Samson the Carrier and Goliath the Amphib: Twin Giants of a Compromised Fleet Architecture
The aircraft carrier fleet and the amphibious fleet are typically viewed as polar opposites: the fast nuclear carrier projecting strike aircraft from the deep blue on one side, and the plodding but versatile amphibious ship projecting Marine infantry in the littoral on the other. Despite obvious dissimilarities in speed, payload, and function, they both share a critically important place in the overall fleet architecture — they are both unaffordable anachronisms of a bygone era. The Navy does not have nor will it ever have (barring large-scale conflict) the resources to produce adequate numbers of relevant platforms while also maintaining its commitment to the super carrier and the amphibious fleet as currently designed.
The Congressional Budget Office continues to provide accurate projections of fleet costs and the growing resource mismatch between stated goals and reality. These findings are unequivocal: The Navy cannot reach its goal of 355 ships with current ship classes and designs within plausible funding levels. Something different is required. Stopping Ford-class production after Enterprise and moving portions of the amphibious fleet away from specialized ships toward mission-agile surface combatants capable of both sea control and power projection missions are important steps towards a solution. To accomplish this, the recent decision for a block purchase of two additional carriers must be reconsidered. It is no bargain to save $4 billion on an obsolete platform.
The Navy’s distributed lethality concept seeks to increase the killing power of each ship while also increasing the fleet’s ability to operate in a dispersed posture. The concept is breathing new life into the surface fleet. Unfortunately, its realization is constrained by misapplication of resources to the Ford-class carrier and proposed amphibious ship replacements. It is a concept worth investing in, as it will improve both sea control and power projection capabilities of the fleet.
Similarly, Marine Corps thinking as represented in Littoral Operations in Contested Environments and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations are realigning the Marine Corps amphibious missions toward Fleet Marine Force operations that support sea control, sea denial, and power projection. Work is beginning on a new amphibious warfare concept that will recognize the central role unmanned systems will play in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) as well as assault functions, and the revolutionary effect loitering munitions will have on offensive operations.
The plan for a new surface fleet is animated by two primary contemporary military realities: New ISR and munitions technologies allow small vessels to be more lethal than yesterday’s large platforms and the rise of unmanned systems in all domains allows for fundamentally different ISR and engagement geometries.
Just as Delilah stole Samson’s strength by cutting his long locks, the carrier has been shorn of its long-range striking power by decisions to focus on short-range F-18s and F-35s. In addition, the Navy’s decision to limit a promising unmanned platform to an airborne tanker role and foregoing its strike capability is unfortunate at a time when enemy capabilities demand greater, not less, range and lethality. In simplest terms, the carrier can’t get to the fight if it involves China and is seriously challenged by Russia in certain areas. China has developed ship-killing missiles that threaten the carrier and its 5,000 crew members well beyond their effective range, while Russia is improving its manned and unmanned undersea forces. Additionally, long-range cruise missiles are proliferating globally and emerging hypersonic weapons will expand the carrier’s vulnerability even farther. Thus, within the context of the National Defense Strategy, the carrier is relegated to a sweep-up combat role. For deterrence missions, a big deck amphibious ship with fifth generation aircraft, paired with medium-altitude long-endurance drones, would be much more efficient than a super-carrier. For these missions, the carrier’s high-sortie generation capacities are not required and its high-signature and iconic value provide an enticing target for a bolt out of the blue attack. Its exorbitant price cannot be justified for bit parts, especially when technology allows for cheaper and more effective alternatives in the form of smaller, more distributed manned and unmanned platforms.
