Tuesday, January 6, 2015

MLP Update

Let’s take an updated look at the Mobile Landing Platform, MLP, vessel program, once the hottest thing in the Navy but now largely quiet.  The MLP, you’ll recall, is intended as a mobile, floating pier allowing cargo transfers between large transports and smaller vessels or connectors.  In addition, the Navy has developed an Afloat Forward Staging Base, AFSB, variant of the MLP which incorporates an elevated flight deck.  The base MLP is built on a commercial oil tanker hull and is 764 ft long with accommodations for 250 personnel.  The ships will be operated by the Military Sealift Command, hence the USNS designation.

To date, four vessels are complete or under contract with two configured as MLPs and two as AFSBs.

MLP-1                        USNS Montford Point           2013 delivery
MLP-2                        USNS John Glenn                 2014 delivery
MLP-3 / AFSB           USNS Lewis B. Puller          2015 delivery
MLP-4 / AFSB           USNS ??                                2018 delivery

I’ve scoured the media for MLP contract announcements and here is the contract history.

Mar 2009       $3.5M             MLP design
Dec 2009       $7M                ?
Apr 2010        $10M              ?
Aug 2010       $115M            long lead items for MLP-1
May 2011       $744M            addition to contract for first two MLPs
Jul 2011         $60M              long lead items for MLP-3
Feb 2012       $360M            MLP-3
Jun 2013        $11.2M           MLP-3/4 design work
Dec 2013       $21.4M           MLP-3/AFSB
Mar 2014       $128M            contract addition to convert MLP-3 to AFSB
Jun 2014        $64.1M           long lead items for MLP-4
Dec 2014       $498M            MLP-4 as AFSB

Total =            $2.022B

So, as best I can piece together, here are the individual ship costs.

MLP-1                        $440  
MLP-2                        $440
MLP-3 / AFSB           $581
MLP-4 / AFSB           $498

The higher price for the second pair is understandable as they have the AFSB additions.

There are no concrete plans for additional ships, as far as I know and the continuing budget limitations probably preclude any additional vessels.

As far as usefulness, I’ve heard remarkably little, good or bad, about the ship’s performance and utility.  Of course, to be fair, the first vessel is just now achieving operational status so there has been little chance for hands on experimentation.  USS Ponce, which was converted to a makeshift AFSB, was reported to be quite useful in the MCM mothership role.

This is a vessel and concept that I’m somewhat dubious about.  The cargo transfer function seems like an unnecessarily inefficient extra step that ought to be addressed by designing larger ships with the ability to transfer cargo directly to connectors.  The MLP also represents an enormous vulnerability.  If the bulk of an amphibious assault’s cargo must pass through the MLP, that would make the ship a very high priority target and a single point of failure for the entire assault.  Regardless, having only two (or four if the AFSBs are counted) MLPs seems woefully insufficient to support a major amphibious assault.

MLP - The Jury Is Out


As an MCM mothership, I’m sure the ship would be very useful but I’m also sure that a smaller, dedicted, purpose built MCM mothership would be a better option for that role.

As with the JHSV, this seems to be a ship design that lacks a clearly defined and necessary mission.

The ultimate value of the ships will lie in how the Navy chooses to use them and for that we’ll have to wait and see.

21 comments:

  1. Many options were thrown around in the MPF(F) days for offloading large transport onto lighterage, including a fly-through, transvers bay in the MPF(F). I don't know the particulars for why they took the MLP route. The cost of modifying each MPF ship to include the bay and the appropriate internal mods may've been too high.

    The current MLP designs were further de-scoped, so their original rationale may not hold true anymore.

    I agree that we are buying far too few to provide a robust capability. We will only have enough for experimental use.

    OTOH, the JHSV has far more immediate usefulness as an intra-theater connector with small/austere port accessibility.

