Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Tarawa, LHA-1 - What Was Wrong With It?

The Tarawa, LHA-1, class amphibious ships are being replaced by the America, LHA-6, class.  The five member Tarawa class was built in the mid-1970’s and ‘80’s and are now retired after individual service lives of 33, 30, 27, 32, and 34 years.  That’s not very old by major ship standards.

What’s wrong with the Tarawa class that they have to be replaced after barely 30 years of service?  The America class design is largely a repeat of the Tarawa class with some minor changes to better accommodate the MV-22 Osprey and the anticipated JSF so the basic design must be suitable.  America will use hybrid electric propulsion and incorporate gas turbines which will offer fuel savings but that’s hardly a reason to scrap an entire class.  I’ve never read any document outlining the flaws in the Tarawa class that justify such an early retirement.  Similarly, I’ve not read any document that describes sufficient advances and benefits in the America as to justify early retirement of the Tarawa class.

Consider that the official Marine need for amphibious lift was 36-38 major amphibious ships, depending on what document or statement one wishes to reference.  Recognizing fiscal realities, the Marines grudgingly accepted a requirement for 33 ships.  The reality is that we only have around 30 ships and appear headed for around 25-28 ships given the current budget challenges.  Given a current and worsening shortfall in amphibious lift capacity, then, does it seem reasonable or wise to retire five fully capable amphibious ships in the prime of their lives? 

Tarawa - What Was the Problem?

Let’s speculate …  One possible reason for the actions is that the Marines have stated publicly that frontal amphibious assaults are a thing of the past (so why are they trying to get a new EFV/AAV/ACV?) and that inland airborne assaults are the wave of the future.  If that’s the case then the Tarawas with their well decks and LCACs might well be considered obsolete and an accelerated movement to the all-aviation America class might be justified.  The only problem with that theory is that the America class is only going to consist of two all-aviation ships, LHA-6 and -7.  Starting with LHA-8, the class is returning to the standard well deck arrangement, apparently for all future ships of the class.  So, it’s obvious that a movement towards all-aviation assaults is not the reason for dumping the Tarawas (along with the previously stated contradiction by the Marines in continuing to pursue amphibious EFV/AAV type vehicles).  In fact, the abrupt reversal back to a well deck in the America class could be interpreted as recognition that the all-aviation concept is already a failure before the first of class is even commissioned!  On the other hand, this may have been the Navy’s way of sneaking a couple of small JSF carriers into the force structure without having to go through the usual oversight and reviews – and if that’s the case, it might not be a bad thing but that’s a topic for another post.

Returning to the Tarawas, we have a perfectly capable ship that served as the design basis for its successor and had many more years of service life left at a time of declining amphibious lift capacity and yet the entire class was retired early.  People, I don’t get it.  This one is a head scratcher.  The Navy is consumed by the drive to fund new construction above all else and I just don’t understand it.  The Navy routinely makes poor decisions but this one is bad even by their standards.


  1. 30 years IS old for a warship. For any ship really.
    Carriers might survive 50 years, but only with couple of overhauls and a virtual rebuild throughout that time.
    Around thirty years seems to be standard in the Royal Navy.

    "The America class design is largely a repeat of the Tarawa class with some minor changes to better accommodate the MV-22 Osprey and the anticipated JSF so the basic design must be suitable."
    I suppose it depends what those changes are.
    The max take off weight of V22 is 20,000lbs higher than the Sea Stallion
    Can the Tarrawa lifts deal with that? Its a 50% uplift
    Can bigger lifts be retrofitted? Of course, but at what cost? Can the electricity grid cope? Or does all the wireing need to be ripped out?

    "Given a current and worsening shortfall in amphibious lift capacity, then, does it seem reasonable or wise to retire five fully capable amphibious ships in the prime of their lives?"

    There does seem a lot of scope to operate them without any (much) by way of air assets.
    Strip out the aviation support decks and you can carry a lot more men and materiel, depending on the ability to move large cargo between the flat deck and the well deck.

    Or simply operate with old air assets.
    The USN frequently complains its ASW isnt up to scratch, they could function like the UKs "through deck cruiser" concept. Load up 8-16 ASW helicopters and tag along with the fleet.

    Does the US have an auxiliary navy?

    1. TrT,
      on the weights, it's the other way around:
      - The max take-off gross STOL weight of MV-22 is 60,500lbs.
      - The max take-off gross VTOL weight of CH-53 is 73,500lbs
      - The max take-off gross VTOL weight of CH-53K will be about 85,000lbs.
      - The max take-off gross STOVL weight of F-35B is much less than either...

      So it ain't the VTOL-airframe weights.

