The Mystery of the Vanishing Naval Amphibious Force
Readers seeking glimpses of everyday life and pithy social commentary (which you have become to be used to here at The Conservative Wahoo) will be disappointed in today’s offering, which is once again an example of author prerogative. My professional life is spent in the advocacy of American Seapower, and I occasionally use this platform to advance my thinking on that subject.
The marriage of the Navy and the Marine Corps is one of convenience and necessity, and it plays out much of the time like a television sitcom featuring a passive-aggressive couple. At the heart of the matter is just what it is that navies do, with the Navy looking at the Marine Corps as a powerful system for projecting power from its ships, and the Marine Corps looking at the Navy as a powerful system for providing transportation to and fire support for its littoral operations. The two services live side by side within the Department of the Navy and have done so in varying forms throughout the history of this nation. They compete for budget share within the Department of the Navy, which itself competes with the other military departments for resources, and this competition for resources is the main reason for the dysfunction. This week, the marital dysfunction has been more public than usual, as senior Marine Corps leaders made news by throwing shade at the Navy, specifically with regard to the Navy’s provision of ready shipping to support the Marines global operational demands. There is no question that these senior Marine leaders have important points, but as in most disagreements, there is far more to the story.
The Marine Corps prides itself as being America’s “911 Force”, responding to crises around the world from sea-based formations that enable a range of military functions from humanitarian assistance to forcible entry. What the Marines provide from purpose-built Navy ships is among the most sought-after tools that our regional combatant commanders desire for conventional deterrence, naval diplomacy, and crisis response, and this combined Navy and Marine Corps force application is unique within DoD.
The building blocks of this force is a “Marine Expeditionary Unit” (MEU) and an “Amphibious Ready Group”. The former is a combined arms formation of over two thousand Marines that provides ground, aviation, and logistics functions. These Marines, their aircraft, their land-vehicles, and their surface platforms are transported and protected by a naval formation consisting of three large “amphibious” ships known as an “Amphibious Ready Group” (ARG). The center of the formation is a large aviation assault platform (LHD or LHA) with two other large ships (LPD’s) in company. The graphic above depicts LSD’s—and there are a few remaining in the inventory—but they were planned for replacement by a variant of the LPD (known as LPD 17 Flight II).
The bottom line of this force package is that there is a symbiotic relationship between the design and construction of the ships and the needs and capabilities of the Marines they support. Up until very recently, the humans, equipment, vehicles, and support for a MEU required three ships as discussed above, ships with sufficient storage space and employment options (cranes and well-decks). How many ships were required to support the Marines across the force was (and is) a matter of some debate, and I must admit to being confused by the various methods of achieving a number. One of the best things about the Marines over the years is their honesty when it came to their needs, often knowing that there was little chance that they would get what they said they needed.
During the Cold War, the Marines talked of a “3.0 MEB (Marine Expeditionary Brigade) Lift” requirement, which translated into some four-dozen large amphibious ships to close a force of that size. Due to both budgetary pressures and the unique alchemy of Marine Corps lift requirement discernment, the 3.0 MEB lift became a 2.5 MEB lift requirement. In the heady days of American hyperpower, the 2.5 MEB lift requirement became 2.0 MEB of lift. Because I am ignorant of how the actual everyday employment formation of the MEU scales up to a MEB, I have always been confused by sizing metrics that rely on the MEB as the forcing function. But—smarter people than I have been able to do so, and as recently as 2018, the Marines claimed a need for thirty-eight large amphibious ships.
That number declined precipitously under the tenure of General David Berger as Commandant of the Marine Corps, whose desire to reshape his service to meet the demands of a rising China resulted in novel employment concepts that drove an innovative design for his force. Cutting to the chase, the Marine Corps declared its new requirement for amphibious ships to be thirty-one. Hoping to be able to plow savings back into his own service, Berger desired to create a new force (Marine Littoral Regiments or MLR) that would be employed separately and distinctly from the ARG/MEU, and which would require purpose-built ships of their own. These evolutions created a great deal of consternation within the retired Marine Corps general officer community, and while this essay does not in any way seek to support either side of that kerfuffle, it was immediately evident that a cut from 38 ships to 31 ships as the requirement would have some impact on the crisis response functions of the Navy and Marine Corps team, as the new MLR’s would NOT be in the crisis response ballgame. In other words, Berger’s desire to be more effective in a potential fight with China was financed at least in part by selling off a portion of the Marine Corps crisis response force. We are now reaping what that diminishment sowed.
The Requirement, Part Deux
Here is where passive-aggression comes in. I urge you to read the two articles cited in the first paragraph and also to watch last week’s appearance by USMC General Chris Mahoney—Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps and Acting Commodore while General Eric Smith recovers from heart surgery—at the Hudson Institute (below).
What has become obvious is a new wrinkle in USMC requirement discussions, and that is that senior leaders are talking about the need for “3.0 MEU presence”, which means a requirement for 3 MEU’s deployed continuously and indefinitely. Cut to the above video, around the 47:30 mark to hear the Assistant Commandant make the point. This is a new (to me, at least) way to frame their requirement, and it is a back-door approach to the subject, in that they have not made any change to their officially released number of ships required. It is time for some history major math.
Until recently (as in last week when at the 47:30 mark or so the ACMC alluded to the necessity of using other means (other than amphibious ships) to convey and support MEU’s, a MEU required 3 US Navy amphibious ships to convey its combat power. With the Marines stating a requirement for 3.0 MEU’s, four assumptions can be made:
At three ships each, 3.0 MEU’s requires 9 amphibious ships to support the MEU as it is currently configured.