    IMHO we need to find a solution that has the following characteristics, in no particular order:

    * high delivery capacity per SCN dollar over both intra- and inter-theater distances.
    * inexpensive lighterage interfaces (preferably organic)
    * ability to launch and recover AAVs
    * ability to carry lighterage
    * ability to act as a secondary amphibious assault "augmenter" (when > 2 MEBs or Army units are required)
    * ability to use at least some smaller ports directly (exact % subject to cost-benefit analysis, but 50%-80% sounds good)
    * bought in sufficient numbers to provide wartime resiliency

    Some might argue that it should also be able to deliver directly to the beach, ala LST. IMHO, that's a bridge too far. It limits "delivery capacity per SCN dollar" due to inherent LST design constraints.

    IMHO, what we need is a modern Attack Transport (e.g. APA, AKA). Something based on a commercial hull but with just enough modification to be able to carry and/or offload to lighterage, or operate AAVs.

    My current working option is to use a commercial, medium-sized RoRo/RoCon/RoPax hull with a productionalized version of the Integrated Landing Platform (ILP).

    There were a variety of different designs proposed for the American Marine Highway Design Project.

    Adding an ILP with appropriate offload ramp, and some rudimentary anti missile defenses (e.g. comms, radar, ECM, maybe a SeaRAM) is about all I'd want to do to them.

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    1. Curse you, B.Smitty, curse you! I have a completed post on the modern APA in the chute waiting to be published and now you've stolen my thunder. No matter, ComNavOps is magnanimous and secure enough in his military stupendousity to acknowledge greatness in others. Well done!

      Seriously, you've made a great point that, co-incidentally, is going to lead into one of the next posts.

      I agree with everything you said. Just one question ... What did you mean by "augmenter"? I think I understand what you're suggesting but I want to be sure.

      Very good comment!

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    2. We must be starting to think more alike! Scary! ;)

      I don't think APA/AKAs can lead an opposed amphibious assault charge by themselves. They lack useful organic aviation capacity, for one. However we can't afford to buy enough true amphibious assault ships for anything beyond STOM/OMFTS raids.

      We currently have the ability to lift a grand total of 2 Marine brigades on amphibs. In contrast, the invasion of Okinawa in WWII required a landing force of 183,000. Modern technology has come a long ways, but we've lost the ability to deliver mass quantities from the sea. "Quantity has a quality of its own".

      So I would see APA/AKAs augmenting true amphibious ships rather than replacing them. They provide the bulk, when needed, while amphibs provide the high-end capabilities and forward presence.

      Also, the Marines have downgraded port seizure on their priority list, but I still believe it is an important national priority. 2 Marine MEBs aren't going to win many conflicts on their own. We will still need large numbers of follow on forces. A medium-sized APA/AKA can both contribute to port seizure as well as directly utilize many more ports than the huge, lumbering LMSRs and MPF ships.

      No need for an MLP if you can tie up to a real pier.

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    3. Smitty: "IMHO, what we need is a modern Attack Transport (e.g. APA, AKA). Something based on a commercial hull..."
      ===============================================
      Precisely!

      GAB

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    4. Smitty I think you nailed all of my points? CNO there should be a separate line item in the costs listed above for the contracts to Vigor Marine to install the Core Capabilities Set on the first two MLPs.
      And from what I've seen the Navy has not even finaliized the design for MLP4/AFSB2, so they DROPPED it from the budget.

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  2. I think the USN would have been far better off buying a commercial FLO/FLO and then transporting a military version of a commercial floating platform to support specialized operations.

    Doing so would have preserved the supremely useful function of a general purpose FLO/FLO. W have after all abandoned floating dry docks - a critical logistics support element of the WWII USN.

    I do not think that the MLP will ever be a satisfactory mother ship, and is a waste of an asset.

    GAB

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    1. OK, I'll mark you down as undecided!

      Delete
    2. Hey!

      Think Defense posted a wonder set of articles on ship to shore logistics, and a commercial type platform could be useful not only for handling the flow of men/material during the assault phase, but also be used as components of a 21st century Mulberry pier.

      Ergo the nation could have bought a standard commercial design (inevitably at significantly lower cost), assigned it to MSC, and then built very specialized version(s) of commercial platforms at a bargin rate. Since we are still experimenting with the concept; we could have tried several configurations with cheap commercial platforms (really they are just barges) instead of ships costing upward of half a billion dollars. And instead of taking the FLO/FLOs into dock for modifications, we could have kept them in service doing useful things (like re-deploying mine sweeping squadrons - LOL), while the platform/barge goes into the yards for modification.