  2. If they weren't maintained with the expectation that they would live past 30 years, they may be in pretty bad shape. SLEPing them might be too expensive. Just speculation though.

    Also, these ships still use the old steam propulsion plant. I'm sure the Navy wants to transition to the less manpower intensive and more modern hybrid electric plant started with the LHD-8.

    I thought LHA-6 was a modified repeat of LHD-8, not of the Tarawas.

  3. CNO, Like others have told you, thirty years is a long life for a warships, and while they could be SLEP, they offer too many problem to make that worth while. Here are a couple example

    1) Their wet well was design for LCU, not LCAC. Therefore they could only carry one LCAC, not three as the Wasp class

    2) They stern aircraft lift can only handle one aircraft at a time, and that up a spot that could be used for additional helos.

    3) the transfer way to the flight deck is too small to handle Hummers, mean they have to be transferred by elevator.

    4) They bunking design is obsolete

    5) Their hanger is too small to handle the new generation of larger aircraft.


    Are there things we could use the LHA for that would make they useful to retain? Maybe. But as assault ships, they pretty much wash up, and need replacing ASAP.

    1. You're aware that the Tarawa's replacement doesn't even have a well deck in the first two members of the class? So, that doesn't seem to be a critical failing of the Tarawa!

  4. Horse droppings! 30 yrs isn't long. Our carriers last 50 years and, even after that time, there's nothing structurally wrong with them. Yes, the equipment may be old but that's what upgrades are for. The amphibious ships we build are no different than the carriers. You people don't believe a ship can last 30+ years. Are you the same people who buy into the promise that the Burkes will last 35+ years so that we can maintain our fictional 300+ ship navy? Are you the same people who buy into the fairy tale that the LCS will last 25+ years. Hmm... I wonder how it is that the lightly build Perrys are serving 35-40+ years with other countries? Shouldn't they have all spontaneously sunk by now?

    The only mandatory reason for retiring a ship after some period of time is if there are structural flaws - the steel skin has worn away (that doesn't happen) or the strutural elements have cracked. Even then, those issues can be remedied. Beyond that, it's just an issue of upgrades and upgrades are way cheaper than new construction. At $4B a pop, new LHAs are hideously expensive. You can buy a lot of upgrades for that.

    Yeah but, we have to get rid of older ships because they're not perfectly optimized. Given the $4B price tag of a replacement, I can live with a bit of inconvenience.

    The bunking design is obsolete??! So change it.

    The hangar is too small? The JSF won't enter squadron service until 2020-25 and the MV-22 is not present in large enough numbers to matter. The Tarawas operated MV-22s towards the end of their lives so it can be done, if inconveniently.

    You're missing the bigger issue. We don't have any money!!! Scrapping a paid for class of ships that is perfectly capable of continuing service is idiotic. We're on a downward spiral regarding fleet size and yet we're throwing away perfectly satisfactory ships? That's insane! We can perform tons of maintenance and upgrades for what new construction costs and have money left over. If we dropped just one new America LHA at $4B we could spend $800M in upgrades on each of the Tarawas.

    Focus on the bigger picture, people.


    2. It's not about whether they can or can't last longer, they probably can. It's about cost-effectiveness.

      I've read SLEPing the LHAs could cost a billion dollars or more per ship to extend them another 10-15 years.

      New LHAs appear to run around $4.3 billion but will last 30 or more years, be more capable and less costly to operate.

      There are industrial base concerns. If we take a break from making large amphibs and just SLEP old ones, the yards may be forced to divest capacity. This could make any new large amphibs more expensive in the future.

      So IMHO, SLEPing appears to have cheaper up front costs, but lower capability, higher life cycle costs and raises industrial base concerns.

      Both are valid options, one just has to weigh the pros and cons.

    3. Where did you get a figure of $1B and what would have been included in that?

      You do recognize that almost everything the Navy says is wrong or misleading? Combine that with their demonstrated obsession with new construction and you quickly realize that the Navy comes up with some creative [justifications - I'll use that word rather than lies] designed to support their policy of new construction above all else. If I wanted to get rid of the Tarawas so that I could free up money for new construction, I'd put together a list of upgrade (SLEP) items that would total a trillion dollars and no one could question my "estimate" because we wouldn't actually do it.

      Use your common sense. The Tarawas were functioning just fine right up until today. Does it really make sense to you that the only way they could continue to function is with a $1B upgrade?

      I've never seen anything that indicates they would have even needed a SLEP.

      Give me some data and sources.

      I'm only aware of two pieces of data: one, they were operating perfectly fine as front line units right up until today. That includes operating MV-22s and, two, they were designed for a 35 year service life and were retired at 27-34 years.

