Fleet weak: Navy’s shipbuilding plan could lose a war in the Pacific
The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan reveals a broader fight within the Defense Department. The issue is not simply strategic, but operational and force-structural — how to transform the Navy to ensure it can deter and defeat China in a large-scale Indo-Pacific war. As in World War II, a vital issue is the role of heavy amphibious assault ships in the Navy’s strategy.
The Sea Services should grasp the role large amphibious warships will play in a Pacific war. The Navy’s shipbuilding plan should reflect this and include a significant amphibious element to ensure its ability to fight and win in the western Pacific.
The Navy’s current plan is — to understate it — out of touch with strategic reality.
At minimum, the battle force will shrink from its level of just under 300 ships to 280 ships by 2027. The Navy then presents three alternative force structures, each with a “transition” period that expands the fleet to slightly under 300 ships. Under the most ambitious plan, the Navy will then reach 355 ships by 2043; under the other two plans, it will cap out in the mid-320s.
Numbers alone do not tell the whole story. The Navy’s current scheme, under all three of its plans, will include at least 31 amphibious warships by 2032. This nominally aligns with the requirements the Marine Corps has outlined — a force of at least 31 amphibious warships—versus the Navy’s desired 25 amphibious warships.
Two facts must be grasped — the role of amphibious warships in Indo-Pacific strategy and operational planning, and the sort of warships the Sea Services require.
Aircraft carriers and submarines receive the greatest attention in public discourse. This is reasonable: They are central pillars of U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. The American supercarrier remains the world’s most flexible combat platform. A surface combatant like the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer — or the Arsenal Ship of the 1990s — may be packed with missiles and field air-defense systems. But a carrier’s air wing can be re-tasked to virtually any mission, the only limit being the air wing’s composition and armament. By contrast, submarines use their natural stealth to avoid the surface and air defenses that can threaten surface combatants and carriers, penetrating the anti-access network that China has constructed over the past two decades.
These two systems alone, however, are insufficient to combat China’s strategy. China has constructed a comprehensive missile network that targets U.S. and allied warships, ports and military bases. Better missile defenses, and a more distributed basing system, would reduce the damage of a Chinese first strike, while the distribution of offensive systems across different platforms (known as “Distributed Maritime Operations,” in naval parlance) will prevent a knockout punch.
Nevertheless, a war would not end simply because China failed to knock the U.S. and its allies out of the fight. And, given the number of missiles China fields, its diversity of delivery systems and the general inadequacy of U.S. and allied air defenses, some damage, albeit non-catastrophic damage, is likely. Conflict would, instead, shift to another phase.
China has recognized U.S. superiority in undersea warfare; its likely counter is to flood the Taiwan Strait with surface combatants and push submarines out into the Philippine Sea. Similarly, it could harass U.S. warships with long-range missiles. Also probable are Chinese assaults against the Ryukyu Islands, seeking to establish an anti-submarine cordon around Taiwan and forward staging points for its missile bombardment.
Here, amphibious forces are most relevant. The Marine Corps has begun to experiment with littoral maneuver, standing up the first Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) in March. Marine doctrine emphasizes the rapid redeployment of light anti-ship forces from island to island; Light Amphibious Warships (LAWs) would support the MLRs. The LAW is designed to transport 75 Marines in one to two anti-ship missile platoons, deliver them to an island, and then pick them up and reposition them after a rapid engagement. LAWs will operate in seven- to nine-ship squadrons, ideally paired with a traditional amphibious assault ship for command and control.
At around $100 million each, the LAW is far cheaper than a standard amphibious assault ship. It also is larger than a “connector,” the military term for a small amphibious ship like the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) that transports Marines to the beach in an amphibious assault. The LAW, unlike an LCAC, is designed as an open-ocean warship.
However, the LAW is slow, with a top speed of 14 to 15 knots. Increasing this will require major design modifications that raise the ship’s cost. Survivability is not its strong suit, either. The Navy’s current requirement is for a “Tier-2-Plus” ship, that is, a ship that can protect its crew despite heavy damage but that cannot continue fighting. The LAW has only one weapon, the 30mm Gun Weapons System previously used on the Littoral Combat Ship. But increasing the LAW’s defensive armament, or improving its armor and compartmentalization, will increase costs.
The Navy plans to purchase 28 to 30 LAWs between 2023 and 2026, with delivery probable by the early to mid-2030s. But speed and maneuverability alone will not save the LAW, nor will numbers. If China invests in sufficient “loitering” munitions and drones, and improves its targeting, it can blanket the fortified positions in the First Island Chain that the U.S. is most likely to target.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the relevance of traditional combat power — mass, speed, decision and violence — particularly if traditional combat means are married to modern sensing and data-processing systems. The same is true of amphibious assault. The U.S. needs the heavy capabilities to punch through enemy defenses, which will be robust, and will require high levels of combat power to destroy.
The San Antonio-class amphibious assault ship, termed a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) fills this heavy assault role. It is designed to deploy Marines using LCACs, helicopters, and tilt-rotor aircraft in large numbers during a violent, rapid amphibious operation — exactly what the U.S. should expect in a Sino-American confrontation. China, however, will not twiddle its thumbs while the U.S. takes up positions in the First Island Chain; it will contest them with missiles, aircraft, warships and possibly its own amphibious forces.
Amphibious assault ships like the San Antonio-class give the U.S. unmatched crisis response ability; they are a core of U.S. power. Yet the Navy appears poised to cut funding for the LPDs. As it stands, 11 of these ships are in the fleet, with one fitting out, one under sea trials, one under construction, and one more planned. The two newest LPDs, termed “Flight II,” have improved sensing capabilities, internal modifications and, potentially, the space to field their own missile defenses.
Initially, each “flight” was to include 13 ships, with older ships being retired as newer ones reached the fleet. The Navy’s FY2023 budget proposal, however, would cut the LPD Flight II buy from 13 ships to only three, effectively killing the LPD production line by the late 2020s. This would leave the Navy short-handed in high-end amphibious engagements — precisely the sort of engagements it is likely to see in the Indo-Pacific.
Congress should understand the significant harm to the U.S. defense industrial base of ending support for the LPD and resist the Navy’s plan. The Sea Services require the funding and direction for a full class of Flight II San Antonio LPDs.
A broader issue remains, regardless of the LPD question.
The Sea Services — and the military more broadly — lack a concrete understanding of their roles in an Indo-Pacific war. The Navy cannot simply throw money at its issues; it must return to basics and think through the nature of the strategic problem. Only then it can match its capabilities to its needs.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).