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Navy struggles to build gator fleet on a budget

Sep. 10, 2011 - 09:07AM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 10, 2011 - 09:07AM  |  
The amphibious assault ship Makin Island is preparing for its upcoming deployment without the dock landing ship Pearl Harbor, which is undergoing repairs.
The amphibious assault ship Makin Island is preparing for its upcoming deployment without the dock landing ship Pearl Harbor, which is undergoing repairs. (MCC John Lill / Navy)
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The Navy has 29 amphibious ships in three locations.
San Diego
Four big decks:
• Peleliu (LHA 5): Slated for depot-level maintenance. Decommissioning date pending.
• Boxer (LHD 4): Deployed, heading home.
• Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6): Local training. Shifting home port to Japan in early 2012.
• Makin Island (LHD 8): Working up to deploy.
Three amphibious transport docks:
• New Orleans (LPD 18): Working up to deploy
• Green Bay (LPD 20): Deployed, heading home.
• Cleveland (LPD 7): To be decommissioned Sept. 30.
Four dock landing ships:
• Comstock (LSD 45): Deployed, heading home.
• Rushmore (LSD 47): Completed extended docking phased maintenance availability in July; doing certifications.
• Harpers Ferry (LSD 49): In shipyard for EDPMA.
• Pearl Harbor (LSD 52): Wrapping up shipyard, doing sea trials/certifications prior to deployment.
Norfolk, Va. (includes Little Creek)
Four big decks:
• Wasp (LHD 1): Certifications.
• Kearsarge (LHD 3): Entered shipyard in July for four-month availability.
• Bataan (LHD 5): Deployed.
• Iwo Jima (LHD 7): Local training.
Four LPDs:
• San Antonio (LPD 17): Continuing maintenance.
• Mesa Verde (LPD 19): Deployed.
• New York (LPD 21): Local operations, in New York City for 9/11.
• Ponce (LPD 15): Local training.
Six LSDs:
• Whidbey Island (LSD 41): Deployed.
• Fort McHenry (LSD 43): Was in shipyard.
• Gunston Hall (LSD 44): At pier in Norfolk, slated to deploy next year.
• Ashland (LSD 48): Midlife extension maintenance.
• Carter Hall (LSD 50): Returned from deployment in May.
• Oak Hill (LSD 51): At pier in Norfolk.
Sasebo, Japan
One big deck:
• Essex (LHD 2): To swap with Bonhomme Richard in 2012.
One LPD:
• Denver (LPD 9).
Two LSDs:
• Germantown (LSD 42).
• Tortuga (LSD 46).
Source: Staff research

SAN DIEGO When it comes to sizing the Navy's amphibious force, there are three numbers: The number the Navy needs, the number it'll settle for and the number it actually has.

The long-term goal is 38 ships, part of an overall build to a fleet of at least 313.

While Navy and Marine Corps leaders agreed to that figure several years ago, they also conceded that a more realistic number was 33, under what they called a "fiscal constraint." They said 33 would be sufficient to support two Marine expeditionary brigade-sized forces, with a reserve of three ships.

As of Sept. 8, the Navy had 29 amphibs in active service including the 47-year-old amphibious transport dock Cleveland, which will be decommissioned Sept. 30.

That will create a 28-ship amphib fleet, which breaks down this way:

Nine big-deck amphibious assault ships.

Seven amphibious transport docks.

Twelve dock landing ships.

Yard periods both scheduled and emergency along with delays driven by shipyard problems, budget battles and uncertainty over the size, funding and roles of the future fleet, has limited the number of gators available for training and operations.

This spring and summer saw extended deployments to fill gaps in regions that require U.S. presence, such as NATO's mission in Libya.

And the margin for error continues to shrink. In late June in Japan, the amphibious assault ship Essex had to return to Sasebo just days after loading up with Marines for exercises in Australia. A 7th Fleet spokesman dismissed the issue as a change in operational needs, but a flag officer at an August symposium on fleet maintenance said Essex had a problem with its reduction gear.

The impact of the shrinking gator fleet is playing out in Southern California, where maintenance and repairs on the dock landing ship Pearl Harbor has effectively sidelined one-third of the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group until the final at-sea certification exercises slated for October. The other two ships are working up without Pearl Harbor, and if all goes well, the ship will join the ARG for its upcoming deployment.

Expeditionary Strike Group 3's commander, Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, recently described that outcome as "cautiously optimistic."

But that make-do attitude hints at an underlying frustration with the direction of the Navy's less-sexy gator fleet, which mainly exists to deliver Marines. Delays in building new classes of ships, to include San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks and two amphibious assault ships that will be built without well decks, along with impending steep budget cuts further add to the worry of maintaining the amphibious capability advocated by Marine brass.

