Should the U.S. Navy Spend Less and Build Smaller Warships?

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Should the U.S. Navy Spend Less and Build Smaller Warships?

What if an aicraft carrier could be built for a cool $100 million?

There has been much scrutiny over how much the United States government directs towards military spending, and in 2019 the United States spent $718.69 billion on its military. That money includes everything from salaries, training, development of new technologies but also the weapons and equipment used by the military.

The United States is well known for spending more on its military than any other country in the world, and according to a Statista 2019 estimate the per capita defense spending amounted to $2,072. A common misconception is that the Department of Defense (DoD) does little to rein in costs, and given the amount of money spent on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program it could be easy to see why.

As the Motley Fool reported this week, the U.S. Navy’s USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is the most expensive warship in the world at $12 billion, and factoring in the aircraft it comes out to around $18.5 billion. In addition to being the most expensive warship, it is also considered the most capable in the world—even if it does have some problems with its toilet system. However, some have also questioned whether future conflicts suit such large “supercarriers” given the anti-ship weapons being developed by China and Russia.

The private financial and investing advice company has pondered that question and asked whether the Navy could “build something a bit smaller, a bit cheaper, and a bit better-suited to the challenges that the Navy expects to face in the 21st Century?” It cited the Navy’s Light Amphibious Warship (LAW), an idea that was “floated” earlier this year.

Such warships—at 200- to 400-foot long and displacing between 1,000 to 8,000 tons—would be even smaller than the America­-class of amphibious assault ships, but potentially better suited to the “distributed maritime operations” strategy envisioned by the Navy. Such vessels could carry small units of Marines to engage in island assaults, launch attacks on enemy naval forces and then quickly move to the next target.

Last month the Congressional Research Service released its report, “Navy Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) Program: Background and Issues for Congress.” According to the document, “The Navy’s proposed FY2021 budget requests $30 million in research and development funding for initial industry studies and concept design work on the ship. The Navy envisions procuring the ships on an expedited schedule, with the first LAWs potentially being procured in FY2023 and a total of 28 notionally being procured by FY2026.”

The issue for Congress is now whether to approve, reject or modify that fiscal year 2021 (FY2021) funding request. As the CRS report also noted, “Congress’s decisions regarding the program could affect Navy and Marine Corps capabilities and funding requirements and the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base.”

Scope of the Program

The LAW program envisions procuring a class of twenty-eight to thirty of these new vessels, which would support the Marine Corps’ operation concept called the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). The LAW would be designed with a small crew of forty and could carry and house a “reinforced platoon” of around seventy-five marines with as much equipment as can be carried into the 8,000 square feet of cargo space. Unlike even the America-class amphibious assault ships, an LAW couldn’t launch beach landing craft but instead would reach the island itself.

While small, the Navy has already called upon defense contractors to propose designs that could be built for around $100 to $130 million a piece. The small size could also allow the Navy to reach a goal of having thirty of the warships in the water by the end of FY2026.

Debate on the merits of this concept include addressing a few key points—including whether such a concept is focused “too exclusively on potential conflict scenarios with China at the expense of other kinds of potential Marine Corps missions” and whether such a small vessel could still allow the Marines to gain access to island from they operate and be resupplied from those ideas.

The survivability of the Marine forces on the island and in surrounding waters was also noted, as was the contribution such envisioned operations by Marine forces would actually make in contributing to an overall U.S. sea-denial operations.

The CRS report also noted, “Another potential oversight issue for Congress concerns how the LAW would fit into the Navy’s overall future fleet architecture, particularly since only partial details are currently available on the Navy’s new Battle Force 2045 plan.” Additionally, how cost-effective would a force of twenty-eight to thirty LAWS be if the remainder of the Navy’s future fleet architecture remains an unknown?

While alternative concepts have also been floated—including transferring existing U.S. Army Logistics Support Vessels (LSVs) to the Navy and adapting those to the LAW mission—such efforts would seem to be akin to modifying a square peg to fitting in a round hole and costing more in the long run.

However, the final consideration may be of the industrial-base implications. As the CRS report also added, “In recent years, all Navy amphibious ships have been built by the Ingalls shipyard of Pascagoula, MS, a part of Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII/Ingalls). As noted earlier, LAWs could be built by multiple U.S. shipyards, and nine shipyards have expressed interest in the LAW program.”

It would seem that many questions have yet to be resolved, but the biggest one has been addressed. Yes, it is likely the Navy could likely build a mini-carrier for around $100 million. Now it is just a matter of determining if that is truly the right ship for the fleet.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Image: Reuters.