WASHINGTON – The US Marine Corps plans to have its light amphibious contract on contract so far by introducing a small ship that will move Marines around island chains and the coastline without relying on traditional large ships.

But moving forward on the program and awarding the contract was simply not possible after efforts were pushed out of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget for two consecutive years.

This hampers plans to use the ship to give small units of about 75 Marines the freedom to move quickly and discreetly, while dealing a major blow – carrying anti-ship missiles, reconnaissance drones, refueling and rearmament. for friendly forces, and more.

The ship is key to the Corps’ expeditionary advanced concept of basic operations, part of a comprehensive concept of distributed naval operations that guides how the navy is modernizing this decade. According to the previous concept, designed with China in mind, the Marines will constantly move through disputed areas, stopping to carry out a mission, and then move again before being spotted or fired upon.

Although some units may use helicopters or other platforms, the Corps provides a light amphibious warship as the primary means of moving units from beach to beach while hiding in a prominent position among merchant ships of similar size.

The Marine Corps wants to move fast by presenting the idea for the ship in 2020 as part of its overhaul of Force Design 2030 and intends to sign a contract for the new ships within two to three years. But plans to buy the first ships were initially postponed to fiscal 2023 and then to fiscal 2025 due to the large bills the Navy faces for submarines and other critical shipbuilding needs.

While the debut of the light amphibian in the fleet has been delayed, the Marines are using surrogate platforms to test concepts and tactics designed for the ship, hoping this will help the service use new ships effectively when they finally arrive. Nothing in today’s naval inventory offers the same combination of endurance at sea and the ability to go ashore to load and unload equipment on shore. However, the Marines were able to practice and refine aspects of the expedition’s advanced base operations with other ships.

And senior Marines say the more they experiment with surrogates, the more confident they become that the light amphibious warship will be a vital tool to deter or defeat adversaries like China.

Ongoing experiments

Brig. General David Odom, head of the Expeditionary War Directorate of the Chief of Naval Operations, told Defense News in a recent interview that the Navy and Marines use every opportunity to practice modern expeditionary operations at the base, using available platforms during routine exercises. and pre-deployment training.

He said the 3rd Marine Division and the 7th U.S. Navy used the Miguel Keith Expeditionary Naval Base – a massive ship with a large pilot deck and an internal mission compartment used to launch small boats and drones – in the recent Balikatan exercise. in the Philippines.

The same forces used landing craft to move the high-mobility artillery missile system and weapons of the Navy / Marine Expeditionary Banning Expeditionary System during the Noble Jaguar exercise in the fall of 2021, he said.

During those two events, the units used a surrogate platform that is significantly larger and another that is significantly smaller than the future light combat amphibian, Odom said. Although they do not reflect the size of the future ship, the surrogates have helped mature the concept and will facilitate the rapid introduction of the light amphibian, he added.

During the Noble Jaguar event in Japan, teams from the 3rd Marine Division and the 7th Fleet also experimented with expeditionary fast transport, a 338-foot ship used for fast lifting in the theater, and a similar size amphibian.

“As we work together as a team here, with all partners and stakeholders, to meet with the Commander and [chief of naval operations’] a requirement for a light amphibious warship, the fleets move simultaneously in echelon with the existing ships available – not instead, but right now to pursue and replicate, experiment and learn together to continue to advance these concepts. ” said Odom.

IN Basic requirement for light amphibious warship is to tow 75 Marines and their equipment at a speed of about 15 knots (17 miles per hour), with the ability to move from shore to shore and the beach itself to unload the equipment. The ship will be 200-400 feet long, will have a displacement of up to 4,000 tons, will have a maximum draft of 12 feet to access shallow water, will require a crew of less than 40 sailors and will have modest command and control and self-defense capabilities. .

The role of Marines in battle

Major General Benjamin Watson, who heads the Marine Military Laboratory and its Directorate for the Future, says ongoing experiments continue to demonstrate the need for light amphibians, as well as the applicability of expeditionary advanced basic operations, among other related concepts.

Speaking at a panel at the Navy’s annual Maritime-Air-Space League conference in April, he said the Marines must be prepared for a future conflict in which the enemy gives little warning of its aggressive intentions and a challenge to air and naval possessions. all the way to the US coastline. These conditions would mean that “if America does not yet have the forces of the relevant theater deployed, then we may be challenged to get the combat power we need in an operationally relevant timeline.”

This is where a new concept of reserve forces comes into play, based on “the idea of ​​keeping the door open for access, instead of having to make our way outside,” he said, noting that reserve forces are part of a broader concept. for joint combat operations.

If the forces are to live and operate inside enemy waters, then expeditionary advanced base operations are a way to make the corps operationally unpredictable and capable in this high-threat environment, he added, and the light amphibious warship will allow this movement.

If America does not yet have the forces in the relevant theater deployed, then we may be challenged to get the fighting power we need in an operationally relevant timeline.

Major General Benjamin Watson, Head of the Marine Combat Laboratory

The experiments, Watson said, showed the concept and the ship would allow the Marines to use some effects that can only be done up close, and “shoot effectively first” – meaning that an advanced adversary like China will have to make significant efforts to search for these small units scattered across the Pacific Ocean.

The experiments are also expected to help address the challenges of maintaining a distributed force in a contested environment, winning intelligence and counterintelligence battles, and making theater meaningful for joint forces.

“They all provide some really rich areas to help the industry … go ahead,” Watson said.

However, as the Marines wait to buy a light amphibious warship, there are fears that its price will become an obstacle.

The Corps initially focused on $ 100 million per corps, but the Navy later quoted a price of $ 130 million. Most recently, the Navy said it hoped to keep spending below $ 150 million apiece.

The higher the price, the harder it will be for the Corps to cram ships into the Navy’s narrow budget for shipbuilding in the coming years.

General Eric Smith, assistant commander of the Marines, told the Sea-Air-Space conference that the corps was pushing for its initial call for something in line with trade standards – and lower trade costs.

He argues that the way ships will be used will improve their survival, potentially preventing the need for costly survival improvements.

“Survival is not binary,” Smith said. “You use all the tools you have to make things more survivable.”

Megan Eckstein is a Navy War reporter for Defense News. It covers military news from 2009 with a focus on US Navy and Marine operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is a graduate of the University of Maryland.


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