      I'll repeat, retiring a capable front line unit before there intended service life was met, during a time of budget limitations, is not logical.

      Data? Sources?

    4. B.Smitty, for sake of discussion, let's assume your $1B SLEP figure is correct and that the Tarawas even needed SLEPs. If we dropped a single new LHA at a cost of $4B (I'm using a smaller than actual number for easy math!) we would have enough money to perform four $1B SLEPs. If SLEP added 10-15 years on four Tarawas we'd gain 40-60 ship years of service. Compare that to the new LHA we dropped with a service life of 30 years (probably designed for 35 but if we're retiring everything early we have to be consistent with our logic). We come out ahead in ship years and we have the use of four ships instead of one.

    5. "The United States Navy: Current Issues and Background" By Ronald O'Rourke Page 14

    6. B.Smitty, that's your source?!? Here's the quote,

      "Other observers ... COULD [emphasis added] cost about $1 billion..."

      That's not even a Navy number! There's no footnote. There's no list of the work items that would be done. "Could" also implies "could not" just like maybe implies maybe not. So, you've got an unsourced number from unspecified other observers for unspecified work that "could" cost $1B. Sorry, that barely qualifies as a rumor let alone actual data.

    7. Have you seen any document that lists problems or reasons why the Tarawas CAN'T continue to operate as front line units beyond a particular date? Every ship, including new construction, has inefficiencies. That doesn't mean they can't serve. The Burkes have a whole host of problems and inefficiencies but that doesn't mean we should instantly retire the entire class. Is there a front line function that the Tarawas can't perform?

    8. Can you supply a source that says the Tarawas can last longer than their intended service life, and perform their mission effectively, without any SLEPing?

      Ships are designed and built with an intended service life. Eventually they break down, parts for old systems become scarce or non-existent, hulls become thinner, structures become weaker.

      CVNs are designed, built and maintained throughout their service life with an expectation that they will last for 50 years. They have greater margins built in up front. They go through periodic overhauls to upgrade systems and fix problems. Their "SLEPs" are built into their cost structure. Without doing that, they wouldn't last 50 years.

      I don't see any indication a similar approach was taken with the Tarawas. Maybe they don't "need" a $1 billion SLEP. Maybe they do. I am not intimately involved with the ships or the program, so I don't know. The Navy seems to think they would.

    9. Total, what facts am I ignoring that impact this?

      Shoepuckey? Barglebargle? Love it! Where'd those come from?

    10. B.Smitty, nope, I absolutely have no documentation that the Tarawas can continue to serve. I'm applying logical extrapolation. If a weakly built ship class like the Perrys can serve 35-40+ years (admittedly with other countries!) then there would seem to be no inherent reason why a Tarawa, presumably built a bit stouter, could not last as long. Any worn out or no-longer-maintainable machinery can be replaced. Even strutrual issues can be fixed as is being done with the Burkes. So, while I don't have any proof of fitness, neither is there any proof of unfitness and logic strongly suggests that an additional 15 years (or more) of service is quite attainable.

      As far as performing their mission effectively, they have done so right up until today, as I've pointed out. They've operated MV-22s and carried out all the functions expected of their class. That would seem to be the proof of suitability.

      It comes down to structural suitability. If the hulls were no longer seaworthy I would think the Navy would have stated that but they haven't.

      The Navy will "think" whatever gets them new construction funding. I won't bore you with the list of ships that have been pre-maturely retired in the name of new construction. You know it as well as I do. Suffice it to say that one should be very cautious in placing much stock in anything the Navy says. Their record for accurate and realistic statements is poor, at best.

      Even if the Tarawas are no longer seaworthy (some five years before their intended service life) what does that say about the maintenance the ships received throughout their lives? What does that say about the Navy's stewardship of the taxpayer's money? Should the Navy be "rewarded" with new ships because they failed to wisely maintain and use the ones they had?

    11. IMHO, there are four issues that come to mind:

      - how much do we have to spend to SLEP them out to 40-45 years,
      - how much will it cost to run them for their remaining years.
      - what does it do to the industrial base if we postpone new production.
      - what capabilities do we lose/gain by sticking with the Tarawas longer vs new builds

      I don't doubt we can get more years out of the Tarawas. The question is, how much and is it money well spent? I don't know enough to have a strong opinion there.

    12. B.Smitty, and with that, we're largely in agreement. Note though, that I haven't seen any documentation suggesting that a SLEP is even necessary. It may be but nothing the Navy has said indicates that. Also, the term SLEP implies a fairly massive upgrade. Again, my suspicion is that the Tarawas could have benefited from some upgrading but nothing on the order of a SLEP. Again, though, no proof one way or the other.

