The backbone of the American amphibious fleet in WWII was the attack transport, designated APA, which carried troops, their equipment, and around 20 landing craft to get them ashore. Over the course of the war, hundreds were adapted from civilian ships or purpose built, many as sub-types of the Victory ships. A typical example was the Haskell class, built during the last couple of years of the war.
Class: Haskell Class APA
Length: 455 ft
Displacement: 6900 t (light)
Troop Capacity: 1500 troops
Cargo Capacity: 150,000 cu.ft., 2900 tons
Cost: $2M ($34M in 2014) – data from Wiki Victory ships
Contrast those specs to today’s Wasp class LHD.
Class: Wasp Class LHD
Length: 831 ft
Displacement: 40,000 t
Troop Capacity: 1900 troops
Cargo Capacity: ??
Cost: $1B each ?
The Wasp is twice the length and several times the displacement – a much bigger vessel. Despite the size difference, the troop capacities are similar. I’m not suggesting that the two vessels are, overall, equivalent. The Wasp operates an aviation group and offers extensive medical facilities among other capabilities.
Even a comparison of landing craft is not really relevant. The Haskell carried around 20 landing craft while the Wasp can operate 3 LCACs or several LCMs in addition to helos which perform a landing craft role, to an extent.
There are two key points, here, and they’re related. First, on a relative basis, the troop and cargo capacities of the Haskell are excellent and surpass the Wasp.
Second, is the cost. Unfortunately, I can’t find definite cost numbers for the Haskell but, presumably, they’re similar to the Victory ship costs. Clearly, the cost per embarked troop strongly favors the Haskell class. That’s not surprising given that they were essentially civilian ships and had limited functions.
What does this suggest regarding future amphibious force structure?
We’ve created a modern amphibious ship that has a
LOT of capability but that capability comes at great cost and great risk. If we lose an amphibious ship we lose a huge amount of capability. Further, the emphasis on the aviation side has resulted in a ship that has a limited capacity to actually land the embarked troops and cargo in an opposed landing scenario. Helos are marginally useful to move troops or very light equipment but are extremely vulnerable. LCACs are not currently envisioned as first wave landers. In addition, as we’ve previously discussed, the numbers of landing craft are too small to sustain a landing in the face of any attrition at all (see, "Amphibious Assault Attrition").
Perhaps the time has come to take a page from the WWII model by separating the troop/cargo transport and landing function from the aviation support function. A modern Haskell, meaning a commercial cargo/transport/landing ship, could be built for $100M-$200M. Separately, a new small helo carrier could fill the aviation and medical functions – a scaled down
without the troop berthing and support and without the ground combat equipment storage. America
A commercial transport ship would need an easily deployed landing craft that could be carried in large numbers on the transport as was done in WWII. Of course, such a landing craft does not currently exist but that should not be too difficult to develop.
The helo carrier could, of course, also operate an F-35B if those prove viable. Such a carrier would, presumably, be significantly smaller, cheaper, and less expensive to operate than the current big deck amphibs. When the well deck, Marine berthing, Marine equipment storage, and all the troop support functions such as food storage, galleys and mess, water requirements, heads, etc. are removed from the big deck amphib we should have a greatly reduced size carrier.
|APA - Model For The Future?|
In conjunction with a discussion about a small helo carrier we need to recognize that helos are not a viable assault landing craft. As landing craft, they’re limited to transporting a small raiding force. Thus, a helo carrier would de-emphasize the vertical assault function and optimize the aviation element for close air support and counter-helo work. The transport helos should be reduced in number and used for short battlefield troop movements. In addition, eliminating the helo landing function would free up capacity on the helo carrier for more attack helos or F-35Bs.
A small transport would not be a viable “cruise” vessel. The cramped spaces would not be conducive to a several month deployment as is currently done to maintain an afloat MEU. The transports would be used only as needed which would have the side benefit of reducing operating costs.
In fact, it might be possible to combine the Maritime Pre-Positioning ship function with such a use-only-when-needed transport. The transports could be pre-loaded with Army/Marine gear and marry up with their troops when needed. This might also reduce or eliminate the need for the inefficient MLP if the transport can unload directly to its own landing craft. The key, of course, is developing a suitable landing craft.
A small transport is not the most efficient amphibious vessel. For ultimate, pure efficiency we’d need a mammoth vessel capable of holding the entire Marine Corps, all their equipment and supplies, every required landing craft, and the entire helo and fixed wing aviation force. Of course, that would provide the enemy with a single target which would have a very short life expectancy. Even the current sized amphibious vessels offer very tempting targets. Consider that a MEU only has three ships – sink one and the assault is over. Yes, I know that a MEU is not a full-fledged assault force but the idea and the vulnerability scales up to MEB or whatever size force the assault needs. The more we can break up the assault force and distribute its equipment, the better. C’mon, we figured this out in WWII.
I do not advocate a blind return to the past but I do advocate a very careful consideration of past practices before we abandon them and this is one of those instances. We learned how to conduct amphibious assaults in WWII and our methods were based on hard earned experience. Before we turn away from those practices and move in a different direction we need to be sure that the move is a wise one. Our modern tendency to concentrate our amphibious forces in fewer, larger ships may not be wise or affordable. It’s time to bring back the simple attack transport.