Navy amphibious ships are operated by the Navy, with crews consisting of Navy personnel. They are battle force ships, meaning ships that count toward the quoted size of the Navy. The primary function of Navy amphibious ships is to lift (i.e., transport) embarked U.S. Marines and their weapons, equipment, and supplies to distant operating areas, and enable Marines to conduct expeditionary operations ashore in those areas.
Although amphibious ships can be used to support Marine landings against opposing military forces, they are also used for operations in permissive or benign situations where there are no opposing forces. Due to their large storage spaces and their ability to use helicopters and landing craft to transfer people, equipment, and supplies from ship to shore without need for port facilities, amphibious ships are potentially useful for a range of combat and noncombat operations.
On any given day, some of the Navy’s amphibious ships, like some of the Navy’s other ships, are forward-deployed to various overseas operating areas in multiship formations called amphibious groups (ARGs). Amphibious ships are also sometimes forward-deployed on an individual basis, particularly for conducting peacetime engagement activities with foreign countries or for responding to smaller-scale or noncombat contingencies.
The LAW program envisions procuring a class of 28 to 30 new ships that would be much smaller and individually much less expensive to procure and operate than the Navy’s current amphibious ships. The Navy’s proposed FY2021 budget requests $30 million in research and development funding for initial industry studies and concept design work on the ship. The Navy envisions procuring the ships on an expedited schedule, with the first LAWs potentially being procured in FY2023 and a total of 28 notionally being procured by FY2026.The Navy wants LAWs to be a relatively simple and relatively inexpensive ships with the following features, among others: a length of 200 feet to 400 feet; a maximum draft of 12 feet; a displacement of up to 4,000 tons; a ship’s crew of no more than 40 Navy sailors; an ability to embark at least 75 Marines; 4,000 to 8,000 square feet of cargo area for the Marines’ weapons, equipment, and supplies; a stern or bow landing ramp for moving the Marines and their weapons, equipment, and supplies the ship to shore (and vice versa) across a beach; a modest suite of C4I equipment [Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence]; a 25mm or 30mm gun system and .50 caliber machine guns for self-defense; a transit speed of at least 14 knots, and preferably 15 knots; a minimum unrefueled transit range of 3,500 nautical miles; a “Tier 2+” plus level of survivability (i.e., ruggedness for withstanding battle damage)—a level, broadly comparable to that of a smaller U.S. Navy surface combatant (i.e., a corvette or frigate), that would permit the ship to absorb a hit from an enemy weapon and keep the crew safe until they and their equipment and supplies can be transferred to another LAW; an ability to operate within fleet groups or deploy independently; and a 20-year expected service life.In addition to the above points, the Navy states that the LAW’s design can be based on a commercial-ship design.A ship fitting the requirements listed above would be only a fraction as large as the Navy’s current amphibious ships—the Navy’s LHA/LHD-type ships are 844 to 855 feet long and have a full load displacements between 40,000 and 45,000 tons, while its and LPD-17 class ships are 684 feet long and have a full load displacement of 24,900 tons.The LAW’s maximum draft of 12 feet is intended to permit the ship to transit shallow waters on its way to and from landing beaches. The Navy prefers that the ship’s cargo space be in the form of open deck storage. Unlike most of the Navy’s current amphibious ships, the LAW would not have a well deck. A transit speed of about 15 knots would be less than the approximate 22-knot maximum sustained speed of larger U.S. Navy amphibious ships, but it is a relatively fuel efficient speed for moving ships through water, which would permit the ship to be equipped with a less powerful and consequently less expensive propulsion plant. The 20-year expected service life is less than the 30- to 45-year expected service lives of larger U.S. Navy amphibious ships—a difference that could reduce the LAW’s construction cost for a ship of its type and size—and closer to the 25-year expected service life of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs).
We’re just going to build one, get that out and start playing with it. We’ll probably build one the next year because we’ve got to get the doctrine right. The [Marine Littoral Regiments] are going to start coming online at about the same time – first one’s in Hawaii, we’ll get it out there and let them play with it. And then we’ll go into a build profile of, I don’t know, probably four or five a year or something like that is what we’re going to aim for.I think we’re on track, I think we’re moving out smartly, and I’m excited about it because … I’m very pessimistic about the way our relationship with China is going, and we absolutely need this capability to continue to deter what could end up being a big war.A ship that can go 3,000, 4,000 miles, haul around 75 guys with excess cargo, excess fuel, serving as a lily pad and really enhancing the tactical maneuver of those small Marine units is really going to be something that a potential adversary has a hard time countering. Not a forcible entry platform, not a ship to shore connector, but a lily pad that our guys can get on, and the Navy can really complicate China’s calculus.
