The ugly truth: Can the light amphibious warship survive war with China?

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In March 2020, the Marine Corps rolled out its vision for responding to future conflicts, codified in Force Design 2030. A key feature of the vision is the requirement for a small ship, termed the light amphibious warship (LAW), that could move undetected within contested areas, often defined as the First Island Chain in the vicinity of the South China Sea. Each ship would deploy and sustain small groups of marines, known as stand-in forces (SIF), who would maintain a persistent presence among the islands. Upon the outbreak of hostilities, the ship would move the marines to favorable positions to acquire and attack China’s naval ships with missiles. 

The issue the Marine Corps is not addressing is how China would respond. The ugly truth is that any movement by the LAW would be detected by China’s persistent overhead surveillance and targeting systems, as well as by Chinese maritime and human intelligence sources. In addition, China’s maritime militia, which has over 7,000 ships and steel-hulled trawlers in the South China Sea and elsewhere, is the third leg of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and Coast Guard. The Maritime militia operates as a giant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance network that regularly conducts presence missions in the region.

To make a bad situation even more dire, China’s navy recently introduced a new class of Type 055A guided missile corvettes, 72 of which operate along the First Island Chain. It would be virtually impossible for the LAW to avoid being detected, attacked and most likely destroyed by the Chinese military under these circumstances. 

As currently envisioned, the LAW will be manned by a crew of 40 sailors and carry up to 75 marines with all of their equipment. The ship could be up to 400 feet in length with a displacement of 4,000 tons. Its draft will be 12 feet. This relatively deep draft will significantly limit where the ship can be landed due to unfavorable beach gradients throughout the First Island Chain. The LAW will be lightly armed and have no air defense capability. Another almost fatal limitation is its top speed of only 14 knots, which is too slow to avoid missile attacks by maneuver at sea. The ship itself is too small to withstand a hit from a cruise or a ballistic missile and survive. And it’s unknown but highly unlikely that the crew and embarked marines could survive a direct hit. Casualty evacuation, ship refueling and other sustainment issues have yet to be resolved. 

Unlike the marines, the U.S Navy has a long history of dealing with ship vulnerability issues and requirements to mitigate the threats. Navy policy breaks survivability down into three principal disciplines: susceptibility, vulnerability and recoverability. The threat, mission requirements and cost determine what the survivability requirements will be for the ship. This is the crux of the ongoing debate between the Navy and Marine Corps over the LAW. 

Simply stated, the Navy and Marine Corps can’t agree on the requirements. The Navy needs certain capabilities built into the ship for survivability. The Office of the Secretary of Defense for Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (OSD/CAPE), which is in discussions with the Navy over ship numbers, agrees with the Navy on this point. The Marines, not as concerned about the potential threat from overhead surveillance and targeting systems, or the risk involved if the ship is detected, believe the LAW can maneuver at night and hide among the islands, thereby reducing the cost of survivability requirements for the ship. This line of thinking could place the small, isolated marine units, along with their ship, exposed without any means of support in a conflict — another fatal weakness in the SIF concept. 

While normally the function of the Navy, the Marine Corps first announced that each LAW would cost $100 million a ship. That cost estimate was subsequently increased to $150 million per ship, which is still off the mark. The first two ships are estimated to cost $247 million and $203 million, respectively, with subsequent ships costing less. However, subsequent ships will cost significantly more if needed communications, armament and survivability concerns are addressed. A senior marine recently remarked, “What should be a $120-$130 million ship should not be north of $350 million a copy.” The question we should be asking is, “What is the price to mitigate risk for an operational concept that has not been fully evaluated or tested?” One thing is certain: The cost for the ship will end up being much higher as other unknown requirements creep into the process over time.

The marines initially wanted 35 ships to support the SIF concept. The Navy has reduced the requirement to 18. The current schedule shows a contract award for production during late 2023. The funding for the first ship is scheduled for 2025. Normally it takes three years to complete construction on the lead ship, which should reach the fleet in 2029. Currently, there is funding for a second ship in 2026 and a third ship in 2027. At the current planned rate of construction, it will be the mid- to late-30s before there are enough LAWs in the fleet to have any impact. 

The question of the LAW’s utility to help deter China’s aggression, or enable Marine Corps units to sink Chinese ships, has not been answered. It needs to be thoroughly analyzed beyond the level of war games to ensure that the concept is sound before any significant funding is allocated to the LAW program. 

Harry W. Jenkins, a retired major general, served for 34 years in the Marine Corps. He was the commanding general, 4th MEB, and commander of Task Force 158 during Desert Storm, which included a landing force of 17,000 Marines in 32 amphibious ships. He later served as the first director of the Expeditionary Warfare Division on the OPNAV staff, where he was resource sponsor for all amphibious ships, mine warfare ships, and requirements for Navy SEALS.



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