July 31, 2022

EABO and the Light Amphibious Warship

Numerically, the biggest program currently under development for the US Navy is the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW), a new vessel intended to support the Marine's new Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept. This concept, intended to keep the Marine Corps relevant in a war with China, would see reinforced platoon-sized units of Marines operating from small islands in the Pacific, providing anti-ship missile fire, weapons and fuel to aircraft, air defense and surveillance capability. The LAW would be tasked with transporting these units from island to island, giving them the mobility to stay one step ahead of the Chinese. Current plans call for up to 35 LAWs, with some cuts in the LHD/LHA and LPD forces to offset their procurement.


A LAW concept from Sea Transport Solutions

But what will the LAW actually look like? According to USNI News, the LAW should be between 200' and 400' long, displace 4000 tons or less, have 4000-8000 ft2 of cargo space, quarters for 75 Marines, make at least 14 kts, with 15 preferred, and be able to unload cargo directly onto the beach, with a draft of 12' or less. Defensive armament will be limited to light guns, and efforts will be made to keep costs down to $100 million. As it turns out, there is already a vessel that meets most of those criteria. It's 328' long, displaces 3000 tons, can carry up to 140 passengers and beach itself without any problems. The only downside is that it can only make 12 kts.

I speak, of course, of the Landing Ship, Tank, the famous WWII-era vessel that served as the backbone of numerous amphibious landings worldwide. The specifications for the LAW are a shockingly close match for the LST, and the slightly later Terrebonne Parish class LSTs of the 1950s can even meet the speed requirement, although they're slightly larger than desired.


A LAW operating on the edge of the South China Sea

But wasn't the LST successful, and shouldn't we be trying to bring that success into the 21st century? Well, it was, but like all military systems, the success was the product of its time. LSTs died out because they had to get far too close to the beach, which was a problem if there might be people with missiles waiting there to shoot at you. The LAW obviously solves that particular problem by going where the enemy isn't, but that just leaves us trying to figure out if the whole EABO concept makes sense.

On some level, I really admire the EABO concept. It's a serious attempt by the Marine Corps to say "the world has changed, how do we fit into it?", a question that none of the other services have really followed through on, and that some seem almost uninterested in. On the other hand, it's not a very good answer to the question, and proves that the Marines should stick to eating crayons instead of trying to draw pretty pictures with them. The basic idea of sending a small, cheap ship loaded with a few dozen guys to set up a base, shoot some missiles, then move before the Chinese can locate them, just doesn't make sense. With modern sensors and communications systems, the idea that this kind of force can be agile enough to avoid attack completely doesn't seem likely, and neither the LAW nor the unit it puts ashore will have more than rudimentary self-defense capability. In particular, they fail the crop-duster test, where we ask what would happen if someone sent an AT-802U, the militarized version of a common cropduster, with a laser-guided bomb, the absolute lowest possible end air threat from a state actor today. If the ship is in the open sea, the best that can be hoped for is a long stay in the yard, with being sunk outright the more likely result. If the Marines are ashore, there's a chance they could shoot it down, but the small size of the force involved makes me skeptical that they will have serious air-defense capabilities. The Navy's FY23 budget submission included Tomahawks for the Marine Corps, which suggest that these will be the missiles used. The last ground-launched Tomahawk, the BGM-109G GLCM of the 1980s, required 74 men for a 16-missile flight, and while 44 of them were security police (primarily to keep the protesters away), it still seems hard to credit the Marines with a medium-altitude air defense capability and all of the support forces they'd need into that number of personnel, particularly if they're planning to fulfill any of the other roles listed for EABO. So most likely, the Marines ashore survive, but immobile, and they lose any capabilities left aboard the LAW, which reports suggest are probably a reasonable part of their mission-planning and comms. If the Marines were really interested in using mobility to protect the missiles, they'd just leave them aboard the ship and fire them from there. And maybe make the ship bigger and faster, and fit it with a fancy radar system, and air defense capability...


The threat

Frankly the whole EABO concept smells of someone throwing out a bunch of buzzwords and making lots of swooshing noises. That's a familiar odor, and I'd rather not repeat the program that made it so. On the other hand, my optimistic side points out that someone else may have realized this, and may be planning something more sensible. The LAW was originally scheduled for procurement in FY23, but this year's budget pushed it back to FY25. This is particularly important as FY25 will be after the retirement of Marine Commandant David Berger, the lead advocate of EABO. With him out of the picture, I suspect the concept might be due for a much more sensible rework. The "Marine Littoral Regiment" set up to implement it has both the EABO units and a still-undefined air defense capability, although test reports indicate that they're using the interceptor from the Israeli Iron Dome. This should give it the ability to meaningfully defend itself against air and missile attack, and the whole MLR looks like it would fit aboard an existing Amphibious Ready Group.