We need to build an affordable ship that can get after the ability to do maritime campaigning in the littorals.
According to USNI News:
King and Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration Lt. Gen. Eric Smith have been vocal proponents of LAW since Commandant Gen. David Berger released a 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance that suggested an overhaul in how Marines maneuvered around the sea, putting less emphasis on traditional large amphibious ships designed for forcible entry and instead focusing on ways to get a lot of small groups of Marines dispersed throughout the littorals.
Military.com coverage from December 11, 2020 provides more details about the program:
A new Navy shipbuilding plan released this week calls for building 10 light amphibious warships that can transport up to 75 Marines. The ships will operate independently of the amphibious ready groups with which Marine expeditionary units typically deploy.Instead, light amphibious warships will augment [Marine Amphibious Ready Groups] ARGs, officials told reporters on Thursday, possibly under the leadership of a Navy squadron commander.The ships will be designed to zip around what's known as the first island chain -- the archipelagos that pepper the South and East China seas stretching from near Japan and South Korea down toward Vietnam -- carrying new Marine littoral regiments. The regiments, which are being tested out in Hawaii, will include infantry, logistics and anti-air personnel."Forward-deployed [in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] and ready to fight tonight is kind of the key," a top Marine official said of the new ships.Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger has called for more Navy ships that can carry small landing teams of Marines. By comparison, the Marine Expeditionary Units that deploy on amphibious assault ships comprise roughly 2,200 personnel. Increasing threats in the Pacific and elsewhere are driving the need for a new fleet of less expensive ships that can be built quickly, he said."We need a light amphibious warship -- a lot of them," Berger said earlier this year.The Navy's shipbuilding plan calls for investing about $1.5 billion between 2022 and 2026 to build 10 of the 200-foot ships, known as LAWs. That's just a fraction of the $147 billion plan to build 82 new Navy vessels during that five-year period.The Marine official who briefed reporters on the plan this week described LAWs as "the missing piece" between the Navy's amphibious assault ships and ship-to-shore connectors. The light amphibious warship will itself act as a connector -- a "ruggedized beaching craft," as one senior Navy official put it -- that can travel longer distances than existing landing craft.
An Amphibious Ready Group "consists of a naval element—a group of warships known as an Amphibious Task Force (ATF)—and a landing force (LF) of U.S. Marines (and occasionally U.S. Army soldiers), in total about 5,000 people." A typical U.S. Amphibious Readiness Group consists of:
Ships* One amphibious assault ship; a Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) or Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD): the primary landing ship, resembling a small aircraft carrier, designed to transport troops into the war zone by air using transport helicopters. In a secondary role, these ships perform sea control and limited power projection missions using AV-8B Harrier II Marine aircraft and Navy airborne assets including MH-60S Seahawk. There are currently two classes of amphibious assault ships in service: the Wasp-class (LHD) and the America-class (LHA) (Flights 0 & I).* One amphibious transport dock ship; a Landing Platform Dock (LPD): a warship that transports troops into the war zone by sea, primarily using conventional landing craft and Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft, although they also have the capability of operating helicopters from their flight decks as well. There is currently one class of LPDs in service: the San Antonio-class (Flights I & II).Troops and EquipmentA Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU): the smallest configuration of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force that is deployed from an amphibious assault ship. Each MEU includes: a ground combat element of a Marine infantry battalion reinforced with M1 Abrams tanks, artillery, combat engineers, amphibious vehicles, light armored vehicles, and other ground combat assets; an aviation combat element composed of a composite squadron of rotary-wing aircraft and AV-8B Harrier II ground attack and close air support jets, and an Air Traffic Control and command and control detachment; a battalion-sized logistics combat element, and a command element.Each Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) typically consists of about 2,200 Marines and is usually commanded by a colonel. The makeup of the MEU can be customized as situations require; additional artillery, armor, or air units can be attached, including squadrons of F/A-18 Hornet multirole jet fighters (deployed from aircraft carriers or ground bases).Aircraft* AV-8B Harrier IIs: ground-attack aircraft designed to attack and destroy surface targets.* CH-53E Super Stallions: heavy-lift helicopters designed to transport personnel, supplies and equipment in support of amphibious and shore operations.* AH-1Z Vipers: attack helicopters providing fire support and fire support coordination to the landing force during amphibious assaults and subsequent operations ashore.* UH-1Y Venom: Provides command and control during heliborne operations as well a light attack and assault capabilities.* USMC MV-22B squadrons are designated as Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadrons (VMM), and CH-53E squadrons as Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadrons (HMH).When assigned to a MEU, the detachments of the various other squadrons are combined with either the MV-22 or CH-53 squadron to create a reinforced, composite squadron. The reinforced squadron is designated as VMM-XXX(REIN) for MV-22s or HMH-XXX(REIN) for CH-53s, where the Xs are the squadron's number. As such, the various aircraft will don the tail codes and markers of the VMM or HMH squadron, though will usually keep their own squadron tail art.Amphibious forces must be capable of performing missions ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to major theater war (MTW). Additionally, they can be configured and deployed to operate at various levels of conflict and in multiple theaters simultaneously. They can provide a presence that may preclude adventurous actions by a potential belligerent.Because they are sea-based and because the decision to position and engage amphibious forces will always be easily reversible, amphibious forces greatly expand the repertoire of available response options. Among other national resources, they are particularly well placed to provide a demonstration of the United States's commitment and resolve to friends and allies as well as adversaries.Normally two to three ARGs are forward deployed: one in the Mediterranean Sea/Persian Gulf–Indian Ocean area, and one or two in the western Pacific Ocean area. The other ships of the ARG are either working up to deploy, in transit, or in overhaul. One ARG/MEU, known as Task Force 76/Expeditionary Strike Group 7, is forward based in Sasebo and Okinawa, Japan.In most cases, the ATF will be deployed under the protective umbrella of a Carrier Strike Group (CSG), which provides cover for the ATF and combat support to operations ashore. Ships of the ATF are capable of embarking and supporting other forces when the mission requires, including the United States Army, Special Operations Forces (SOF), or other joint and combined forces.
