The Marine Corps is thinking about how to best use its amphibious and auxiliary support ships as the Navy fleet grows, including by adding offensive weapons, leaders said at an event on Monday.
Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, echoing the the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, said there is extra capacity at the shipyards and said “Congress can help accelerate that” as the Navy moves to increase the fleet.
Speaking at a Center for Strategic and International (CSIS) Studies event, Walsh was bullish that the Navy-Marine Corps team is on the right path building new big-deck LHA amphibious assault ships, San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks (LPD-17) and LPD-17 Flight II-class LX(R) ships.
Walsh also noted the shift to distributed maritime operations and “if it floats, it fights,” so amphibious ships need to help with sea control and not just transporting Marines as power projection.
“So when you talk about dynamics force employment, part of the mark is getting to how do we use auxiliary ships and different ships in different ways,” Walsh said.
Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault, deputy commandant for plans, policies, and operations, said in the future the Navy and Marine Corps have to build amphibs differently, with more anti-sea and anti-air capabilities.
“We can’t always count that there’s going to be a number of destroyers and cruisers to escort amphibs or to tuck in. So those warships in and of themselves need to have” defensive and offensive systems, like the vertical launch system (VLS).
He said future amphibious ships have to have resilient command and control systems as part of a larger networked force. They are going to look at everything from command and control to fires to defensive systems.
In contrast, Beaudreault said the use of auxiliary ships will have to stay somewhat more limited. The use of “auxiliaries are necessary but not preferred” and are best for low-end operations rather than higher end warfighting.
“They’re great platforms for staging a force to do countering violent extremists. They’re wonderful for humanitarian assistance – disaster relief, to perhaps even have a force to execute NEO [noncombatant evacuation operations] to bring some evacuees back aboard for some period of time.”
However, they are not equivalent to amphibs like the LPD or LHA. The Marine Corps is using auxiliary ships out of necessity and will “take every advantage we can as training opportunities allowed for.”
Lt. Gen. Robert Hedelund, commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, agreed and noted the service has to be careful about how it relies on and operationalizes auxiliary ships.
Having spent time in Norfolk, Va., looking at those platforms, Hedelund said just because they have a flight deck does not necessarily mean they are capable of doing what amphibious ships can.
Auxiliary ships include Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transports (EPFs), the former USS Ponce afloat forward staging base (Interim) (AFSB(I)-15), and the USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3) expeditionary mobile base.
The Navy used the Ponce as a test platform for the 30 kilowatt Laser Weapon System (LaWS) for three years while also supporting special operations and mine countermeasures missions in the Middle East. LaWS was tested against small boats and UAVs (Defense Daily, March 29, 2017).
“So the options that it gives you is the exciting part, I think, and the opportunities that are available when you have more options are always a good thing. But I would be careful not to characterize these ships as more than they are or less than they are, for that matter,” Hedelund said.
Relatedly, Beaudreault said beyond amphibs and auxiliary ships, the Marine Corps is thinking about what additional capabilities can be put aboard the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).