New amphibs face budget shortfall; big decks now eyed as unmanned 'motherships'

By Jason Sherman / December 8, 2021

SIMI VALLEY, CA -- The Marine Corps needs more money in fiscal years 2023 and 2024 to buy Light Amphibious Warships, critical to service plans to establish new littoral units that can nimbly move shore-to-shore inside China's striking range, while contemplating a radical new use for its big-deck combatants: "Motherships" to unleash unmanned air and undersea systems.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said his new concept for stand-in forces, published last week, has budget implications that are not yet resolved in the draft FY-23 budget the Pentagon is finalizing. Asked directly by a reporter if there is a budget shortfall associated with new equipment required to equip stand-in forces, he said: “There is.”

“Light amphibious warships, we got to have as fast as possible,” Berger told reporters Dec. 4 on the sidelines of the Reagan National Defense Forum here.

Berger, who for more than two years has been pushing to shed heavy force structure and equipment in order to reorient the service back to sea after nearly two decades of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, wants smaller, low-signature and more affordable amphibious combat and logistics ships.

Navy and Pentagon leaders, however, are arguing that the Marine Corps must make a choice between buying either big-deck amphibs or the new LAW that are critical to capability to operate in contested areas.

“Either/or,” Berger said, is the response from Navy leaders to his request for Light Amphibious Warships in addition to the existing big-deck amphibious ship plan. “How many amphibs do you want to trade for that?” is the feedback he’s getting from his bosses, he said.

Berger said such a tradeoff is unacceptable.

“Like, no: this is a new way we have to be able to operate,” the commandant said.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the price tag for a new LAW could range between $100 million and $300 million per ship. However, the Navy is still conducting preliminary design concept studies and does not plan to lock in a LAW requirement until early 2022. In April 2020, the Navy advised industry it was looking for a ship that costs “several-digit millions, not triple-digit millions” of dollars.

Berger said the near-term budgetary implications of the stand-in forces concept means more money is required for aircraft and LAW to buy “the things that organically . . . you have with you all the time so you can reposition, posture your force all the time, dynamically.”

The concept, according to Berger, envisions Marines and an adversary both in near-constant motion: “You're both trying to posture like two boxers or two wrestlers, all the time, every day,” the general said. “So, you have to have organic mobility, you can't call for it -- you got to have it. We don't have light amphibious warships now. There are some who think: 'Oh, great, OK, I buy light amphibious warships -- whatever that is -- so we can trade regular amphibs for those.'

Berger said he envision a new role for big-deck amphibs, originally designed to support a Marine assault of enemy shores.

“Those bigger ones that have a flight deck and a well deck? My view: they're going to be probably launching unmanned stuff two years from now,” Berger said. “A mothership, sort of like. . . . Why would you not do that?”

He said the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is actively tackling technical issues of what would be needed to deploy unmanned underwater systems from a well deck and launch certain aircraft from these platforms.

“Our warfighting lab -- they’re figuring out what would that mean, what would that take,” Berger said.

In June, the Biden administration outlined an emerging force-level goal for a future Navy fleet that included between 24 and 35 LAWs to outfit the new Marine Littoral Regiments that are the envisioned stand-in forces.

Berger expressed faith that the current impasses with Navy and DOD leaders over LAW funding has potential to be bridged.

“I'm confident that between the secretary of Navy and the secretary of defense, if they embrace the way of operating, the way of deterring that I think we have to do, they'll sort it out,” he said.