A critic of the plan at the U.S. Naval Institute calls for something a little larger to fill the role:
The concept of a small amphibious ship is sound. Amphibious ships have been getting larger over time. For example, the Thomaston-class LSDs from the 1960s were 13,900 tons fully loaded; the current LSD replacement, the LPD-17 Flight II, is 24,900 tons fully loaded—80 percent larger.1 This has opened a gap that smaller ships could fill.In addition, as amphibious ships have become larger, they become more expensive and fewer. Whereas there were 60 in the 1980s, there 33 today. Amphibious ready groups (ARGs)/Marine expeditionary units (MEUs) have three ships, and typically split up to cover the many combatant commander demands. Each ship, though highly capable, can only be in one place at a time. . . . a small amphibious ship fits with new concepts to address potential conflict in the western Pacific. The Marine Corps wants a “stand-in force,” which requires “smaller, more lethal, and more risk-worthy platforms.” A fleet of small ships could operate forward, within the arc of an adversary’s long-range precision fires.The Navy has an initial concept for the ship. Navy briefing slides for engagement with industry describe the ship as follows: minimum length 200 feet, crew of no more than 40 sailors, embarkation for least 75 Marines, minimum of 8,000 square feet of cargo area, stern or bow landing ramp, 25-mm or 30-mm gun for self-protection, minimum speed of 14 knots, minimum unrefueled transit range of 3,500 nautical miles, and 10-year expected service life. The total number of ships would be between 28 and 30.To speed the acquisition process, the Navy is looking for existing ship designs. That is a sensible approach since there are a number of potentially attractive designs out there.The light amphibious warship may be very small. Although the Navy requirements allowed a wide range on size (1,000 to 8,000 tons), the crew and troop capacity give a sense of the likely ship size. Early descriptions made the ships sound like the De Soto County–class LSTs of the 1960s to 1980s. These were 4,200 tons (light) and carried 379 troops. Artist conceptions published in various media reinforced this impression.However, a ship carrying 75 Marines is not even the size of a World War II LST: 1,650 tons, 150 troops, 316 feet long, and a maximum 12-knot speed. It is more the size of a World War II landing craft infantry (LCI): 230 tons, 180 troops (but no heavy equipment), 158 feet long, and a maximum 16-knot speed. LCIs were oceangoing but barely. The small size means the LAW will not be suitable for extended deployments. Requirements documents mandate troop deployments in weeks, not months. This is not a ship that can perform six-month global deployments.The light amphibious ship fleet does not bring a lot of capability. The 30 planned LAWs will be able to carry collectively about 2,250 Marines (75 Marines per ship × 30 ships). One America-class LHA and one LPD-17 Flight I can carry a total of 2,350 Marines (1,650 + 750). The LAWs will carry no aircraft or ship-to-shore connectors. The LHA and LPD can carry a lot of aircraft and some ship-to-shore connectors, depending on the configuration. And at 20 versus 14 knots, the LHA and LPD are much faster.Cost could be less, more, or the same as conventional ships. One LHA and one LPD would cost about $5.1 billion ($3.4 billion plus $1.7 billion). The cost of the LAW is uncertain. The Marine Corps would like to get each hull for about $100 million. That would imply a total cost of $3 billion, less than the conventional ships.However, amphibious ships can get expensive as requirements for defensive systems and communications increase to cope with high-level threats and complex operating environments. If the cost of individual ships rose to $170 million each, then the cost of the two packages, LHA/LPD and LAW, would be the same. Given the Navy’s unfortunate history of cost overruns on ship designs, an increase to $200 million per ship would be possible; that would produce a LAW fleet costing $6 billion.The service life of 10 years is very short. The briefing package to industry specified a service life of 10 years. That would make the ships almost throwaways. To provide 30 to 40 years of capability, the same as conventional amphibious ships, the Navy would need to buy three or four sets. That would triple the cost and make them much more expensive than conventional amphibious ships.The acquisition schedule is very rapid. The Navy envisions procuring all the ships over four years, beginning in fiscal year 2023. That means the last ship would be purchased before the first ship had made an