The Navy is transforming the shape, composition and mission scope for its Amphibious Ready Groups to accommodate a new generation of technologies, support disaggregated and more independent operations and introduce paradigm-changing dimensions to amphibious assault tactics.
Future Amphibious Ready Groups
The Future ARG, as it is called by the Navy, will consist of an LHA America-class amphibious assault “mothership,” supported by an LPD 17 flight 1 Amphibious Transport Dock and an LPD Flight 2 Dock Landing Ship to deliver aircraft, equipment, Marines and weapons from ship to shore in support of amphibious operations.
The existing ARGs are composed of a LHD or LHA “mothership” big-deck amphib, supported by the existing LPD 17 Amphibious Transport Dock and LSD 41 Dock Landing Ships. In its current configuration, ARGs are designed to operate in close proximity with one another as part of an integrated or coordinated multi-faceted mission, with each ship performing a specific and more narrowly defined set of operational functions.
The ARG of the future, however, will open up paradigm-changing dimensions to amphibious warfare by leveraging a new generation of communications and aviation technologies able to support dispersed or more disaggregated operations. During the 2022 Surface Navy Association Symposium, Amphibious Warfare Program Manager Capt. Cedric McNeil said the new ARGs will operate with a capacity to transport larger and heavier aircraft and vehicles, incorporate new command and control systems and fire a greater range of weapons to improve survivability.
The improved ARG warfare capability, enabled to a large extent by the arrival of the F-35 and new networking technologies, can support the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy designed to optimize long-range weapons and sensors and support security networked, yet dispersed operations.
The LPD 17 Flight 2 ships are now being built to replace the Navy’s existing fleet of LSD 41 Dock Landing Ships known for launching Landing Craft Air Cushions (LCAC) capable of transporting Marine, weapons and supplies in support of an amphibious warfare operation. While different from the LPD 17 Flight 1 Amphibious Transport Dock, the new LPD Flight 2 use a similar LPD 17 hull yet incorporates a number of key modifications to fit the Dock Landing Ship mission requirements.
“We're going to continue to make sure that capabilities are relevant and ready to support all sorts of operations across the spectrum for the Marine Corps and the Navy going forward into the future.” McNeil said.
The new ARG structure also incorporates more supportive features for sailors related to quality of life and has improved built-in self-defense systems and increased survivability, McNeil said.
Modern Threat Environment
The evolution of the ARG structure and mission set align much more fully with a modern threat environment in which adversaries operate longer-range and more precise weapons, fortified by high-resolution sensors. This means approaching amphibious forces might not wish to be concentrated, aggregated or condenses as it could increase their vulnerability to incoming enemy fire.
The new ARG structure could further evolve as well, depending upon the pace and impact of the Navy’s emerging fleet of drones and unmanned systems. Amphibious assaults in the future are very unlikely to look anything like the kind of linear attack on Iwo Jima in World War II and they will undoubtedly integrate with a growing fleet of unmanned systems. McNeil was clear that ship composition and force formations are likely to continue to evolve as new technologies emerge, a key reason why the new ARG is being architected with growth and modernization potential built in.
“We have an amphibious force structure study that's ongoing that will evaluate what our requirement in the way of quantities will be going forward into the future. That study is planned to complete towards the end of the March timeframe. And that study will inform where we go with future procurements, acquisition strategies to ensure we buy those remaining platforms in the most affordable and smartest way possible,” McNeil said.
USS Tripoli - LHA 7 & USS America - LHA 6
Future ARGs will be supported to a large extent by the services fast-emerging America-class amphibious assault ships. The Navy’s second America-class amphibious assault ship will be heading to war this Spring, a milestone intended to support the service’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy aimed at projecting and sustaining multi-domain power across dispersed or otherwise disaggregated formations.
The ship, called LHA 7 and known as the USS Tripoli, recently completed what’s called Post Shakedown Availability in San Diego, a key assessment and preparation phase intended to ensure the new ship is ready for maritime warfare. Navy weapons developers explain that the USS Tripoli is now transitioning to operational service with the fleet.
“I'm pleased to report that that ship is actually underway today operating and so it has a fairly aggressive op tempo as we plan to not only transition that ship to the fleet, but ultimately transition it into fleet tasking, where we'll look to see all sorts of capabilities displayed on that platform later this spring,” Capt. Cedric McNeil, Amphibious Warfare Program Manager, Naval Sea Systems Command, told an audience at the 2022 Surface Navy Association Symposium
The USS Tripoli will follow the first-in-class USS America amphibious assault ship which has now been operational for several years and been on regular deployments. McNeil explained that having the use of vertical-take-off-and-landing F-35Bs and other radar and command and control technological advancements, give the ship the ability to broaden its mission scope.
“We can talk about small scale Contingency Operations supporting the expeditionary strike group in a forward deployed manner. We've seen a lot of that with LHA 6 as of late, or we can talk about full on war time operations where LHA is a part of a larger expeditionary Naval force. Regardless, this ship will remain a centerpiece of any of those scenarios going forward into the future,” McNeil said.
On several occasions, the USS America has deployed with as many as 13 to 15 operational F-35s on board, a maritime combat capability equally envisioned for LHA 7. Modifications were made to LHA 6 to ensure the deck could withstand the heat of an F-35Bs vertical take off and landing, and several areas of the ship’s structure were reinforced to support the aircraft. An ability to forward station and deploy the F-35B, supported by helicopters, drones and Ospreys, could arguably be seen as the principle paradigm-changing advantage of the America-class amphibs.
