By Dr. William Stearman

Special Analysis for the National Security Forum

Marines have long been known for their amphibious capabilities which, however, have not been thoroughly tested on a serious scale since the Korean War Inchon landing in 1950. Since then, Marines transported by the Navy’s sizeable and growing (and expensive) amphibious fleet have only been used where little or no hostile resistance is expected, such as limited police or humanitarian operations. What is never mentioned is that the Marines are presently unable to launch an amphibious assault against a well-defended coastal objective for reasons described below. Also described is a highly unorthodox, but likely successful, solution to this serious deficency.

Presently, all Navy ships, including amphibious ships, must prudently remain 100 miles from a hostile coast because of the anti-ship missile threat. The relatively small “connector” landing craft available for amphibious operations cannot bridge this gap. The solution to this problem is a new concept: producing a highly survivable, if not unsinkable, Navy warship by converting a super tanker into a well-armed and equipped Expeditionary Ship (ES). The ES could not only safely bring a large number of Marines close to hostile shores and then launch them to shore, it could then risk remaining close at hand providing essential naval surface fire support (NSFS, now entirely absent from the fleet), and limited air support as well as essential logistical support and medical facilities close enough to save the badly wound within “the golden hour.” In the absence of a near term military need, the ES with a battle-ready MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit, 2,200 troops) aboard would be invaluable in influencing events ashore, especially in crisis situations. It is significant that General James N. Mattis USMC (Ret.), now Secretary of Defense, has been supporting this ES concept.

The highly survivable ship concept meeting the above-described requirements first reached me in an email from Kenneth S. Brower, who had been one of the nations’ top feasibility naval architects, with enormous experience in ship design and weapons effect on ships. He wrote, ”They [our present surface combatants] are, in my view, simply catastrophically vulnerable and vastly overpriced. In a ship [as elsewhere] size matters. Very large supertanker hulls, that are well designed, approach being unsinkable. I would bury a FFG/DDG combat system somewhere inside these vital hidden areas with advanced armor and would trade speed for survivability and reduced cost…”

Subsequently he described what he had in mind. The ship to be converted would be a supertanker with a 250,000 LT (long tons with a full fuel load) displacement, 1075 feet long with a 170-foot beam and a hull depth of 80 feet. (cost would be about $150 million.) As transformed into a Navy Expeditionary Ship (ES) it would displace a maximum of 125,000 LT, and most likely much less, and would have a draft of less than 30 feet. He explained that this huge hull, “reduces the probability of hull girder failure from an under- keel attack. Second, it could easily survive multiple side torpedo hits” Also, its huge volume and heavy structure with bulkheads with alternate layers of water and steel on each side would defeat most, if not all, high explosive, shaped charge and other armor piercing weapons. ES armament should consist of numerous upgraded and improved 8”55 guns (plus some 5-inch guns) which give the ship a warlike appearance (unlike our present ships).

Future weapons, such as rail guns, would be added. The huge main deck would accommodate an assortment of MV-22s, CH-53, other helicopters, UAVs and F35Bs or other VSTOL aircraft. Most importantly, it would carry a variety of amphibious craft to be lowered by davits. It would cost about $1billion compared with the $1.64billion for the new LR(X) amphibious ship which would have but a small fraction of the ES capability. Moreover, the ES would be available far-sooner, since the ship will already have been built and would be ready for installing features described above.  A Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) would be embarked with Marines manning all ordnance and augmenting ship’s company in other ways. (In actual amphibious landings, considerably more Marines could be embarked.) As to the ES role in influencing events ashore in peacetime, in May 2010, General James N. Mattis, USMC, stated, “When (we lose) the ability to forcibly enter another’s terrain, we’ve surrendered our influence in a world where that surrender won’t play well.”

William Lloyd Stearman, PhD, U.S. Foreign Service officer (Ret.), served on the White House National Security Council staff under four Presidents. A former Navy officer with the 7th Amphibious Force, in the war in the Pacific in 1944-45, he is the author of “An American Adventure from Early Aviation Through Three Wars to the White House”, (Naval Institute Press 2012)

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