operational deployment. There is a lot of risk in that schedule.. . . .if the ship design selected is the small 75-troop design, it would be suited for the Marine Corps’ new concepts for island combat in the western Pacific and raiding by light infantry. Maybe it would be a great success. But such a small ship would be inadequate for most other amphibious operations, which is a severe handicap. Perhaps, instead of a valuable new capability, it will turn out to be the 21st-century version of the Pegasus-class hydrofoil fast attack boat, an interesting concept that never worked out in practice and was retired early.Rather than relying entirely on a single design, the Navy and Marine Corps would be better off buying a few ships, maybe five, and seeing how the concept works out. If a very small ship turns out to have limited application, the services could supplement it with a different, larger design―maybe something like the De Soto County–class (150 to 200 Marines and some heavy equipment) or perhaps even a variant of the Army’s General Frank S. Besson–class logistics support vessels (273 feet long, 4,200 tons, with a bow ramp).
A New Armored Personnel Carrier To Go With It
Image from Wikipedia.
The LAW concept dovetails with other systems entering production such as the Amphibious Combat Vehicle from BAE Systems which is currently in production with several dozen of the amphibious armored personnel carriers ordered and coming into service, after the Marines vacillated for decades, abandoning several rounds of previous designs to replace their current model. The Marines ultimately hope to buy 204 of them for $1.2 billion.
The ACV offers “force protection capability three times greater” than its predecessor, the assault amphibious vehicle, the BAE statement noted. “It provides substantially increased horsepower, with its six-cylinder, 690 horsepower engine, making it capable of land speeds exceeding 55 mph while running extremely quietly. It’s also designed to provide Marines the flexibility to address additional mission roles and future technologies through its modular design.”
BAE’s ACV provides space for 13 embarked Marines and a crew of three, which keeps together the rifle squad. The vehicle has a V-shaped hull to protect against underbody blasts, and the seat structure is completely suspended.
It is currently anticipated to only partially replace the previous assault amphibious vehicle that entered service in 1972, which is currently slated to remain in service through 2035 with "survivability upgrades." As Wikipedia explains:
The ACV 1.1 is to carry 10–13 Marines, have a swim capability similar to the AAV, and have equal or greater mobility to the M1 Abrams tank. Although tracks are traditionally considered better for all-terrain mobility, the Marines believe wheeled vehicle technology has advanced enough to enhance survivability and mobility in a 35-ton-class platform; the Marine Personnel Carrier technology demonstrator used "in-line" drive technology that enabled all four wheels on each side to pull together much like the way a track does. This demonstrated ability when combined with a higher ground clearance and central tire inflation system, substantially closes the maneuverability gap for wheeled vehicles and results in equal or better maneuverability than the M1A1 and better performance over the AAV, both of which are tracked.Improved technology used to inform requirements to build ACV 1.2 vehicles will later be applied to delivered 1.1 versions to upgrade them to 1.2 standard. Each ACV 1.1 vehicle will have a 3-man crew, and two vehicles will carry a reinforced rifle squad. Armament will consist of an M2 .50-caliber machine gun in a remote weapons station, with the potential to install a stabilized dual-mount M2/Mark 19 grenade launcher turret. Potential water speeds are for a 12 nmi (14 mi; 22 km) ship-to-shore capability at 8 knots. . . .In June 2018, the BAE design was selected, with an initial order of 30 ACVs. In June 2019, BAE Systems and Iveco were awarded a contract to develop Command and 30mm gun armed variants.On 15 October 2020, Iveco announced that the first fleet of 18 ACVs had been delivered to a platoon of Marines after five years of testing development.On 10 December 2020 the Marine Corps and BAE Systems announced the commencement of full-rate production, with an initial batch of 36, expected to grow to 72 in early 2021 with an option for 80 vehicles per year thereafter.A January 2021 report from the Department of Defense's Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) pointed to several problems with the ACV, including cramped quarters, difficult egress, and frequent breakdown.