      Stunning how we talk about modularity, and then take every opportunity to avoid actually doing it...

      GAB

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    3. I brought the first Flo/Flo into MSC service, the American Cormorant. The MLP is such a bad design it does far less than a modern clear deck aft semi-submersible can do. MLP suck as sealift or transport ships IMHO. IF the Navy wanted to lift many small craft up to LCU 1600, they could have bought a lot of two Flo/Flos for the price of one MLP or AFSB.

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  3. The MLP is a heck of an expensive upgrade to the RRDF the Amphibious Construction Battalions use. Granted it may be more capable, but this is a huge expense to merely push LCACs (or future connectors) further offshore.

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    1. It's designed to increase LMSR/MPF offload throughput to lighterage (e.g. LCAC, LCU, JHSV). It doesn't need to be assembled like the RRDF, and is self deployable.

      I agree, though, very expensive for what it does.

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    2. ACB aren't on MLPs, they work the MPS. I beleive the Marines are doing the MLP deck ops?

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  4. It seems that it's purpose is somewhat like that of the Mulberry harbours of WW2; bringing the reinforcements and logistics in after the beachhead is secured.
    Only those were made of simple concrete and ergo probably cheaper (even adjusted for inflation) than modern merchant ship...
    ...and if all you are doing is transferring cargo from a ship to shore using mostly LCACs for the actual transfer than why no simply take an existing Austin class, add a crane and a ramp for cargo transfer, and give it MSC crew to reduce manning costs, and keep it in a reduced readiness state when not in use. Why a new hull?
    Actually when I think about the WW2 mulberry, why LCAC's--if it's a semi-submersible, why not stack the deck with cheap barge and string a bridge to shore with barges?

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    1. http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2013/06/ship-to-shore-logistics-01-introduction/

      Think defense wrote an excellent series 26(!) of online articles about ship to shore logistics, expeditionary harbors and piers, and starts with a historical look at Mulberry Harbors.

      GAB

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    2. musings the MLP is touted as a Pier at Sea, It is NOT meant to be close to shore like the many parts of a Mulberry harbour.
      In answer to your other questions, the US navy has gvien up on Lo/Lo discharge of cargo from its amphib warships, only MSC and MPS do it that way - properly~

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  5. We use a system called Mexifloats. Like giant floating Lego platforms that come bolted to the sides of Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships. They can clip together really fast either as an extension of the ship as shown in your picture above. Or as a giant motorised raft (pictured here).
    http://www.ship-tracking.co.uk/Gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=1232
    Or as a giant deployable pier so you can just roll on roll off direct to the beach. Obviously the more RFA ships the bigger and more varied the constructions.
    Do you use as system like this ?
    Beno

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    1. Ben, yes, we have RRDFs which are similar. The two drawbacks are that they are intended as shore connectors which is problematic given that the Navy envisions operating from 50+nm out at sea and they are limited to sea state 1 or 2.

      Also, they are intended as part of the sustainment stage of an assault as opposed to the assault stage, itself. We still very much lack the actual assault craft.

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    2. Thanks, I've read up. :)

      Yes 50nm is going to be an issue.

      You have covered changes in assault doctrine and the new distances USN and USMC are talking about, and I have to agree with you Im stumped as to how this is going to work ?

      Nice info tho.

      Ben

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  6. The USN uses the INLS pontoon system for several functions: RRDF for MPS ships, barge ferrys for lighterage, causeway piers to the beach. Unfortunately they are ALL carried on MPS ships since the amphibs will have nothing to do with them. And the USN gave up sideloading pontoon sections while the RFA still does~

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  7. sorry NONE of my replies followed the appropriate post~

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  8. My final comment for the night: Why not take the Ponce when she has been relieved by the Puller, and overhaul her to be a full up AFSB? And why not take the Denver and do her like they did the Ponce?
    I'll bet that could be done for less than one new MLP/AFSB?

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