Capt. Walker D. Mills, Lt. Joseph Hanacek
The Navy intends to acquire up to 30 new light amphibious warships, or LAW, to support new Marine Corps requirements. The vessels are needed to meet the challenges of “evolving threats in the global maritime environment,” according to the Navy program office, and are tied to the new operational concepts of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and Distributed Maritime Operations as well as the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 effort. Once complete, the acquisition will have almost doubled the number of L-class amphibious ships already in naval service. Rather than accepting a new amphibious design built from the ground up, however, decision-makers should take advantage of the fact that many key requirements of the new vessels are very similar to the capabilities of vessels operated by U.S. Army Transportation Command.
The Navy and Marine Corps should delay any new construction and immediately acquire some of these existing vessels to drive experimentation and better inform their requirements for the LAW program.
The key requirements of the future LAW include having 8,000 square feet of cargo space, a range of 3,500 miles, a speed of up to 14 knots, accommodation for a crew of up to 40 Navy personnel and 75 embarked Marines, and up to 200 feet in length. The vessel also needs to have a roll-on/roll-off capability, preferably with a stern ramp.
U.S. Army Transportation Command has over 100 vessels, and dozens have similar capabilities to those required of the LAW. The Army’s LCU-2000s, also called the Runnymede-class large landing crafts, are smaller, with roughly half of the cargo space designed for the LAW and slightly slower, but they boast nearly double the range. The Runnymede-class vessels have nearly 4,000 square feet of cargo space and can travel 6,500 miles when loaded and at 12 knots; and they can unload at the beach with their bow ramp.
The Army’s General Frank S. Besson-class logistics support vessels are larger than the future LAW, at 273 feet in length but can claim 10,500 square feet of cargo space and a 6,500-mile range loaded to match the LCU-2000. These vessels also have both a bow and stern ramp for roll-on/roll-off capability at the beach or ship-to-ship docking at sea. The version built for the Phillipine military also has a helipad.
Army Transportation Command has 32 Runnymede-class and eight General Frank S. Besson-class vessels in service. Mostly built in the 1990s, both classes of vessel have many years left in their life expectancy and more than meet the Navy’s 10-year life expectancy for the LAW.
These vessels are operable today and could be transferred from the Army to the Navy or Marine Corps tomorrow. In fact, the Army was attempting to divest itself of these watercraft less than a year ago, which underscores the importance of this opportunity even further. Congress is firmly set against the Army getting rid of valuable, seaworthy vessels and has quashed all of the Army’s efforts to do so thus far, but transferring this equipment to the Navy is a reasonable course of action that should satisfy all parties involved.
While acquiring “surplus” military equipment might lack the allure and promise of designing a new ship class from the ground up, the reality of the situation is that this overlapping of service needs couldn’t come at a better time. By acquiring a watercraft that meets most of their requirements from the Army, the Navy and Marine Corps simultaneously fill current capability gaps and obtain an invaluable series of assets they can use to support the evaluation and experimentation of new designs and concepts. This will allow Navy and Marine leaders to give their units the maximum amount of time to evaluate and experiment with new designs to get a better idea of what they need both in future amphibious craft as well as operational and support equipment.
The significance of so rapidly acquiring the Army’s amphibious craft isn’t just limited to developing a better amphibious force either. There is a very real capability gap that exists in the fleet today in the areas of surplus seagoing capacity, and acquiring these Army watercraft would go an extremely long way toward addressing it. Often overlooked, the availability of surplus vessels is absolutely critical to the process of developing new technologies, developing the tactics to employ them, conducting training, and providing decision-makers the requisite capacity to remain flexible in the face of unexpected challenges.
The Navy and Marine Corps today are hurtling toward a new future of distributed operations and unprecedented levels of integration in the littorals. The Marine Corps commandant has clearly specified that force design is his No. 1 priority and that significant changes to the Marine Corps are in the works.
At the same time, the Navy and Marine Corps continue to serve as the first responders for many of the nation’s emerging challenges around the globe. They’ve long been in need of a boost in their amphibious capabilities so as to be better positioned to meet the demands of today and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow, and taking possession of the Army’s Runnymede- and Frank S. Benson-class vessels is a solution on a silver platter.
Capt. Walker D. Mills is a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer serving in Cartagena, Colombia. Lt. Joseph Hanacek is a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer based in Dam Neck, Virginia. The views expressed here are theirs alone and do not necessarily represent the views of these military branches or the Defense Department.