This suggests that after Gen. Berger retires, we'll see the CONOPS change to a much more sensible plan. The LAW will be quietly shelved, and the MLR will be deployed by an escorted ARG either as a whole or in maybe 3 smaller groups. The result will be defensible bases which can fulfill all of the various promises of the current EABO concept, most of which fail simply because the unit proposed isn't big enough. While I'm not sure this is the best way to fight China if given a blank slate, it's at minimum a useful contribution and possible given the realities of American defense politics.

The LAW concept itself needs a few words before we finish. First, it's worth noting that while the people who came up with this probably didn't read Friedman's US Amphibious Ships and Craft, someone who drew up the specs has, which is the reason for the relatively low speed. Getting a beaching craft that isn't a hovercraft to make more than 15 kts is really hard and generally requires some absurd solutions. Second, the LAW is often touted as diversifying the shipbuilding industrial base, as all recent phibs have come from the Ingalls yard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. This is at very least a bit disingenuous. Other yards can build the LAW because it is much smaller and simpler, and probably won't gain much in the way of capability by doing so. Of course, the most likely winner there is Austal (Mobile, AL), which would at least have the advantage of allowing Congress to appropriate money for something that is at least marginally more useful than the Spearhead class EPFs that Richard Shelby (R-AL) keeps buying the Navy. But he's retiring this year, which will leave Alabama with a quite junior Senate delegation and might finally put an end not only to Austal's pork-barrel ships, but also the continuing stupidity that is the Senate Launch System.

So on the whole, I'm cautiously optimistic that the LAW itself will probably die off, and EABO might well become something useful in a conflict with China a few years down the line. The best place to keep tabs on the program is probably this report from the Congressional Research Service, which is regularly updated.


Comments

  1. July 31, 2022John Schilling said...

    For the price of an LAW, you could probably buy two MV-22s. Which, to be fair, would only carry 48 marines or 300 square feet / 20,000 lbs of cargo between them, but I think the 300-knot top speed would go a long way towards compensating for that.

    If your plan is to stay one step ahead of the Chinese in an island-hopping game by being fast and clever, "Our LSTs can make fourteen knots!", is not the winning move.

  2. July 31, 2022Anonymous said...

    Getting a beaching craft that isn't a hovercraft to make more than 15 kts is really hard and generally requires some absurd solutions.

    So why not use a hovercraft?

  3. July 31, 2022Alexander said...

    A hovercraft might be somewhere between a LST and an Osprey, with a speed and capacity between the two. I think range would be the issue, and they probably couldn't practically self deploy from the US, even with tanker support. They are a potential solution to some problems, but perhaps not this one.

  4. July 31, 2022Directrix Gazer said...

    Everyone I've talked to about the LAW has been dubious of its value and survivability. Berger and co. talk about how it'll hide with the merchant traffic, but never address that the LAW as proposed is a very different size than the ships it would be trying to hide among, and that it's an open question whether any of that merchant traffic will stick around to provide cover once a war kicks off.

  5. July 31, 2022Hugh said...

    If cropdusters with LGBs are a problem, there's plenty of room and weight allowance for a Stinger team to be on board, or to replace the 30mm gun with a SAM launcher.

    As for usefulness, I think the LAW is potentially very useful as a presence ship and possible export across the South Pacific / China sea.

    There are a LOT of islands who are potential allies of the US. Right now if the US Marine Corp wants to visit, or the island govt asks for a visit to reassure the population, that's a giant intimidating looking amphib and escorts. And there are so few of them that the schedule is booked out for many months or years to come.

    With the LAW, US Marines can conduct their exercises all over the place. Instead of a monster warship with hundreds of marines once in five years, a small group turns up every 4? 6? months or so. If there's a disaster, odds are a USMC LAW will be nearby to offer immediate help.

    My understanding is that a lot of WW2 LSTs had long and useful post war careers in these islands. So if you don't like the LAW in the USN, build them anyway and sell them to make friends.

    As for wartime, people such as Capt Wayne Hughes and Phillip Pournelle seem to think small ships are going to be useful. Figure out how to build them before you need them.

  6. July 31, 2022cassander said...

    Building amphibious lift that can't keep up with the 20kts of the rest of the amphib force to 15 knots seems like a really terrible idea.

  7. July 31, 2022cassander said...

    the above pasted wrong. that should have read:

    Building amphibious lift that can’t keep up with the 20kts of the rest of the amphib force seems like a really terrible idea.