"It's just another indicator of how far down the ladder we have fallen in capability," said Dakota Wood, a defense analyst with the Washington-based nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"The dollars are driving everything, and the Defense Department will not be immune to that," said Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel.

Wood said he will leave CSBA on Sept. 30 to run for a U.S. House seat in Oklahoma.

Budget battles may overshadow the ongoing debate, voiced more loudly by Marine generals than admirals, over the value of the amphibious fleet, which may further shrink.

The top Marine, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, has been leading the charge in convincing the public and Congress of the value of a healthy, viable and well-funded amphibious force. Others have picked up the mission, including defense analyst Daniel Goure, who in a Sept. 6 blog post described the Marine Corps as "the most relevant and useful service for an emerging U.S. defense strategy that can be characterized as ‘fielding cheap options for an uncertain world.'" Goure, who works for the conservative Lexington Institute in Washington, D.C., said the Marine Corps' flexibility to respond to a range of missions makes it the best force option, with ARGs as the method of transport and sea basing.

How many ships the Navy will buy is still up in the air, as amphibs and all other acquisition programs are tied up in the Pentagon's major force structure review, which will be submitted along with the fiscal 2013 budget request in February. Until then, Navy and Marine leaders aren't commenting on what will happen.

Money's the driver

Impending budget cuts threaten to water down that message as worries broaden over widespread cuts across the defense establishment.

"The amphibious capability, I think, is further down the prestige pecking order" within the Navy, Wood said, noting that command of the smaller gators isn't seen as career-enhancing for skippers compared with the deep-draft big-deck ships or missile shooters.

To the Marine Corps, amphibious ships are seen as the key to projecting its firepower and the nation's might quickly wherever needed much like the Navy touts the lethality of its carrier fleet. But the gator fleet lacks the broader appeal and attention-grabbing ability the big flattops carry when sailing in international waters, and many gator sailors grumble whenever their ships are described as nothing but troop carriers.

Still, Wood said, with embarked Marines they remain a unique national asset.

"You get more ability across a broad range of missions on an amphib than you do with just about any other ship," he said, noting the ships' abilities to launch combat forces by sea and air without requiring land-based airfields or coastal ports.

That's the strength of the Navy-Marine Corps team. "You have to be able to get to the scene where your skills will be applied," Wood said. "If you want to have the capability to response to humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, or an evacuation operation or going ashore ... you can do that with an amphibious force," he added.

But the future of the amphibious fleet "is very much up in the air," said a congressional source.

"We don't know whether some of the deployments are going to be required or not," said the source, who asked not to be named but who is familiar with the services' ongoing discussions.

"Once you get beyond the end of the year, it's hard to say what the bottom line will be," the source said, adding that operational demands, depth of budget cuts and changes to mission requirements will likely reshape the force into a smaller fleet.

One thing's for sure, the source said: Don't count on a 313-ship Navy.

What does that mean for the Marine Corps' plans that rely on having 33 ships available to provide that 2.0 MEB lift? "We could be looking at a completely different number as a requirement for the Marine Corps," the source said.

Wood predicted that even a fleet of 11 big-deck gators isn't guaranteed. Indications are the Navy may lean toward "nine carrier battle groups, when all is said and done," he said. "And it will be the same number of amphibious ready groups."

How that will translate into support for seagoing Marine expeditionary units awaits to be seen. The big-deck Peleliu is slated for decommissioning, but that date has slid. Construction of America one of the no-well-deck gators continues, and full funding of its sister ship remains to be seen.

"There's just a lot of utility to it, but it's the cost of the utility" that is the driver, Wood said. "Ready-to-go Marines are not much use if there's not a ship to take them somewhere."

Squeezing the fleet

In the meantime, the fleet continues to deploy. And for commanders, a shrinking gator fleet leaves them with little wiggle room especially when problems surface along the waterfront.

Fewer ships mean those that have just returned from overseas will have less time to spin up with post-deployment maintenance before resuming the next workup cycle.

With three-ship ARG/MEUs, having just three ships in one class at one fleet concentration area like San Diego leaves no one on the bench as backup one ship is deployed, another just back from overseas and a third in training for the next tour. That will happen in San Diego, when Cleveland is retired in late September.

Add in required schedule maintenance and upgrades, like the ongoing LSD 41/49 modernization and other programs to upgrade the bigger decks to ensure they meet their full service life, and there's even less maneuver room. So a delay on the waterfront has a ripple effect on other ships and sailors.

"That's a challenge that we have," ESG 3's Hueber said in a recent interview.

At the fleet symposium where uncertainty of budget cuts dominated discussions, Hueber echoed that frustration, telling the audience "at the end of the day, I'm supposed to get a ship and I'm supposed to get ready for deployment."

"I am concerned about the processes that we put into place, and when we get these ships to sea," he added.

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