Magazine article National Defense

Numbers Game: More Amphibious Ships Are Needed, Marines Contend

Magazine article National Defense

Numbers Game: More Amphibious Ships Are Needed, Marines Contend

Article excerpt

* PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- Marine Corps leaders have stepped up pressure on the Navy to increase the size of the amphibious vessel fleet. They contend that the Navy is not buying sufficient numbers of ships to meet the Corps' future needs.

Amphibious vessels, say officials, are essential to the Marine Corps' ability to respond to contingencies worldwide and to ensure that troops can reach war zones from the sea.

The warships are employed to land and support ground forces on enemy territory. While they resemble aircraft carriers, the role of an amphibious assault ship is fundamentally different. Its aviation facilities have the primary role of hosting helicopters to support forces ashore rather than to support strike aircraft.

The Navy currently operates 28 amphibious ships, and two are under construction. Navy officials believe a fleet of 30 ships would be sufficient for future expeditionary operations. However, the Marines say they need 34 to properly carry out their missions.

To support the deployment of two Marine expeditionary brigades in 2015 will require 17 ships for each brigade, Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, told a National Defense Industrial Association expeditionary warfare conference.

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Although the Corps has determined that it needs 34 ships, the Navy's longterm plan calls for 31 ships. According to the Navy, that is all it can afford.

"There are some cases where the ship mix varies from the desired force structure, largely due to the resource constraints under which the Navy must operate," said Lt. Clay Doss, a Navy spokesman.

But the budgeted 31 ships is the minimum number needed for amphibious assault, Marine officials insist, because all the ships wouldn't be available all the time.

"You need 33 or 34, because you have to apply an 85 percent availability factor against that," said Conway.

"If we had to fight today ... we'd have to take all our amphibious ships," said Capt. Edward Barfield, head of the Navy's amphibious warfare branch. "I think we're going in the wrong direction in amphibious ships. We need to be going the other way--we need to be going up instead of down," he told conference attendees.

With fewer ships, Marines would have to cut back on the equipment they take to war, officials said.

"When you go from 17 to 15, you're leaving about 38,000 square feet of equipment on the pier side," said James Strock, director of the sea basing integration division at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

That will impact what the Marines call their "assault echelon"--the "trigger" forces, those combat and civil support units that would secure objectives ashore and sustain troops in follow-on operations.

Moreover, if amphibious forces were needed during that time for another contingency, the nation would lack the appropriate ships to deploy the Marines.

"Inside the beltway, we have analyzed ourselves to death on how many ships we need to fight a major combat operation. But we don't have very good algorithms or templates to figure out the day-in, day-out shipping requirement for everything else," he said.

Having more ships would enable the Corps to respond to multiple contingencies, such as disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions. Strock said studies concluded that the minimum requirement is 11 big deck amphibious ships, 11 amphibious transport dock ships and 11 dock-landing ships.

But in today's fiscal environment, it is unlikely that the Navy will get additional monies to boost the number of amphibious ships, analysts said. …

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