawmakers gave the Navy the authority to purchase amphibious transport docks and an amphibious assault ship together in a multi-year block purchase — the gold standard for ship acquisition and a cost-cutting measure the Navy would have jumped on a few years ago. . But the service let that authority expire, saying at a hearing in June that it wouldn’t commit to buying four amphibs because it doesn’t know how many it wants.

During a briefing on the program last week as part of the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference, a program manager had little to say about the potential multi-ship deal.

“We have an amphibious force structure study underway that will assess our requirements and the way forward for amphibians,” said Captain Cedric McNeal. “This study is expected to be completed towards the end of the March period, and this study will indicate where we are going with future purchases and acquisition strategies to ensure that we purchase these remaining platforms in the most affordable and as smart as possible.”

Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for Combat Development and Integration, said in a keynote at the conference that the Pentagon is focused on a “resource-based need” for amphibians. rather than the actual operational need for the boats. This, he added, worries him, because the results of the study will not fully specify what the Navy and Marine Corps need.

“Rapid global response and daily peer-to-peer competition requires … no less – or a threshold, in the requirements speak – than 31 amphibious ships,” he said, which would produce three ready-to-use amphibious groups/ marine expeditionary units ready for deployment at any time.

Gen. Eric Smith, who served as Heckl before becoming deputy commandant of the Marine Corps in the fall, told lawmakers last summer that dropping to 28 ships — the bottom of the Marines’ requirement — could result in a “hazard in arrival times” during mission response.

But, Heckl said, the current study does not examine the requirement through the prism of what services need to fulfill their missions, but rather through the lens of affordability — what lawmakers have to repeatedly urged the Navy to do in recent years as the service struggles to articulate what it needs to deter or defeat China and Russia.

“A requirement is a requirement pure and simple. And I said this to my staff: a resource requirement is a budget submission, not a requirement. The requirement is the requirement, and the last time I checked, my job, the job of the Marine Corps, is to kill our nation’s adversaries and smash all their stuff – that’s the requirement. So when I hear people using terms like a resource-based requirement, alarm bells go off, which is happening with amphibs right now, quite frankly,” Heckl said when interviewed by Defense News on the current study on amphibs.

“We are engaged by [congressional] personnel and by representatives, by senators on what the Navy needs,” Heckl added. “The amphib study is still ongoing, we’ve notified the Secretary of the Navy, so I’m not going to go after this thing and get fired two months into labor. … But is it that I think money is the limiter Absolutely my personal [opinion], Yes. When people use terms like requirement considering resources, it is money.

An “anxious” industry

The Navy has not released a 30-year shipbuilding plan to accompany its fiscal year 2021 budget request due to friction between the service and the then Secretary of Defense’s Pentagon leadership team. , Mark Esper, regarding fleet size and shipbuilding costs. This situation has led to the continuation of a future force study from 2019 through most of 2020. The Navy also has not released a 30-year plan to accompany its FY22 budget, as the new Biden administration was still weighing its priorities, releasing only a single-year budget rather than projecting for years to come.

In the FY20 plan (the last time a long-range plan was released), the Navy called for the purchase of the LHA-9 amphibious assault ship in fiscal year 24 – seven years after LHA- 8, despite the industry argument that four-year intervals are best for the program. The Navy also asked to roll back LPD procurement to make way for other shipbuilding priorities.

The only document the Biden administration has released with its own shipbuilding targets calls for a wide range for overall fleet size — 321-372 manned ships — and an amphibious ship fleet size of 24-28. According to Smith, the 28-ship fleet could compromise mission response time.

Between the FY20 plan, the lack of clarity in the nearly three years since, and the Navy’s disinterest in last year’s opportunity to fulfill a multi-year amphibious ship contract, the industry struggles. asks if the future holds less work.

Steve Sloan, the LPD program manager at Ingalls Shipbuilding, told Defense News on a Jan. 12 media call that Ingalls has a good backlog, with three LPDs in production, a fourth is expected to begin manufacturing this spring and the LHA-9 amphibious assault ship should be contracted soon.

But, he noted, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees authorized $250 million for long-delay materiel for the LPD-32 in the National Defense Authorization Act for the LPD-32. FY22, and he said Ingalls needed the Appropriations Committees to grant that money early in FY22 and then follow up with the rest of the full shipbuilding funding in FY23.

“It sends the signal not only to Ingalls, but more importantly to the hundreds of suppliers across the country,” he said. “The pumps, the valve makers, the door makers, everyone who builds ship components, must start before us, and [Ingalls has to] get these orders to them in a timely manner. [Timely funding] is really what gives us stability and also helps with pricing. »

As for the study of amphibious vessel requirements, Sloan added, “We’re looking forward to seeing the results. But what we would really like to see is funding for the LPD-32. And then, I might add, even if we get the LHA-9 under contract, we’d like to see some certainty on the LHA-10 on a four-year center and have this predictability “that the next ship in the production line will be purchased in a timely manner to keep the production line running at full capacity.

Lawmakers squeezed money into the budget to keep the amphibious ship program on track, even though the Navy didn’t ask for it. Asked if it mattered to Ingalls and his contractors that Congress took the initiative there, Sloan was grateful.

But, he added, it would be nice to have a projection of future years’ defense program spending as well as a stable 30-year shipbuilding plan so the industry is prepared.

Megan Eckstein is a naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported on four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.

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