As the Marine Corps transitions from a force that for years has fought grinding land wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan into an agile, amphibious assault force, they’ve been forced to reevaluate their force structure. A number of changes have already been implemented to emphasize the Corps’ amphibious nature, including divesting all tank battalions, as well as most artillery and heavy mortars. The new Amphibious Combat Vehicle has also been recently introduced, replacing the Corps’ legacy Amphibious Assault Vehicle. And, they’re getting a new ship to take them throughout the Pacific too: the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW).
Though not as headline-grabbing as some other vehicles in Marine Corps inventories, the LAW will play a role as important as the Higgins Boat did for Marines during their bloody Pacific island-hopping campaign during World War II. Like the Higgins, the LAW will bring Marines to shore—and not just from ship to shore, but throughout the Pacific.
The Congressional Research Service, Congress’s non-partisan policy research and analysis group, recently released an updated report on the Light Amphibious Warship program, concretely outlining how many LAWs the U.S. Navy wants to acquire, what their capabilities would be, and how much they would cost. Parsing through the nuts and bolts of the document, several key characteristics stand out.
Ultimately the Navy would like to procure “28 to 30” of the new warships that would be smaller and significantly cheaper than the Navy’s current amphibious ships. The relatively simple requirements include a length somewhere in between 200 to 400 feet and a 4,000 ton displacement. These dimensions are significantly smaller than the Navy’s existing amphibious ships—Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) and Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) boats—are around 855 feet in length, and displace 40,000 to 45,000 tons, depending on the vessel. Even the significantly smaller San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks handily outclass the proposed Light Amphibious Warship at 684 feet long and with a nearly 25,000 ton displacement.
Length and displacement aside, one of the most significant aspects of the LAW would be its draft, or the distance between the waterline and the bottom of the ship’s hull, which would be a paltry twelve feet. This shallow draught would allow LAWs to approach land almost up to the shoreline, also allowing a bow or stern ramp to be lowered and quickly offload cargo. Amphibious transport ships like the San Antonio-class and the proposed LAW are at their most vulnerable when unloading Marines and cargo, which is probably when the LAW would not have any belowdeck storage, to more quickly and efficiently offload men and material.
The Navy wants the LAW to come equipped with either a 25 or 30mm gun system, complimented by .50 caliber machine guns for self-defense, as well as a “modest suite of C4I [command and control, communications, computers, and intelligence] equipment.” They also specify a minimum fourteen knot cruising speed, and preferably fifteen knots. While this is well below the twenty-two-plus knot speed other surface warships are capable of, it would allow the LAWs a wide, 4,000+ mile range without refueling, and keep costs lower than would be possible with a higher output engine.
Despite their design simplicity, the Navy wants their LAWs to be very rugged and robust, able to take a hit and still swim. They should have a Tier 2+ survivability, a level that is “comparable to that of a smaller U.S. Navy surface combatant (i.e., a corvette or frigate), that would permit the ship to absorb a hit from an enemy weapon and keep the crew safe until they and their equipment and supplies can be transferred to another LAW.”
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the LAWs are expected to operate in groups, or on independent deployments. It’s easy to see how this type of deployment would work in practice: groups of around 120 Marines and Sailors, flitting around throughout the Pacific, from remote specks of land storming ashore onto austere, far-flung beachheads—carried to and fro by the Navy’s Light Amphibious Warships.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.