“You can see some of the aviation capabilities represented on this platform. First and foremost, you see the F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter, we've learned a heck of a lot with LHA 6 as it has been deployed just over the last few years of operating JSF. We've taken all of those lessons learned into consideration. We worked a lot on this post delivery with LHA 7,” McNeil said.
As aviation-centric platforms, LHA 6 and LHA 7 are built with a larger hangar space to house aircraft and incorporate a number of specific design attributes intended to support a high air op tempo.
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LHA 6, LHA 7, LHA 8 & LHA 9
These first two aviation centric amphibs in the America class are, by design, intended to set the stage for the now under construction LHA 8, an F-35 carrying America-class amphib featuring the return of the well deck to support ship to shore maritime operations.
The Navy is now nearly half way done building its third America-class amphibious assault ship, which moves beyond the aviation focused first two in the class to build a well deck into the back to support maritime amphibious assault operations.
The first two America-class amphibs, LHA 6 and LHA 7 were by design built without a well deck for the purpose of leveraging the arriving F-35 and maximizing the reach and power afforded by a new generation of air platforms. The third ship, called LHA 8, is slated to arrive in 2025. LHA 6 and LHA 7, called the USS America and USS Tripoli were, are referred to by the Navy as Flight 0, whereas the now-under-construction, well-deck empowered LHA 8 is called Flight 1.
“While reintroducing the well deck, we also continue to retain that optimized aviation footprint that was reflected in LHA 6 and LHA 7, making for a significantly capable, amphibious, large deck assault ship going forward into the future,” Capt. Cedric McNeil, Amphibious Warfare Program Manager, Naval Sea Systems Command, told an audience at the 2022 Surface Navy Association Symposium.
Among other things, this means that the LHA 8 will strongly support F-35 operations and other aircraft in addition to recapturing and upgrading the traditional ship-to-shore, well-deck enabled amphibious assault. Navy developers sought to accomplish this combined mission capability without increasing the size of the ship.
“Staying within the footprint that we have, we've had to relocate some spaces, tweak some spaces, but ensure we maintain that capability set from Flight 0,” McNeil said.
LHA 8 is built with other design features to include additional ICU-capable hospital beds, X-ray rooms and even an on board surgical team. The ship is also receiving a Raytheon-built A/N SPY 6 v3 Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar intended to support air and cruise missile defense from on board the amphibious assault ship. This EASR radar is also being built into Ford-class carriers.
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The Navy’s next America-class amphib, called LHA 9 is also moving along with its development with long-lead items procurement and an advanced planning contract in place with shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls. The service plans to award its LHA 9 production deal in 2023. Similar to LHA 8, LHA 9 will also incorporate the Flight 1 well-deck configuration.
New Generation Amphibious Transport Docks and Dock Landing Ships
Alongside the America-class, future ARGs will integrate a new generation of Amphibious Transport Docks and Dock Landing Ships to support disaggregated, yet networking and highly lethal amphibious assault capability.
The Navy is surging ahead with a new class of LPD 17 Amphibious Transport Dock and Dock Landing Ships intended to support amphibious operations moving into the future, operating as needed in a more autonomous fashion from an Amphibious Ready Group. The new LPD 17 will project new levels of power with increased range using Ospreys, Hueys, CH-53s and Super Cobra attack helicopters.
“We currently have four ships under construction, our star with LPD 28 LPD 28 is near 97-percent complete, we're actually looking forward to taking that ship to acceptance trials the week of 24 January. And upon the completion of a successful acceptance trials, about 30 days afterwards, we'll look to deliver that ship to the Navy,” Capt. Cedric McNeil, Amphibious Warfare Program Manager, Naval Sea Systems Command.
Following LPD 28, the Navy is already making progress with LPD 29, a second ship now preparing to transition from the dock to the ocean.
“LPD 29 on the fifth of January, that gets that ship into the water into its significant testing activation phase. So we can prepare for the trial sequence in 2023 and onto delivery in the summer of 2023,” McNeil said.
Thus far, the Navy has delivered 11 LPD 17s and has three more now under construction as part of a broad plan to build as many as 26 of the ships.
The San Antonio-class LPD 17 amphibious transport dock are both integral to an Amphibious Ready Group, which typically draws upon a handful of platforms to ensure expeditionary warfighting technology. The ARG is tasked with transporting at least 2,200 Marines and their equipment, including what’s called a Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU.
The modern threat environment contains a wider range of contingencies to include counterterrorism operations, counter-piracy, humanitarian missions, disaster response and, of course, full-scale amphibious combat operations against near-peer adversaries. This requires that the three ships in an ARG have an ability to disperse when necessary and operate independently.
Navy and Marine Corps developers explain this in terms of how modern missions are expected to increasingly require more split or dis-aggregated operations.
The Amphibious Transport Docks are called LPD 17 flight 1 and the new ships to replace the LSD 41 Dock Landing Ships are called LPD 17 flight 2. The first LPD Flight 2, called LPD 30, is now 20-percent complete and is reported to be on track for its 2025 delivery.
The LPD Flight 2 mission, previously performed by the Dock Landing Ships, includes airport, seaport and hospital operations and incorporates some well-deck modifications.
“The hydrodynamic performance of LPD 17 Flight 2 platform will be similar to that of Flight 1. But that allowed us to manage risk and allowed us to adopt approximately 200 changes to support transitioning us from the flight 1 configuration to the flight 2 configuration. What we've done is we've taken opportunities on LPD 28 LPD 29, to buy down risk as we ultimately transition to flight two and LPD 30,” McNeil said.
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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.