      I'm not aware that the Tarawas lack any capabilities relative to the Americas. Do you know of a function they couldn't perform? In fact, one could argue that we gain capability because the Tarawas have a well deck whereas the first two Americas won't. The reversion to well decks in subsequent Americas suggests that the first two are already considered a failure. Of course, it may also be that the first two were an intentional attempt to gain more aviation capability. I've never heard anything one way or the other.

      The industrial base is a valid concern. If we were to drop one America and instead SLEP (or simpler upgrade) five Tarawas, I suspect the net impact on the industrial base would be a wash.

    13. Status of the Tarawa Class ships:

      LHA-1 - Awaiting Disposal
      LHA-2 - Sold for Scrap
      LHA-3 - SINKEX
      LHA-4 - In Reserve
      LHA-5 - Active

      So really only LHA-4 and 5 are even candidates for SLEPing.

      Here is a pic of LHA-1.

      Not looking too good.

    14. B.Smitty, you're quite right. The opportunity to extract additional life from the Tarawas is essentially gone though I'd still give thought to repurposing the remaining one or two.

      What, if anything, does the fact that not one of these ships even made it to their design life tell you about the probable lifetimes of current and future ship classes of all types as it impacts fleet size and the [fictional?] 30 year shipbuilding plan which uses some very optimistic ship lifespans to achieve the 300+ fleet size goal?

    15. What was their design life? With the exception of LHA-3, they all had 30-33 years in service.

  5. Does "design life" include the time between launch and commissioning? Because then they are around 35 years.

    1. Interesting question. I don't know. Common sense would suggest if refers to service life. You wouldn't think a year or more spent floating alongside a dock being fitted out would be part of the design life but who knows?

  6. Well, there is a least 2 of them remaining so why not use them for new equipment testing or some new roles like USS Ponce? Kind of hard for Navy to cry about needing more hulls when there has to be some low risk/low intensity roles for a small refurbishment of those 2 Tarawa's? They couldn't be used instead of some new DDG or new LCS? Really?!?

    1. NICO, you may recall the USS Eisenhower (I think) deployed with an Army unit and Army helos instead of an air wing back in the mid-90's. A secondary use gator could have performed that mission without causing the loss of a carrier.

      Perhaps an "Afloat Army Base" would be a useful secondary gator mission?

    2. No doubt! Also when you think of hurricane in Philippines, could you not have it stocked with material just kind of waiting in the Pacific and one on the Atlantic for a disaster? Not like you need 40 knot speed and lots of defensive/offensive systems...wonder what that would cost to keep the last 2 in semi retirement stocked with goodies and ready to help with helicopter movements compared now to moving a front line unit in place? If you don't have to worry about weapon systems, expensive could it be? Yes, it would just be a floating base of operations in a very permissive environment.

    3. If you want a floating base, then look at some of the Maersk AFSB proposals. A new-built S-class configured for AFSB may not be much, if any, more expensive than SLEPing a Tarawa, and would be far cheaper to keep in reserve.

  7. It requires almost a thousand sailors to fully man a Tarawa. That's enough to man around ten LCSes, including mission modules.

    Now, of course, without Marines aboard you probably could get by with less, but they are still manpower-intensive ships and expensive to operate. (to the tune of $127 million per year, FY08. page 153, )

    1. LHAs are expensive to operate. The USS Ponce was pushed into service partially because it wasn't as expensive to operate.

      An Austin LPD only costs 40% as much per year to run. ($51.6 mil/year according to the same source)

      So do we need LHAs to do the job that converted Austins can do for less?

    2. My post applies equally to any retired amphibious ship. If an LPD can perform secondary missions, I'm all for it!

      My post also applies to Ticonderogas. We're early retiring those, as well. Of course, the secondary missions would be different but, my goodness, early retiring the most capable ship on the planet??

      I'm hearing that the Navy plans to early retire the LHD-41 and LHD-49 classes.

      The Navy's obsession with new construction is killing the fleet.

  8. I heard too that some of the Ticonderogas were on the way out. Not sure if all of them or if USN was going to retain just the last few that were easier to upgrade. I can't think of any secondary role for them that could be done easily, structure shape and size plus AEGIS would seem to me would preclude any simple modification.

    If you remove the helicopter hanger, pad, MK45s, torpedo launchers plus everything else and just add more VLSs, would mess with CG but that probably would be the easiest thing to do, it would turn it into a kind of small arsenal ship. Not sure how useful that would be because you actually would lose all secondary roles but isn't that what an arsenal ship is anyways? Would be interesting to do with one or two of them to try out the concept of a arsenal ship for real.....

  9. I hope they will name one the new ships BELLEAU WOOD!


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