The Navy will christen its newest amphibious warfare ship in Pascagoula, Miss. on Oct. 20th. The boldly-named, $3 billion America is a major departure from past designs — and, quietly, the Navy has decided not to build many more like it in the future.
The Chief of Naval Operations himself, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, has said that getting more amphibs in the fleet is his “biggest shipbuilding concern.” But the Navy is only building two vessels to the LHA-6 blueprint, America itself and LHA-7 Tripoli, for which shipbuilder Huntington-Ingalls recently received a fixed-price contract. Subsequent LHAs will revert to a more traditional design.
At issue is LHA-6’s and -7’s lack of what’s called a “well deck.” Most amphibs have a large compartment they can flood partway with water, with a door in the stern of the ship that can be lowered to let smaller vessels in and out. That makes for easy loading and unloading of the amphibious armored vehicles, hovercraft, and other landing craft that carry Marines and their heavy gear ashore. Otherwise such small craft have to tie up alongside the big ships while equipment is lowered by cranes and troops climb down rope ladders, a slow, laborious, and dangerous process, as the military learned in World War II. Since then, well decks have become a defining feature of the amphibious fleet — but they take up a lot of room.
I remember being stunned when the LHA-6 design was announced. Shipbuilding leadership in the Navy has been adrift for well over a decade. It’s almost as if none of the upper echelon has ever read a history book. The Navy’s original purpose-build helicopter carriers, the LPH-2 Iwo Jima class ships lacked a well deck. And it was a severe handicap. While moving the Marines on board ashore posed no great problems, moving their supplies and equipment was a real challenge. Further, that lack of a well deck reduced flexibility for the Navy/Marine team. A Marine Expeditionary Unit (a reinforced infantry battalion with a reinforced helicopter squadron and a logistical element) was typically spread across three ships- a helicopter carrier, a Landing Ship Dock LSD), and an Amphibious Transport Dock (LPD), each with its own unique capabilities. But because the LPH lacked a well deck, it was automatically excluded from carrying quite a few elements of the MEU that could not be transported by helicopter.
Later helicopter carriers had a well deck, giving the flexibility to store and deploy any part of the MEU on any ship in the group. That made it easier for the Marines to tailor the loadout for any specific operation.
While optimizing the LHA-6 class for aviation made a good deal of sense, there should have been at least a vestigial well deck, capable of docking one air cushion LCAC , or loading and unloaded a larger LCU landing craft, if not docking it.
Yes, adding a well deck does add to the cost and complexity of a ship. Quite a bit. But if you’re already spending a couple billion on a ship, it makes some sense to at least include mission critical features that history has shown are needed.