‘Like Giving The Cook A Gun’—U.S. Navy To Add Missiles To Amphibious Ships

The amphibious transport dock ship USS ‘Somerset’ and the Republic of Singapore navy ship RSS … [+] ‘Endurance’ maneuver into formation during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training in Singapore.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brendan Mullin

The U.S. Navy reportedly is just a year or so away from adding an anti-ship missile to some of its L-class amphibious ships, which at present lack heavy weaponry.

Arming these ships is a big deal. It’s no secret the Navy is struggling to maintain a firepower advantage over the Chinese navy. Sticking missiles on amphibs is one way the Americans could keep up, if not actually stay ahead.

U.S. Marine Corps major general Tracy King, director of expeditionary warfare in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, floated the idea in a Friday huddle with reporters, according to Sea Power Magazine.

“We have these magnificent 600-foot-long, highly survivable … LPD-17s,” King said, referring to the 13-ship class of amphibious transport docks. “The LPDs need the ability to reach out and defend themselves and sink another ship.”

King said he anticipated trials with a bolt-on anti-ship missile to take around a year. “We will probably test-fire a system off of an L-class ship and let the fleet play around with it, build up the doctrine on how we will use it and to confirm or deny whether it is worth the expense, which we think it is.” 

It’s not that the Navy views big, slow amphibs as replacements for frigates, destroyers or cruisers. “It’s not from the aspect of using them as a strike platform,” King explained.

Still, an armed amphib is better than an unarmed one. “It’s important for as many ships as possible to be multi-mission,” said Eric Wertheim, a naval expert and author of Combat Fleets of the World. “We simply don’t have enough enough assets to have single-mission ships.”

“It’s kind of like giving the cook a gun,” Wertheim said, “but it doesn’t mean you’re going to send the cook to the front lines.”

The Navy anticipates a steep decline in coming years in the number of missiles it can deploy as 1980s-vintage cruisers and destroyers decommission and smaller, less heavily-armed frigates replace them.

Altogether, the Navy might have a couple dozen LPD-17s and LX(R)s—the latter are cheaper LPDs—by the 2030s. At present, these ships carry only light defensive armament, including 30-millimeter guns for warding off enemy boats and a pair of launchers packing Rolling Airframe Missiles for short-range air-defense.

In a sea fight, the LPDs count on escorting vessels to screen them. Adding an anti-ship missile to the amphibs could allow them to contribute to a defensive surface battle. “It will drastically increase their survivability if the enemy has to honor that threat,” King said.

As a bonus, many anti-ship missiles also possess a secondary land-attack capability. An armed LPD could provide precision fire-support to its own embarked Marines, much in the way amphibious flotillas during World War II often included landing craft equipped with rockets and guns.

The leading candidate for a possible LPD missile requirement is the Naval Strike Missile from Norwegian firm Kongsberg. Raytheon license-builds the roughly $1-million weapon in the United States.

The stealthy, subsonic NSM comes in a box launcher that’s compatible with pretty much any vessel with adequate space on its deck.

The GPS-guided missile can travel as far as 100 miles and strike both ships and targets on land. It’s highly autonomous. You lob it in the general direction of enemy forces. When it arrives in the target area, the missile uses its infrared seeker to home in on a target matching an internal database.

The Navy is adding NSMs to its Littoral Combat Ships in the hope of giving those lightly-armed vessels a fighting chance during wartime. King acknowledged that any effort to add NSMs to amphibs could interfere with the parallel effort to arm the fleet’s 35 LCSs. “We’re working with Raytheon and other partners to see if they can increase production,” he said.

If arming the LPDs works out, it could lead to a wider effort on the part of the Navy to boost the firepower of ships that presently are lightly-armed. “Just imagine in the future they could potentially add all sorts of weapons to all sorts of platforms,” Wertheim said.

He mentioned Raytheon’s SM-6, a long-range anti-aircraft missile that also possesses anti-ship and land-attack capabilities. In contrast to the bolt-on NSM, the $5-million SM-6 requires a vertical launcher, installation of which could require cutting into a ship’s hull.

But the supersonic SM-6 is a much more powerful missile and can range hundreds of miles. And it’s compatible with the Navy’s cooperative-engagement system, whereby ships and planes swap sensor data so they can guide each other’s weapons.

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