Thursday, December 31, 2015

LX(R)

Let’s take a closer look at the LX(R), the replacement for the LSD-41/49 class.  To refresh our memories, here are some specs on the LX(R) and LSD-41.



Whidbey Island LSD-41       LX(R) (San Antonio LPD-17)

Length:                       610 ft                                      684 ft
Displacement:           16,360 t                                  24,900 t
Speed:                       22 kts                                      22 kts
Draft:                          21 ft                                         23 ft
Connectors:               4 LCAC or 21 LCM-6            2 LCAC or 1 LCU
Troops:                       400-500                                 700-800
Hangar:                      none                                      1 large helo or 2 smaller helos
Flight Deck:               2 landing spots                      2 landing spots
Well Deck:                 440 ft                                      170 ft
Cost:                          $339M(1981)                         $2.0B (2012)


Navy cost estimates for the LX(R) are on the order of $1.5B per ship.  Of course, we know that Navy cost estimates are uniformly, grossly underestimated so the actual cost will probably be on the order of $2.5B as we previously noted (see, “The Definition of Insanity”).  LX(R) contract issuance is scheduled for 2020 with delivery following in 2026.

The choice of the LPD-17 to be the basis of the LX(R) is odd on multiple levels.  The purpose of the LX(R) is to perform amphibious assault and yet the LX(R) will have a well deck half the size of the LSD-41 that it’s replacing.

The LPD-17 was one of the worst construction programs in the Navy’s history and that’s saying something.  The ships suffered from extensive manufacturing defects and quality control issues, were delivered unfinished, and continue to suffer from construction related problems.  This seems to make the LPD-17 an odd choice to base another class of ship on.

An interesting note is that the LX(R) will abandon the enclosed mast of the LPD-17 in favor of a conventional mast according to artist’s concept drawings.  Presumably, this is an attempt at cost savings although the Navy encountered interference problems with the enclosed mast and considered dropping it during the LPD-17 production run.

For a ship seemingly ill-suited to its purpose, why was the LPD-17 chosen as the basis?

The LSD did not have the ability to effectively operate independent of its ARG.  This is, apparently, the main justification for using the LPD-17 base seaframe.  The LPD’s aviation and command and control capabilities allow it to operate independently, according to the Navy.  One can debate the independence trend but this appears to be the rationale.

Of course, there’s also the ever-present poltics/jobs issues that can dictate directions in acquisition programs that otherwise make no sense.  Is that a major factor in this choice?  You can make your own decision on that.

Thus, the LX(R) has two general uses:  as part of an Amphibious Ready Group and operating independently.  Let’s look a bit closer at both those roles.

As part of an ARG, the LX(R) takes the place of an LSD.  Unfortunately, it costs the MEU/ARG two LCACS.  On the plus side, it potentially brings a couple of extra helos to the ARG, depending on the helo type.  It can also carry a few hundred more Marines although the benefit of that is questionable since aggregate ARG troop carrying capacity was not previously limited.  The major impact, therefore is the loss of two LCACs.

In independent operations, the LX(R) can carry 700 troops.  That’s kind of an odd amount for operations – more than a Company, less than a Battalion.  Presumably, the MEU’s tanks and artillery would be evenly distributed if the ARG’s ships were disbursed.  That would give the LX(R) one or two tanks and one or two artillery pieces.  Again, that’s an odd amount.  It’s not how tanks and artillery are organized or trained.  Alternatively, they might not get any tanks or artillery.  In either case, the embarked Marines would constitute a very lightly armed force.  The danger is that, eventually, they’ll get dropped into a situation they’re not equipped to handle and find themselves in over their heads with no help to call on due to acting independently.  In fact, the entire concept of independent operations is questionable but that’s a topic for another day.

Also noteworthy is the significantly larger cargo capacity of the LX(R) over the LSD-41 which would be beneficial in supplying the sustainment phase of any operation, no matter how small.

The LX(R) also further cements the Marine’s movement away from amphibious assault and towards vertical assault as evidenced by amphibious ships with no or smaller well decks, an emphasis on the MV-22, and the decades long lack of interest in a substantially upgraded replacement for the obsolete and doctrinally ill-suited AAV.

It’s evident, then, both from what the Navy has stated and a logical assessment of the evidence, that the LX(R) is intended to be an independent operator and the LPD-17 base sea frame was chosen for this reason.  Whether that rationale is wise is another topic.


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