Here's What You Need to Know About the Navy's Amphibious Fleet
Here are the ins and outs of the United States Navy’s amphibious fleet of amphibious ships, from helicopter assault ships to mobile landing docks.
The U.S. Navy’s amphibious ships are one of the best examples of the relationship between the Navy and the Marine Corps. Amphibious ships are sailed and operated by U.S. Navy personnel, but exist to transport Marines to far-off locales.
Amphibious ships support Marine amphibious assault landings and operate in lightly contested or uncontested environments due to their lighter weapons complement when compared to other Navy combat ships.
The large storage capacity of these ships can be used to embark Marines and equipment from by helicopter without the need of port facilities onshore.
Given the Marine Corps’ high state of readiness, U.S. Navy ships are often forward-deployed in three-ship formations called amphibious ready groups (ARGs).
This, That, and the Other
Navy amphibious ship terms and classifications are confusing. Thankfully, the Congressional Research Service provides an excellent explainer on the various ship classifications and what they do precisely.
“Current Navy amphibious ships can be divided into two main groups—the so-called ‘big-deck’ amphibious assault ships, designated LHA and LHD, which look like medium-sized aircraft carriers, and the smaller (but still sizeable) amphibious ships designated LPD or LSD, which are sometimes called ‘small-deck’ amphibious ships,” the Congressional Research Service report says.
“The LHAs and LHDs have large flight decks and hangar decks for embarking and operating numerous helicopters and vertical or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) fixed-wing aircraft, while the LSDs and LPDs have much smaller flight decks and hangar decks for embarking and operating smaller numbers of helicopters. The LHAs and LHDs, as bigger ships, in general can individually embark more Marines and equipment than the LSDs and LPDs.”
One of the Navy’s LHDs, the Bonhomme Richard, caught fire while at port in San Diego in the summer of 2020. The ship had been docked for routine maintenance when a fire quickly spread throughout several of its decks in what could be a case of arson.
It took Navy personnel and local firefighters several days to put out the blaze, and the Bonhomme Richard suffered extensive damage. The Navy later determined that the ship should be scrapped rather than repaired, writing it off as a total loss.
Change is in the Air
The Navy has deteremined that a change in fleet structure is necessary as part of its pivot to the Indo-Pacific to counter a burgeoning Chinese naval threat. Rather than a high proportion of large ships like aircraft carriers, large resupply ships, cruisers, and destroyers, the Navy could pivot to a more decentralized force of smaller vessels such as frigates, corvettes, smaller resupply ships, smaller amphibious ships, and perhaps even smaller aircraft carriers.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson