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US Navy’s New LXR Assault Ship: A ‘Swiss Army Knife’ on the High Seas?

Navy officials and Congressional decision-makers are considering an option to accelerate procurement of a new  multi-mission amphibious assault ship designed  to function in a modern threat environment, conduct a wider range of missions than the ship it is replacing, and help the service increase the lagging number of amphibs in the force, senior officials said.

A Capabilities Development Document for the new ship, called the LXR, has completed a joint-review wherein acquisition professionals examined the new platform and made comments and recommendations.

The document was slated for analysis by a special Pentagon entity called the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, or JROC, Maj. Gen. Christopher Owens, Navy Director of Expeditionary Warfare, told Scout Warrior in an interview a few months ago..  

The Navy plans to build at least 11 LXR ships, with the first one slated to deliver by 2026, Owens said.

The idea for the acceleration would be to repeat and effort from last year's budget to add additional funds to the LXR program and a way to speed up the acquisition of the first ship to a point earlier than 2020, a May 2016 Congressional Research Service report says. 

"In 206, Congress provided $29 million in additional research and development funding and $250 million in additional advance procurement," the Congressional Research Service report said. 

The Congressional report also says beginning construction of the new ship before the current plan would help the amphibious assault ship industrial base achieve stability during a period of reduced construction. 

(This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.)

The new ship will replace the existing fleet of Amphibious Transport Docks, or LSD 41s, which have functioned for years as a support ship in an Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG.  

A lead Amphibious Assault Ship, a Dock Landing Ship, or LSD, and a ship called the San Antonio-class LPD 17 amphibious transport dock are integral to an Amphibious Ready Group, which typically draws upon a handful of platforms to ensure expeditionary warfighting technology.  The ARG is tasked with transporting at least 2,200 Marines and their equipment, including what’s called a Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU.

The 1980’s-era LSD dock landing ships consist of eight Whidbey Island-class 609-foot long ships. The 15,000-ton ships, configured largely to house and transport four LCACs, are nearing the end of their service life.

While the mission of the existing Dock Landing Ship is primarily, among other things, to support an ability to launch Landing Craft Air Cushions, or LCACs, for amphibious operations, the new ship will have an expanded mission. LCACs are ship to shore connector vehicles able to transport Marines and equipment from ship-to-shore beyond the horizon. LCACs can even carry M1 Abrams tanks over the ocean. An Amphibious Transport Dock, or LPD, is designed to operate with greater autonomy from an ARG and potentially conduct independent operations as needed. An LSD is able to operate four LCACs and the more autonomous LPD 17 can launch two LCACs.

Owens explained that the new LXR ship will have a much wider mission set than the fleet of LSD ships it is replacing.

“When we produced the LSD 41 class ship we were, for the most part, staying together as an integral whole. We found that that was needed in that day and age, which was the end of the Cold War. Our demands are much more diverse and much more numerous,” Owens explained.

The modern threat environment contains a wider range of contingencies to include counterterrorism operations, counter-piracy, humanitarian missions, disaster response and, of course, full-scale amphibious combat operations against near-peer adversaries. This requires that the three ships in an ARG have an ability to disperse when necessary and operate independently, Owens explained.

“We are spending a lot more time in a split ARG situation where all three ships remain within the same geographical COCOM (Combatant Commander) area but in separate areas still able to re-aggregate while working on different exercises or missions,” Owens said. “Because of that requirement – the capability to do independent operations has grown.”

As a result of this wider mission requirement for the LXR, the ship is being engineered with greater aviation and command and control technologies that the LSD 41 ships it is replacing.

“We have built in greater aviation capability, including a much larger flight deck that can accommodate two operational spots for operational aircraft and up to four spots for our smaller aircraft,” he said.

Additional command and control capabilities, such as communications technologies, will allow the ship to reach back to the joint force headquarters they are working for, stay in with the parent ship and control the landing force, Owens added.

Having more amphibs engineered and constructed for independent operations is seen as a strategic advantage in light of the Pacific rebalance and the geographical expanse of the region. The widely dispersed territories in the region may require a greater degree of independent amphibious operations where single amphibs operate separately from a larger ARG.

Also, the Navy and Marine Corps decided to plan the configuration of the new LXR based upon the existing hull of an LPD 17, or Amphibious Transport Dock, Owens explained.

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