  8. July 31, 2022bean said...

    @Hugh

    The argument for something LAW-like as a presence ship isn't terrible, although it's very different from the argument generally made for it. If the proposal was for something clearly optimized for that, I'd be willing to take it more seriously.

    If cropdusters with LGBs are a problem, there’s plenty of room and weight allowance for a Stinger team to be on board, or to replace the 30mm gun with a SAM launcher.

    Stinger wouldn't be enough. LGBs work very well from altitudes way above what Stinger can do. RAM is minimum, and you'd probably need ESSM, which is going to drive up cost a ton.

    As for wartime, people such as Capt Wayne Hughes and Phillip Pournelle seem to think small ships are going to be useful. Figure out how to build them before you need them.

    I will start caring about what Wayne Hughes when he apologies for his last brainwave and pays back some of the billions that cost the taxpayer.

    (Seriously, Hughes being a proponent is pretty much enough to turn me off the idea.)

  9. July 31, 2022Echo said...

    Hey now, this could be a great concept; you could run them between islands at night to avoid aircraft, dropping off extra troops or barrels full of supplies as the Chinese bypass the islands you occupied.
    It just needs a catchy name, like "the Manhattan Express"

  10. August 01, 2022Alexander said...

    Not to defend the concept, but did the US bypass any islands that Kamikazes could take off from? If the Marines have Tomahawks (and presumably some kind of air defence) they'd be hard to ignore. You'd probably still prefer Virginias, but they presumably cost more.

  11. August 01, 2022Hugh said...

    @cassander, if the LAW needs to be part of a serious battlegroup, something has gone horribly wrong.

    @bean, a quick search gives the Stinger a ceiling of 3500 metres (unclassified). The AT-802 ceiling is 4000, and the manufacturer page gives top speed and best cruising altitudes as below the Stinger. If the extra 500 metres is a real problem, I'm sure the Brits will sell the USMC some Starstreaks. This was your example, not mine.

    On the more general point, yes other more capable and expensive aircraft can drop LGBs from a greater height.

    The LAW is vulnerable. It's a small transport with minimal armament. Such ships were horribly vulnerable to surface attack in the 17th, 18th, and 19th C; and horribly vulnerable to underwater, surface, and air attack in the 20th C.

    The bigger, faster ship with radar and air defence can only be in one place at a time, and that is often in dock for maintenance. If the USMC has decided that they need to be in lots of places at the same time, and they'll accept the losses, that seems reasonable to me.

  12. August 01, 2022Hugh said...

    OK, I am seriously confused by the Wayne Hughes critique.

    To a not well informed civilian like me, Wayne Hughes is known for advocating small cheap warships armed with ASMs. I don't know how influential his writing has been outside the Anglosphere, but it's possible that he is responsible for billions of taxpayer dollars spent by Norway on the Skjold, Sweden on the Visby, Taiwan on the Kuang Hua, China on the Type 022.

    In the past few decades the one thing the USN absolutely has not done is buy small cheap warships armed with ASMs! (Eg the Ambassador missile boats built in Missippi for export.) I don't see how Wayne Hughes is to blame for the Zumwalt or Littoral Combat Ship (F-35? Ford?), unless you're blaming him for not being persuasive enough

  13. August 01, 2022bean said...

    @Hugh

    I suspect that service ceiling number isn't an aerodynamic limitation, as it's a turoprop, and those generally go a lot higher. Most likely, it's not pressurized because of how it gets used. The Super Tucano (comparable in most other ways, not picked because "crop duster" hammers home the point that this is not a hard capability to get) can go up to 10,000 m, well above Stinger ceiling.

    The bigger, faster ship with radar and air defence can only be in one place at a time, and that is often in dock for maintenance. If the USMC has decided that they need to be in lots of places at the same time, and they’ll accept the losses, that seems reasonable to me.

    I'm not saying that we shouldn't accept some risk to get numbers, particularly in areas of low threat. I'm saying that the risk they're proposing is a bad one to run. The idea of sending in lots of small, expendable units is both contrary to the traditions of this country and generally not born out by historical evidence. If they were saying "let's buy a couple of ferries for use with engagement teams", I'd be more than happy to defer to their judgement. But they're proposing a fairly big buy of these things, and planning to use them in a shooting war with China, where they will all die very easily. We would be better off spending the money on other things.

    I don’t see how Wayne Hughes is to blame for the Zumwalt or Littoral Combat Ship (F-35? Ford?), unless you’re blaming him for not being persuasive enough

    A proposal from Hughes and Arthur Cebrowski (Streetfighter) is the direct ancestor of the LCS. Yes, it was only 1,000 tons instead of 4,000, but they're the ones who put 4,000 tons of capability into it, so they have nobody else to blame for it growing to the size it is.