Those 9 ships will be relieved eventually and enter routine maintenance periods in which they are unavailable to fill the requirement.
After maintenance, those 9 ships will begin their individual workup periods, followed by group workups and then integration with their assigned Marines. Keep in mind, while these 9 ships are training, 9 ships are on station and 9 ships are in routine maintenance.
Amphibious ships are built for endurance, not speed, and the earth is large. At any one time, 9 amphibious ships are in some form of transit to or from homeport.
Therefore, in order to provide the absolute MINIMUM number of ships required to support 3.0 MEU’s in the Marine Corps crisis response force, 36 amphibious ships are required. Given that ships will have two or three lengthy overhauls during their service lives (far longer than routine maintenance), continuous and indefinite support of 3.0 MEU’s could not be supported by thirty-six amphibious ships. So, let’s throw two more in for an overhaul fudge factor. This puts a realistic requirement for amphibious ships to support the Marines Corps stated desire for a 3.0 MEU presence at 38 ships. Which is what it was before General Berger began his force design work that resulted in the new requirement of thirty-one ships. Bottom line—thirty-one ships cannot come anywhere near being able to support a 3.0 MEU presence.
Numerators and Denominators
Where AT=Percentage of ships available for USMC lift, RS=total number of ships trained and maintained for operations and TS=total number of amphibious ships.
The denominator in that fraction is largely controlled by the Marine Corps, and it represents the total number of amphibious ships in the fleet. Now—I say largely because the Marines have had a requirement that the Department of the Navy did not fund to, resulting in a constant shortage of amphibious ships. This number can also be thought of as the requirement.
The numerator in this fraction is the number of amphibious ships that are actually ready for operations, and it is controlled by the Navy. It represents the number of amphibious ships that can be supported within Navy maintenance, modernization, and training accounts.
In a perfect world, when the USMC dropped its requirement from thirty-eight ships to thirty-one, a constant level of inflation adjusted spending by the Navy on amphibious readiness would have resulted in a higher percentage of the force being ready at any one time. Here is where the Marines have a point, and that point is that for nearly fifteen years, the Navy underfunded maintenance and spare parts on these ships, even as they were being operated at an elevated level of use. As a result, ships aged faster than they were designed to age, and the readiness of the force declined.
So, the Marines are now facing a double whammy, one of their own creation and one of the Navy’s. Their required number of amphibs is drastically lower than what is necessary to support their MEU requirement, while the readiness of even that smaller fleet of ships has had challenges. Put another way, there is far less margin for error in a 31-ship fleet than in a 38 ship fleet (or 34, which is about as high as I remember it getting), and that margin is consumed.
Where We Are
So here we are, a world in which the Chinese are pressurizing the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East is on fire, and the Russia-Ukraine War has entered its third year. Security flare-ups and humanitarian disasters continue at their unforeseeable pace, and the number of situations where the Marines feel (justifiably) that they have not had the shipping they need to do their crisis response job where they (justifiably) feel that it ought to be done, is increasing. Counterintuitively, the Marines have decreased the number of ships that they state are required to do those things, even as they proffer a nuanced requirement (3.0 MEU) that cannot be met by a perfectly supported fleet of the numbers they state. Add to this hatful of problems the fact that the Navy underinvested in readiness accounts (there are signs this is changing) and we find ourselves with a USN/USMC marriage that is increasingly under strain.
It is not known whether there was coordination in the statements last week from USMC officials, and whether what we are seeing is a new directness from them. What IS clear is that we do not have enough amphibious ships to have MEU-sized formations of Marines supported in three separate areas of the world, and that is a terrible thing. What is also clear is that the Navy is insufficiently funded to maintain even the reduced number of amphibs that we have.
What Is To Be Done
The Secretary of the Navy is the civilian who leads the Navy and the Marine Corps, and these sorts of intramural/interfamily squabbles are part of that job description. With the degree to which the Navy is front and center of our military operations around the world right now, the Secretary has a strong hand to play, and he needs to play it.
First, he needs to touch the hot stove a little. His bosses at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and at the White House are increasingly reeling from both national security and personal events, and the time is right for him to step out more forcefully to point out what the Navy and Marines are doing and why they need additional resources to do it. I am not urging him to be disrespectful or insubordinate; I am suggesting a bit of boat-rocking. He is in his third year, and there are no more promotions to come.
At the same time, he needs to get the top flag and general officers of the Navy and Marine Corps to come to him with agreed upon numbers for traditional amphibious ships and for the Marine Corps’ new concepts. He should direct them to take MORE risk in the new concepts and LESS risk in crisis response missions. These numbers should represent what the two Services believe are required to fulfill the administration’s national security strategy, but they should NOT be washed through the process of OSD evaluation first and they should not be constrained to current budget levels. The results should be briefed during his testimony on the Hill this spring so that Congress can evaluate the degree to which those numbers comport with the defense budget submission.
He, the CNO, and the Commandant can no longer point at the shipbuilding industrial base and declare that it makes no sense to budget for ships that they do not have the capacity to build. This is the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sign prudent multi-year procurement deals that frontload funding for capital expansion and workforce development and backload production. The continuing use of the term “sending signals to industry” is part of the problem—they are not hearing the signals. Show them the money.
Finally, he should—as the Assistant Commandant says in the Hudson video—apply sufficient resources to ensure a new LPD is started at least every two years, and a new aviation assault ship (LHD/LHA) is started every four years. These are MINIMUMS. Get the rudder over on this one immediately. We cannot continue to abide by the illusion that a 35 year-old LSD on its last legs and being extended in service life, is equivalent to an LPD 17 Flight II. There is simply no comparison.