Advocates argue that because the carrier is hard to sink, it is worth the investment. This really misses the point. The carrier is hard to sink when kept out of the thickest weapons engagement zone and fully escorted. Left unsaid is that when so disposed, the carrier’s short-range air wing is ineffective. It also matters that sinking is a bad metric. It is much easier to prevent a carrier from performing its mission by targeting a critical subcomponent, like its radar, either physically with a missile or drone or through a cyber-attack. Such arguments also ignore the tremendous distorting influence the cost of carrier, the carrier air wing, and its escorts have on the Navy’s shipbuilding account. Perhaps these exorbitant costs could be ignored in the immediate post-Cold War Era when we were the sole hegemon, economically and militarily, but those days are gone, and it matters greatly that we receive the greatest possible return on our investments. An ineffectual floating monument to past glories is not the way to win a great power competition.
In contrast to the super carrier, current amphibious ships are less escalatory, more compatible with allied forces, and cheaper and more efficient for the presence and engagement missions called for in the National Defense Strategy. Thus, their mission is not obsolete, but the current design of amphibious ships makes them vulnerable and lucrative targets. Small enemy combatants and long-range precision munitions can slay these very large and capable ships as David did Goliath.
Given the ongoing debate about anti-access and area denial threats posed by peer adversaries, there are those who question the continued utility of currently planned amphibious ships. It is not entirely clear whether these critics are motivated by a belief in mission or design obsolescence, or both, but the reasoning on this matters. It would be a mistake to cut current amphibious ships without a plan to replace them with a new design because a range of traditional and emerging amphibious operations are critically important to deterrence, sea control, and power projection missions, not just traditional amphibious missions.
In sum, amphibious ships have increasing mission utility given that the amphibious mission space has been expanded to encompass sea control and sea denial missions, but they suffer from design obsolescence. Alternatively, carriers suffer from mission obsolescence, since technology is offering more efficient and effective ways to provide ISR and strike to the fleet (unmanned and missiles). Thus, the carrier problem is more fundamental: A new design will not fix its problem. As Adm. John Fisher stated regarding Royal Navy modernization in 1902, “nothing can possibly bring an ‘OUT-OF-DATE’ ship ‘UP-TO-DATE’! You simply can’t do it!”
It is serendipitous that ships conducting either sea control or power projection missions will require robust interfaces to all domains to facilitate employment of unmanned systems. Future amphibious operations will include littoral presence, expeditionary advanced base operations (providing sea control/sea denial capabilities), and new forms of amphibious assault comprised solely of unmanned systems, all of which require fewer combat and combat support personnel than traditional amphibious forcible entry operations. These trends mean a shared set of ship design features is possible across these mission sets (smaller ships with robust interfaces to all domains). This is new, and it opens an opportunity to create a more effective and a far more efficient fleet design. With the right design, a single platform could conduct sea control or traditional amphibious missions by simply changing payloads. Thus, the future fleet will no longer possess platforms specialized solely for amphibious operations, and the carrier will be replaced by more distributed manned and unmanned platforms with ISR and long-range precision strike payloads.
Smaller, much more numerous multi-mission platforms allow for a flexible, rapidly tailorable fleet that is far more resilient than the current fleet — and it would be cheaper. Recent shipbuilding plans have called for 38 amphibious ships ranging from ~$1.8 billion to ~$4 billion apiece. At around 8,000 tons, a mission-agile ship (a large frigate) with a well-deck or dry deck could replace Dock Landing Ships (LSD/LPD Flt II) and would allow for much greater mission agility. A force of 80 such ships capable of performing sea control or amphibious missions would provide commanders more options and far greater flexibility than today’s more specialized fleet.