  14. August 02, 2022Anonymous said...

    Hugh:

    Wayne Hughes is known for advocating small cheap warships armed with ASMs.

    Given that such speedboats with a few missiles combined with crap sensors are just targets if going up against a real warship all one needs to do to discredit oneself is suggest that they be built.

  15. August 03, 2022ADifferentAnonymous said...

    If the question is 'what can the Marines do in a war over Taiwan', the answers seem limited. I can come up with

    A) Stay home and let the other branches handle it B) Reinforce Taiwan C) Land on the Chinese mainland D) Land on random small islands E) Boarding actions

  16. August 04, 2022Alex said...

    Berger and co. talk about how it’ll hide with the merchant traffic

    There is also a bigger question of whether the US military would be willing to put merchant ships at risk/make them potential targets by having an established practice of sailing in close proximity to them. I can't imagine that the (mostly foreign-flagged) merchant vessels would appreciate this practice.

    There are a LOT of islands who are potential allies of the US. Right now if the US Marine Corp wants to visit, or the island govt asks for a visit to reassure the population, that’s a giant intimidating looking amphib and escorts.

    We already have 12 Spearhead-class EPFs capable of fulfilling this mission, with more on the way. They aren't as comfortable for the marines as they could be, but the mission bay is enormous, and you could easily add a better gym and some other quality-of-life amenities if you're only going to be transporting a platoon. The only additional capability you get from a LAW is the ability to beach itself, which you don't need for presence ops.

    A) Stay home and let the other branches handle it B) Reinforce Taiwan C) Land on the Chinese mainland D) Land on random small islands E) Boarding actions

    I think "Reinforce Taiwan" is the only plausible answer here. Our ARGs should be able to deliver men and materiel to Taiwan's east and northeast coast, even if the major ports are denied. At the same time, US leadership can't publicly say they are planning for that - it has too much potential to inflame tensions with the PRC. This creates a tricky situation where the "actual goals" and CONOPS might be different from what can be publicly stated in the political debates over shipbuilding plans.

    Everyone involved seems to understand that amphibious landings against peer- or near-peer opposition are unlikely to be workable in the future, so it's problematic that leadership can't publicly talk about the only real remaining use-case for an ARG.

  17. August 04, 2022ike said...

    I think “Reinforce Taiwan” is the only plausible answer here.

    Port Aurther is almost impossible to defend from an adversary with sea-control. If the US Army was willing to cooperate, I am certain that they could take Hainan or some other defensible area and defend it with favorable losses.

    The Red Navy's job gets a lot harder if they have to defend more than just the straits.

  18. August 04, 2022Alex said...

    Port Arther is almost impossible to defend from an adversary with sea-control.

    That's a surprising claim. Any vessels that want to get close would need to enter Korea Bay, where they would encounter mutually supportive opposition from airbases and land-based missiles on 3 sides: the Shandong peninsula, the Liaodong Peninsula, and North Korea. Sending an ARG into that looks to me like suicide, even before they attempt a landing.

    I am certain that they could take Hainan or some other defensible area and defend it with favorable losses.

    Hainan is big. It has roughly the land area of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island together. It also has a population of more than 10 million people, plus the PLA and PLAN personnel that would be surged into it in a hot war. It is also where China bases its nuclear submarines, which you'd expect to be defended extremely heavily.

    Zooming out to high-level strategy: invading the Chinese mainland would be a massive escalation to a conflict initially centered on Taiwan. It would incur a substantial risk of nuclear conflict, boost Chinese civilian morale (which is a key lever), and cause serious tension with our regional allies. It's not going to happen unless the conflict has already been massively escalated beyond Taiwan for other reasons.

  19. August 05, 2022Anonymous said...

    Alex:

    Our ARGs should be able to deliver men and materiel to Taiwan's east and northeast coast, even if the major ports are denied.

    But then they need to get over the big mountains in the middle of the island to get to the part of Taiwan that would actually need the supplies.

  20. August 05, 2022Lambert said...

    What size of islands are they thinking about operating from and how many of them exist?

    This strategy looks vulnerable to the PLA pre-emptively mining (both land and sea) everywhere that's suitable at the outbreak of war.

  21. August 05, 2022Alex said...

    But then they need to get over the big mountains in the middle of the island to get to the part of Taiwan that would actually need the supplies.

    That’s part of the motivation for the Hsuehshan Tunnel. But yeah, it’s definitely a logistics challenge.

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