A Smart Acquisition Strategy That Can Revitalize the U.S. Amphibious Warfare Fleet

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The Nation’s amphibious warfare fleet is in need of revitalization through the acquisition of new, more capable ships faster. U.S. amphibious warfare forces are this country’s first line of defense. The Navy and Marine Corps want both to increase the size of the amphibious fleet, and to introduce more capable ships. But competing Navy budget priorities raise questions about the Service’s ability to achieve its goals for the amphibious warfare fleet. The Navy’s initial Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 budget submission cut two amphibious transport docks (LPDs) 17s from the five-year shipbuilding plan. However, a smarter acquisition strategy would allow the Navy to procure advanced amphibious warfare ships in sufficient numbers faster than the current shipbuilding program.

Amphibious warfare forces will be critical to the way, not just the Navy and Marine Corps but the entire Joint Force fights future conflicts, large and small. The Navy’s concept of Distributed Maritime Operations and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations requires the improved logistics, command and control, and weapons capabilities provided by advanced amphibious warships. As Admiral James Kilby, the director of warfare integration, observed at a recent meeting of the Navy League, amphibious ships “in conjunction with things like the Joint Strike Fighter, are really changing the way we view those assets and how they would help us in this great power competition.” In addition, their ability to deliver significant numbers of Marines and large amounts of equipment and supplies ashore, without the need for port facilities, and then support deployed forces, is particularly useful in humanitarian operations and counter-terrorism missions.

The Navy/Marine Corps team needs more and better amphibious warfare ships. The Sea Services would like to increase the size of the amphibious warfare fleet from 32 to at least 38 ships. More would be even better. According to a 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service, "Navy and Marine Corps officials have testified that fully meeting U.S. regional combatant commander requests for day-to-day forward deployments of amphibious ships would require a force of 50 or more amphibious ships.”

A critical Navy program intended to upgrade and expand the amphibious warfare fleet is the replacement of the aging dock landing ships (LSDs) with the larger and more capable LPD 17. The LPD 17s are designed to support the deployment of landing forces by helicopter, vertical lift aircraft, LCACs, and conventional landing craft. The LPD 17 class has advanced electronics and sensor systems, signature reduction and modern command and control capabilities. The newest version of the LPD 17, the advanced Flight II, has improved command and control capabilities as well as the additional space, weight, power, and cooling to accommodate future capabilities such as vertical launch systems, directed energy weapons, and unmanned underwater and surface vehicle capabilities.

While there is a clear need for more and better amphibious warfare ships, the Navy seems to be going in the opposite direction. The long-term plan was to acquire 13 LPD 17 Flight IIs with the first, LPD 30, procured in FY 2019 and the second, LPD 31, to be procured in FY 2020. But the release of the Navy’s FY 2020 budget shows that the new plan is to cut two new amphibious warships from its 2020-2024 procurement plan. The reason given was the need to shift money to higher priority procurement programs.

The current way of funding amphibious warfare ships is impeding the Navy’s ability to acquire the right amphibious warfare ships, both faster and in the numbers required. This is because they have been bought individually, based on full funding being provided in a given budget year.

The Navy needs a new acquisition strategy for acquiring amphibious warfare ships, particularly the LPD 17 Flight II. Specifically, the Navy should request that Congress authorize a block buy or multi-year procurement for the next three LPD 17s, one each in FY 21, 22 and 23, along with advance procurement of long-lead items for all three ships. A block buy or multi-year procurement would allow the Navy to construct multiple ships at the same time. This allows the purchase of materials in bulk and the most efficient use of shipyard facilities and workers. It also avoids gaps in production, which increase costs. A block buy or multi-year procurement would save hundreds of millions of dollars compared with procuring the three LPD 17s individually.

In addition, the Navy should seek incremental funding authority for the purchase of these three LPD 17s. Incremental funding authority would allow the Navy to begin procurement for the three LPDs based on partial funding with the rest of the money provided in future budget years. This would enable the Navy to spread available shipbuilding funds over more ships, obviating the need to cut two LPD 17s as proposed in the FY 2020 budget.

By avoiding a production gap between LPD 30 and the next three, the Navy can acquire ships significantly better than those they are replacing. In addition, acquiring ships in blocks will avoid any shortfall in amphibious capability as older amphibious ships are retired and satisfy a force requirement of 38 amphibious warships earlier than planned.

The Navy has done this with a number of other ship classes. Most recently the Navy signed a contract for a block buy of the next two Ford-class aircraft carriers. The Navy has employed block buys successfully for its Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines SSNs and its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. In both cases, the contractors have delivered submarines and destroyers ahead of schedule and at a reduced cost.

A block buy/multi-year procurement would take advantage of some $500 million that the prime contractor, Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), has invested in its Pascagoula, Mississippi shipyard. These improvements allow HII to build the LPD 17 more efficiently and at a lower cost, assuming there is funding to minimize production gaps.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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