The Commandant of the Marine Corps on Thursday said he thinks the next major L-class amphibious ships will likely be smaller and be partially built around interacting with unmanned systems.

Speaking during a Hudson Institute event on July 7, Gen. David Berger was asked about how experimentation in the Indo-Pacific is informing the next main L-class amphibious warship after the San Antonio

-class LPD-17 Flight II. He started by noting the first step is working on the smaller Light Amphibious Warship (LAW).

“I think the first step is to figure out the intermediate sort of platform. What does that look like? That hull …gives them mobility at the 75, 100 Marine kind of size.”

Austal USA concept mockup of the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) presented at the Navy league’s Sea Air Space expo in August 2021. (Photo: Richard Abott/Defense Daily)

The LAW is expected to be up to 400 feet long, transport upward of 75 Marines up to 3,000 to 4,000 miles and carry 8,000 to 10,000 square feet of cargo as it supports the Marine Littoral Regiment. 

The service wants to buy up to 35 LAWs but the Navy’s FY 2023 budget request shows the Navy was pushing back procurement of the first vessel three years to FY ‘25 (Defense Daily, March 30).

Berger said concurrent with the smaller platform, “as we start to get a clearer picture of what might suit that requirement, then… if it’s LPD-17 next or something else, what does that look like?”

The Marine Corps’ April 2021 annual update of the commandant’s Force Design 2030 dubbed the ship that comes after LPD-17 Flight IIs as the LXX.

The document said that “the development of a robust inventory of traditional amphibious ships, new light ships, alternate platforms, and littoral connectors is required to create a true naval expeditionary stand-in-force and force-in-readiness.”

While by that time enough analysis had been done to recommend the Marine Corps needs at least 35 LAWS,  the document said “it is also time to begin seeking a replacement for the LPD-17 Flight II whose fundamental design elements were conceived more than 25 years ago.”

“We must answer the question – What is LXX? While we do not have an answer to that question yet, we do know that the most lethal capability on a non-big deck amphibious ship of the future cannot be the individual Marine,” the document continued.

This week the commandant answered that he sees one element of LXX is integration of unmanned systems. He underscored the Marine Corps will likely use the next generation of amphibious ships in ways the service has not done before, regularly interfacing with multiple unmanned systems.

“Now think if you designed a ship that was designed with unmanned in mind, what would that look like? Probably a little bit different. In other words, I’m talking about both aerial platforms, surface and subsurface, all unmanned and you had a clean sheet of white paper here, what would that vessel look like? Probably different than what we have right now,” Berger said.

“So my point of departure is not the vessel we have right now, the next best version of it, it’s how do we think we’re going to need to operate in the future? Well, what would that look like? My guess is more of them, smaller. You know where that conversation goes, right,” he continued.

Berger said while the Marine Corps has primarily thought about amphibious ships like carriers with elements leaving and coming back to the motherships it has to change to be more like a network of interchangeable airfields.

“We need to look at them as they’re part of a whole network of portable airfields, plus the fixed ones and harbors. So if we’re going to launch these unmanned platforms, they don’t need to come back to the same ship, they could go ashore, they could go to somebody else’s ship, they could go to one Australian ship. Could we land their [Unmanned Aerial Systems] on our ship? We can actually extend these ranges before we crack our minds open a bit.”

Berger also argued if the Navy and Marine Corps could refuel unmanned aircraft using unmanned tankers that advances these ideas further. 

“If you have a medium altitude and medium endurance unmanned aerial platform, and you could refuel it unmanned – well now you’re in another world right now. And we’re not that far from there, are we? Technology wise, we’re not far from there.”

Notably, the Navy is currently developing and procuring the MQ-25A Stingray aircraft carrier-based unmanned tanker to refuel fighter aircraft.

During the event, Berger agreed with Bryan Clark, Hudson Institute senior fellow and director of the center for defense concepts and technology, that integrating unmanned systems into LXX could increase the amount of reconnaissance, counter-reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions done by Marines.

The Navy and Marine Corps’ plans for what comes next for L-class amphibious ships seemingly diverge, with the Navy’s FY ‘23 budget request saying it plans to stop buying the San Antonio-class LPD-17 Flight II ships after LPD-32, the third vessel in the variant, and meanwhile deciding what comes next. 

In contrast, the Marine Corps put $250 million in advanced procurement funds for LPD-33 as the top item in its unfunded requirements list to Congress (Defense Daily, April 1).

The Navy previously planned to continue buying LPD-17 Flight II ships to replace the 12 aging Whidbey Island/Harpers Ferry-class (LSD-41/49) amphibious ships.

In April, Principal Civilian Deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Jay Stefany said the Navy’s plan to at least procure LPD-32 buys time for the department’s Force Structure Assessments and amphibious force study to be finished within DoD and then inform the budgets going into FY ‘24 or ‘25 that will show the future of amphibious ships (Defense Daily, April 22, 2022).

Stefany said the final result could be a modified LPD-17 or a completely new hull and the FY ‘23 budget request allows time for that decision.

“If you look at the building profile, there would not need to be another LPD or some other amphib bought until ‘25 because we do have the ‘23 ship in the budget,” he said.