For the Marines, a big lesson from Iraq has been the need for more armor to counter powerful roadside bombs. Problem is, the Marines are traditionally a ship-borne force, traveling in three-ship groups comprising a big-deck assault ship plus two smaller “landing ship docks” (LSDs) or “landing platform docks” (LPDs). To survive in Iraq, the Marines have adopted 15-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected armored trucks. Squeezing these MRAPs into the tight confines of a ship (pictured) proved a big challenge, according to Colonel David Coffman, commander of Marines aboard the USS Boxer expeditionary group, currently working up off of California. So much so that, lately, the Marines have had to stow stuff on the flight decks of the ships, and leave other stuff ashore.
(Yes, we know the photo depicts an AAV, not an MRAP. It’s just a generic photo to illustrate the inside of an amphibious ship. So don’t get all self-righteous in the comments, please.)
That’s changing, with the introduction of the LPD-17 San Antonio class of “small-deck” assault ships. The LPD adds a lot of vehicle stowage over the older vessels it replaces. The first two LPD-17s, of at least 10 planned, have been quality-control disasters thanks to shoddy construction at the Northrop Grumman shipyard, but that says nothing about the design itself, which is excellent, and the key to fitting all the Marines’ heavier vehicles without giving up the flight deck.
“With Captain Fedrin’s ship, [the] San Antonio-class … New Orleans, and then our LSD, we’ve got a tremendous leap in capacity in terms of vehicle stowage,” Coffman says. “We’re really the first West Coast [Marine Expeditionary Unit] here in the last few years that’s been able to kind of get all of our stuff well established on board and be able … to get this much stuff aboard.”
Plus more flexible storage means the LPD-17s can carry enough of everything to allow them operate independently from the main expeditionary group. Coffman calls this “distributed ops,” and it’s one of the most exciting developments in amphibious warfare in recent years. You no longer need a huge, sluggish flotilla to put Marines on the beach and support them.
“We’ve been able to execute a mechanized raid profile off the New Orleans,” Coffman says.
[It's] basically as an independent platform with our amtrack and tanks and LCACs [hovercraft] working off of that deck. So we’re very excited about the increased capacity and capability of that ship. So as far as the employment end of it, which is my part of the business, we’re really excited to have New Orleans aboard and have gained increased confidence during the workup period here.
If Northrop Grumman will get its act together on the construction of LPD-17s, and if the Navy really does design a Marine-transport module for the new Littoral Combat Ship, we could be on the verge of a golden age for amphibious warfare.