A significant and potentially lesser-recognized element of the Navy’s recently unveiled 2020 30-Shipbuilding plan is its call for a full-scale “doubling” of its fleet of amphibious assault ships by 2050, a move which suggests that the Navy expects ship-to-shore operations and major maritime attack to figure prominently as a very high priority in coming years.
The plan stipulates that its fleet of amphibious assault ships will increase from thirty-one in 2022 to sixty-two by 2050, a huge force-size increase which likely pertains to the Navy’s plan to initiate a new class of smaller, faster and more agile amphibious assault ships. The text of the document says the plan “initiates the Light Amphibious Warship program in FY2022 and the Next Generation Logistic Ship program in FY2023 to support a more dispersed naval operating concept.”
The Navy’s intentions regarding the future of amphibious warfare likely incorporate a wide sphere of significant variables, such as the need for more dispersed, disaggregated operations, much larger numbers of drone boats and the arrival of fifth-generation airpower to amphibious warfare in the form of the F-35B. The Navy’s amphibious assault ship plans incorporate an emphasis upon large-deck amphibious assault ships such as the emerging America-class by, among other things, providing funding to accelerate procurement of LHA 9, the fourth America-class ship.
At the same time, this push for big-deck or larger amphibious assault ships is equaled if not outmatched by plans for the Light Amphibious Warship program and the call for large numbers of unmanned ships. Interestingly, many senior Navy weapons developers are fast evolving the concept of using big-deck ships as “motherships” able to perform command and control on large numbers of unmanned systems. Large, manned ships could operate, coordinate and direct mission objectives for unmanned ships to execute. This would enable more dispersed amphibious assault possibilities as drone boats could conduct forward surveillance, test enemy defenses for points of entry, deliver major war assets such as armored vehicles to shore and even launch attacks when directed by humans.
The call for a massive influx of amphibious assault ships will bring the dawn of fifth-generation attack aircraft along with amphibious assault. A vertical take-off-and-landing platform such as the Marine Corps F-35B, a platform already deployed on WASP-class and America-class amphibious assault ships, brings an entirely new dimension of stealthy close-air support and strike capability to an amphibious assault. As part of this equation, the F-35B is also capable of providing drone-like forward surveillance for attack commanders, while combining reconnaissance with immediate attack possibilities.
This dynamic might help explain why more future force warfare planners see amphibious assault ships as themselves increasingly able to “project power” in forward, high-threat locations in almost in a carrier-like manner. In fact, some have proposed that the Navy simply evolve its amphibious assault ship fleet into a carrier-type mission role more fully, or at least strengthen that possibility alongside the other missions intended for amphibious assault ships.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.