WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy wants to buy one last San Antonio-class amphibious ship and then end the production line, the service announced in its fiscal 2023 budget request.
The LPD-17 class got off to a rough start in its construction, but transformed into a model acquisition program and a workhorse of the fleet. These ships, built at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, haul Marines and their gear as part of amphibious ready group/Marine expeditionary unit (ARG/MEU) formations.
The vessels are used in battle, for humanitarian assistance missions and to recover space capsules. The Navy bought 13 Flight I LPDs and had planned to buy another 13 to replace the aging Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships.
Under the Navy’s proposal, it would buy just three of the 13 Flight IIs and then end the program, shrinking the amphibious fleet dramatically as the Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships hit the end of their service lives and are decommissioned.
The Navy and Marine Corps are conducting an amphibious warship requirements study expected to wrap up very shortly. Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for combat development and integration, said in January he worried the study’s final result would be based on budget limitations rather than actual need.
“Timely global response and day-to-day peer competition requires … no less — or threshold, in requirements speak — than 31 amphibious ships,” he said.
The fleet has 32 amphibious ships today, in line with what Heckl said the Marines need. Marine Corps leadership has said dropping to 28 could mean delays in arrival times in a crisis.
The decision to stop the LPD production line could drop the service to 24, at the very low end of an estimate released by the Biden administration last spring. It’s unclear if a number that low would add risk to arrival times or force a more fundamental rethinking of the ARG/MEU construct in place today.
Ingalls currently has three LPDs in construction: hull 28, which will deliver this year; hull 29, which launched in January; and hull 30, the first of the Flight II ships.
The shipyard started buying material for LPD-31 and hoped to receive full funding for LPD-32 in FY23, for which the yard already got some advanced procurement funding from Congress.
Under the Navy’s plan, the service would spend $1.7 billion to buy LPD-32 and then end the San Antonio-class production line.
This could leave Ingalls in a pinch. Another of the four ship classes it builds — the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter — is coming to an end as well. That leaves just the America-class LHA, which is also being assessed in the amphibious requirements study, and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that both Ingalls and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works build.
Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, told reporters March 28 that the Navy would seek a five-year destroyer contract that includes nine ships and an option for a 10th — short of the 15 ships in the current multiyear procurement contract.
Having nine or 10 ships across the next five years would barely keep Ingalls and Bath viable as the Navy tries to move from the Flight III Arleigh Burkes into the next-generation DDG(X) program.
Congress will almost certainly weigh in to support of both the DDG multiyear contract and the LPD program truncation. Lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees in particular are highly supportive of both programs. The Senate Armed Services Committee had tried to push the Navy to sign a first-of-its-kind multiyear contract for three LPDs and one LHA in FY21, but the Navy did not act, saying the service was unprepared to commit to buying more amphibious ships until it completed the requirements study.