|New Surface Ships through 2048||Estimated $ through 2048|
|DDG-51 Flt III
Guided Missile Destroyer
|Future Large Surface Combatant||61||$140.3 billion|
|Future Small Surface Combatant||80
|1||$12.8 billion (Enterprise)|
|CVL/ Big Deck
|8 LHA||$31.2 billion|
|Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle||50||
|Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle||150|
|Small Unmanned Surface Vehicle||300|
Stopping the construction of Ford class aircraft carriers after Enterprise and foregoing the Dock Landing Ship (LSD) replacement (LPD Flt II) opens up substantial opportunities for realizing a completely new surface fleet by 2048. As portrayed in Figure 1, new ship acquisition through 2048 would reduce the planned buy of Guided Missile Destroyer Flight III (DDG- 51Flt III) from 29 to 15 in order to preference the newly designed Future Large Surface Combatant (FLSC) over the legacy Guided Missile Destroy (DDG-51). The proposed approach would buy a total of 76 large surface combatants, the same total as the current plan. This alternative fleet emphasizes the capabilities of smaller but more numerous manned and unmanned combatants, but resources would permit a different mix, easily accommodating 90 large surface combatants should the Navy prefer that option.
Similarly, for small surface combatants, the proposed plan would forego acquisition of Guided Missile Frigate X (FFG(X)) in favor of 80 Future Small Surface Combatants (FSSC) — 24 more than called for across the current plan of 20 FFG(X)s and 36 FSSCs. Given current investments in the Short Take-off Vertical Landing F-35B aircraft, the proposed plan maintains eight Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) ships as in the current plan, but decisions could be taken to build additional LHA-6 versions that are optimized for flight operations at the expense of fewer well-decks. The more numerous Future Small Surface Combatant, if designed with a well-deck, would help offset this reduction in LHA well-decks. Given that the LPD-17 is a very capable ship, future decisions could opt for a major mid-life extension program should capacity of these large ships prove important as a mother ship for unmanned systems.
The total cost for these new ship acquisitions, using Congressional Budget Office estimates for individual ship costs, would be roughly $304 billion over 30 years or roughly $10 billion per year. Congressional Budget Office estimates the current plan would require $29.8 billion per year, with submarines taking up about 44 percent of that total. Extending that same logic, the Navy could thus pursue the proposed surface fleet and the current planned submarine fleet for ~$27 billion per year. This would include roughly $2 billion per year dedicated to unmanned platforms through 2048.
While beyond the scope of this article, placing more emphasis on unmanned underwater vehicles might allow for cost savings in manned attack submarines, thus getting the shipbuilding account closer to historical averages.
It is important to note that individually, amphibs are far cheaper than carriers, $1.8 billion to $4 billion versus more than $14 billion (plus $1 billion operations and maintenance, plus the air wing) for a Ford-class carrier. Therefore, the opportunity cost they impose on fleet redesign is much less than the carrier. Further, amphibious ships are more relevant to building relations with allies and partners and supporting numerous missions aimed at expanding the competitive space with our peer rivals. Arguably, just stopping carrier production to avoid its tremendous acquisition and annual operating costs would provide sufficient resources for the surface navy to achieve many of its modernization goals. But it would be a mistake to lose this opportunity to re-think the amphibious fleet and transform it into a more lethal and relevant suite of platforms for both sea control and power projection missions.
Current Landing Platform Docks (LPDs) and Dock Landing Ships (LSDs), should be leveraged as transitional platforms as amphibious ships move from a large efficient lift asset to a mission-agile combatant that is cheaper, smaller, and better protected and can therefore be produced in greater numbers. These existing ships are a great platform to test and operate prototype unmanned systems and can act as a mothership for these systems. In this role they would be ideal for building new capabilities in allied and partner armies, navies, air forces, and special forces.
As I argued in the November 2014 Proceedings article, “A Fleet for the Unmanned Era,” the basic characteristics of amphibious ships make them excellent carriers of unmanned systems. Their flight decks support unmanned air systems and the well deck facilitates maintenance, launch, and recovery of surface and subsurface vehicles. These are the very characteristics required of the future surface combatant. It is the perfect multi-domain convergence and it’s affordable.
If it floats, it fights. If it fights, it supports sea control and power projection.
Noel Williams is a defense strategy and policy consultant in Washington, D.C. His recent work has been focused on future warfare and the implications of technology for force design and fleet architecture. The opinions expressed here are his alone.