A top Navy official agreed with a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that the service’s dearth of amphibious ships is decreasing its ability to train for many amphibious priorities.

Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, deputy chief of naval operations for Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5), told a House Armed Services readiness subcommittee hearing Dec. 1, that due to the Budget Control Act (BCA) and repeated Continuing Resolutions (CRs) “the shortage of amphibious ships is the primary challenge to our Amphibious Training.”

The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3). Photo: U.S. Navy.
The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3). Photo: U.S. Navy.

The GAO produced a report in September that found the Navy and Marine Corps units deploying as part of Amphibious Ready Group (ARG)- Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) completed required training for amphibious operations. However, it said the Marine Corps has not been able to consistently accomplish training for other service amphibious operations priorities.

The GAO found both services completed mission-essential tasks like amphibious raid, assault, and noncombat evacuation operations. However, it found the Marine Corps units were unable to fully complete training for other amphibious priorities like home-station unit training to support contingency requirements, service-level exercises, and experimentation and concept development for amphibious operations.

An analysis of interviews with 23 Marine Corps units led the GAO to find they all “cited the lack of available amphibious ships as the primary factor limiting training for home-station units.”

The Navy’s amphibious fleet has declined by 50 percent from 1990, from 62 to 31 now. Current shipbuilding plans call for four more ships to be added to the fleet by fiscal year 2024, increasing the number of amphibious ships to 35.  

Lewis said that although the current on-hand amphibious warships fall short of the Dec. 2016 Navy Force Structure Assessment recommending 38 amphibious warships in the goal of a 355-ship fleet, the current force structure is expected to grow up to 34 ships starting in fiscal year 2021.

He also said the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan supports a 38-ship amphibious fleet.

“Eight years of Continuing Resolutions and caps imposed by the Budget Control Act have impacted our ability to plan and schedule training, ship maintenance, and modernization. While we have prioritized our maintenance and readiness dollars, the positive effects of funding will not remove this deficit in the near term,” Lewis said in his prepared statements.

Deputy Commandant pf the Marine Corps for Plans, Policies, and Operations Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault, highlighted in his testimony that of the 32 amphibious ships currently in the inventory, only 16 are able to support current or contingency operations.

He pointed out the 38-ship plan includes 12 Wasp and America-class LHD/LHA amphibious assault ships, 13 San Antonio-class LPD amphibious transport docks, and 13 LX(R) ships to replace the Whidbey Island and Harpers Ferry-class LSD dock landing ships.

Beaudreault said the services will keep operating under the 38-ship level until about FY 2033.

“While modern ships are more capable than their predecessors, the Naval force lacks the capacity to conduct the necessary training when considering scheduled maintenance availabilities and current operational requirements.”

Lewis explained that current amphibious ships are needed to meet both combatant command operational requirements and contingency operations like hurricane relief. This limits the ability of the two services to train as an integrated force.

“Until we reach 38 ships contingency responses and extended shipyard availabilities have a significant potential to impact training and lead to delays in fulfilling enduring requirements,” he said.

Lewis used the example of the USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44) for how repeated CRs threaten readiness. The ship’s maintenance was cancelled in 2011 because of CR restrictions. It eventually received deferred maintenance, but that increased the cost from $44.7 million to $111 million and work took 696 days rather than 270 days.

Beaudreault also noted that more than just an insufficient number of ships, the services are seeing capability decreases in mine countermeasure and naval surface fire support.

“We need a modern and capable mine/counter-mine (MCM) capability to facilitate access to and enable power-projection operations throughout contested littorals/near-seas. MCM shortfalls adversely impact amphibious warfare readiness and may severely limit fleet access during future contingencies.”

The current 13 nautical mile range of naval guns adds additional risk to the U.S. amphibious task force because the marine Corps needs surface fires that can provide precise, long-range, and large volume capabilities, Beaudreault said.

The GAO report cited a few factors beyond lack of ships. Interviewed Marine Corp units said access to range space was a problem. Officials told the GAO that priority resources like range access was given to units that will be part of an MEU deployment, leaving little time for other units.

Additional factors include maintenance delays, weather delays, ship transit time to reach units, and a high pace of deployments.

The GAO noted the Navy and Marine Corps were taking some steps to mitigate the training shortfall, but the efforts were incomplete because the current approach does not include strategic training and best risk-management practices.

It said the Marine Corps does not prioritize all available training resources, identifying units available for training when an amphibious ship is available, rather than a process tying the next highest-priority units for training with available ships.

Both services also do not systematically evaluate a full range of training resource alternatives to complete priorities, like using Marine Prepositioning Force ships as alternative platforms for training, using smaller Navy or pier-side ships for training requirements, and adding additional training opportunities during an amphibious ship’s basic training phase.

Moreover, the services have not developed a process or metric set to monitor progress in better achieving training priorities and mitigating existing shortfalls. The GAO said the current system does not allow officials to assess progress in achieving amphibious operations priorities or monitor efforts to establish comprehensive training programs.

The GAO recommended the Marine Corps “develop guidance for the development and use of virtual training devices to address these gaps,” develop a joint strategy that defines common outcomes to achieve naval integration; establish compatible policies, procedures, and systems  to ensure efforts are consistent and sustained; and leverage resources to better maximize training opportunities.